What is the best size for a church?

One of the fringe meetings at July’s session of the General Synod focussed on the needs of ‘mid-sized churches’, in this case defined as worshipping communities of 20 to 60. The reason for this was a question that William Nye, Secretary General of Synod and the Archbishops’ Council, had raised:

Without meaning to, a lot of the time, we, the national church institutions, just default to thinking about bigger churches, because a lot of people’s picture of the norm of the church is a vicar and about 100 people on a Sunday morning. We have overlooked this middle third. Lots of staff at Church House, lots of bishops, come up through bigger churches, worship in bigger churches; bishops have led bigger churches.

I suspect some would have questions about whether this size was really the middle, or the smaller end, but it has obvious implications for church growth, as the Church Times article points out:

Arithmetic done by staff at Church House suggests that, if each of the 5,000 mid-sized churches gained an extra five people, the Church of England’s decline would be reversed. About 200,000 people worship in these churches, which serve a population of 16 million.

In the session, I did point out that, from my experienced of being a member of a church of around 50 membership in Southampton, and then being involved in larger churches, one of the challenges for the smaller or ‘mid-sized’ churches was that of resource. There is quite a strong expectation in contemporary culture that things will be done ‘well’ on a Sunday morning, and that means that a church community needs to be comparatively well organised and well resourced, which can be a struggle for smaller churches. It was not intended to be a criticism (though seemed to be taken as one!) but indicates that partnership between congregations might be a key question.

All this does raise the question of what is the idea size for a local church and why. Online discussion covers a range of issues. Some discussions focus on practical and technical issues; and this short summary describes an average attendance of around 100 ‘small’, which reflects its North American context. Church growth guru Carey Nieuwhof says that his short exploration of what keeps ‘small’ (less than 200 attendance) churches small is his most-read article—but I thought it interesting that he focusses almost exclusively on technical, structural issues, particularly around how leadership is organised.

The shift from structural issues to issues of relationship comes when we think about leadership and resourcing in more personal terms. One blog discussion from a Reformed perspective makes this observation:

There are several things to think about simultaneously. One way to go at this problem is to ask what is the ideal ratio of pastors to congregants? I was told in seminary that the ideal is one pastor for everyone hundred people. My experience as a pastor over the last 25 years suggests that this is a good ratio. If this is true, then, so long as a congregation is well staffed, theoretically, it could grow as large as it wanted. Others, however, have argued that about 200 to 250 is the ideal number of people in the congregation and that after a congregation reaches 200 to 250 people it should begin daughtering new congregations.

This is both a relational and a resource question: how many full-time leaders/pastors do you need for a congregation—and how many can you afford? The question of financing ministry, which is therefore also a question of the sustainability of smaller congregations, is easily avoided in the C of E because of the way that financial structures share resources. That can be very good, since it enables the C of E to sustain ministry in areas and contexts that other denominations have withdrawn from. But it can also be very bad, since it can allow us to avoid hard questions about what is going on in ministry and congregational leadership in different places.

recent article by Ed Stetzer in Christianity Today magazine touched on some key relational issues:

Another advantage for churches of over 100 is the anonymity factor. Visitors and new attendees are able to come in and sit towards the back or in a place where they are most comfortable. They don’t have to sit right next to a stranger or walk to the front of the church to find an empty row.

Of course, there may be disadvantages to this as well. People may visit your church for weeks and go completely unnoticed because of the size. This is very unhelpful for the health and growth of the church. If you sense this is an issue in your church, it is time for you to form a plan make sure people feel seen and welcomed when they visit you.

It can also be more difficult for people to visit churches with less than 100 seats. Small congregations may feel more like cliques, drawing attention to the fact that visitors are ‘outsiders’ who are new to the group. If you are a smaller church, how are you handling this? If you don’t have a plan to welcome people in without making them feel uncomfortable, it is time to make one. In such a small church size, you need to work hard to make people feel welcome and show that you love them.

I think Stetzer is right to see anonymity as both a good and a bad thing; some people just want to slip into church at the back to explore, before being confronted with the full obligations of involvement, and I think this is often missed in discussions about relationship and size.

Some discussions do take a fully relational perspective, like this comment on a discussion board:

My own personal opinion is that a church should be between 80-120 members. When a church exceeds 100 members it becomes a bit more difficult to get to know everyone and the sense of close fellowship can be lost. With 80-120 members it is still big enough to be self supporting. My own personal view is that when a church reaches the 120 mark it should set aside around 40 members to be a church plant in a different nearby location. That church in turn will grow and plant.

So we have a variety of answers, considering a range of issues. But is there somewhere to look that might give us a more objective insight into the dynamics of this kind of human community? The New Testament does not give us direct answers, since it is less interested in numbers and structures compared with issues of theology and missional dynamics. But this theological perspective offers us two pointers. First, the ‘church’ (in the New Testament ekklesia) is about the formation of human community. Part of the clue to this is found in the extensive discussions of relationship dynamics, both in Acts and in the writings of Paul and others in the New Testament, with organic metaphors of the ‘body’, relational language of ‘incorporation’ into Christ, and even the metaphor of being ‘living stones, built into a temple’ (1 Peter 2.5). But the term ekklesia is also key; rather than having the institutional or architectural implications that the word ‘church’ has today, it draws on both the Greek meaning of the gathering of citizens in a polis as well as the gathered people of Israel in the Greek translation of the Old Testament. (That is why the AV often mentions the ‘congregation of Israel’ within the OT narratives.)

But the early Jesus movement was not just any human community; NT writers understood it as involving the recreation of humanity as God had intended, and the ‘new creation’ (2 Cor 5.17) in anticipation of God’s renewal of the whole of the created order. Although we can see that this community was clearly not perfect and not without its problems, nevertheless it modelled something of the ideal of the new humanity in Jesus, for example in the sharing of possessions in Acts 2.42f.

There is therefore a good reason why we might look to the natural dynamics of human community, that is, to anthropology, for insights into the ideal size of a local church.

Last week’s episode of The Life Scientific, hosted by Jim Al-Khalili, comprised an interview with Professor of Evolutionary Psychology Robin Dunbar. Dunbar started his academic life exploring the social dynamics of gelada monkeys in the Ethiopian highlands, living with a group of 500 of them for most of his 20s! (It is worth listening to the whole episode.) One aspect of their social life that particularly struck him was the amount of time the monkeys spent grooming, something that it is easy to notice amongst primates when you watch any wildlife film. At the time, there were two major and competing theories: the purpose of grooming was about hygiene; and the purpose was about building social relationships. Dunbar wanted to decide which of these was most important, and had to think about how this might be tested. So he analysed the amount of time spent in grooming and compared it with two things—primate body size, and the complexity of social relationships. He found no correlation with body size, but what appeared to be a clear correlation with social complexity. In other words, if you are going to maintain a complex society, you need to invest time in building a wide range of strong relationships.

This led him on to consider a wider issue of why different primate groups have different levels of complexity in their social organisation. Complexity has advantages, for example the sharing of resources and the ability to protect one another. But it also makes higher demands, since (in essence) you need to be smarter to manage complex relationships. So Dunbar compared brain size with size of social group, found there was a clear correlation, so extrapolated up to the size of the human cortex, and arrived at Dunbar’s number: 147 (usually rounded to 150). He believed that this was, in principle, the optimal number for human social groups—and in fact found numerous historical examples of human social groups naturally settling into this size. The number has been sufficiently important that some businesses have even organised their offices into groups of this size.

Although this number is the best-known aspect of his work, Dunbar actually sees human interaction in a more nuanced and textured way. In a reflection on why social drinking is so important in many human cultures, he makes this comment:

Our studies suggest that we devote about 40 per cent of our available social time (and the same proportion of our emotional capital) to an inner core of about five shoulders-to-cry-on. And we devote another 20 per cent to the next 10 people who are socially most important to us. In other words, about two-thirds of our total social effort is devoted to just 15 people. That is a very substantial commitment, and amounts to an average of about two hours a day. It makes it all the more necessary that what we do with them is fun, otherwise they won’t keep coming back for more.

From an anthropological, psychological and social perspective, he sees human relationships clustering around the group sizes of 5, 15 and 150, and in fact in other conversation adds a mid-sized group of around 50.

There are two intriguing things to note about this structuring of community in relation to the question of the ideal church size.

The first is that there is some evidence in the New Testament of this kind of differentiated numerical structure. It is often noted that, amongst the twelves apostles (making 13 altogether, not far from Dunbar’s second number), Jesus was particularly close to Peter, James and John, these being the ones he took with him up the mountain at his transfiguration. There are good arguments that the ‘beloved disciple’ who is the writer of the fourth gospel, was not one of the Twelve, but a disciple based in Jerusalem, and that would give us a core group of close friends of five, in Jesus, Peter, James, John and the Beloved Disciple. The 72 sent on ‘mission’ in Luke 10 are not far off Dunbar’s third number, though there are other obvious symbolic reasons for this number, being half of 144. In Acts 1.15, the number of ‘brothers’ is around 120, though it is not clear whether this includes the women who were there or not, adelphoi being used as a generic term for followers of Jesus.

It is also worth noting that in the first century you need 10 adult Jewish men to form a synagogue, and adding in wives and children that would get you to around Dunbar’s third number. This is also the kind of size of many early Christian communities meeting in large houses, according to Peter Oakes in his exploration of the practical dynamics of Christian meetings in Reading Romans in Pompeii

(In the one discussion I did find of church size in relation to Dunbar’s main number, Howard Snyder notes the correlation of this number with his observations of congregational dynamics—but he does not mention Dunbar’s other numerical observations.)

Returning to our opening question: what is the ideal size of a church or congregation? Well, actually is it all of 5, 15, 50 and 150. If we want to encourage genuine growth, encouragement and accountability, there is nothing quite like have a small group or 4 or 5 that meets regularly; at St Nic’s where we belong, these are called ‘core groups’. But the ‘home group’ of 12 to 15 has had a good track record, as a place for more general learning and mutual support since they became popular in the charismatic renewal from the end of the 1960s. Sandy Miller told us at a church weekend away that ‘pastorates’ of around 40, not far from Dunbar’s third number, has been key in not only church growth but the nurture of leaders in the HTB network—and this corresponds to the ‘mid-sized church’ that we began with. And once you reach 150 as a congregation, it is probably time to think about church planting, a strategy which the C of E now appears to be taking to heart.

These things matter because, when it comes to the kingdom of God, relationships matter. Numbers matter because numbers represent people, and people matter.

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29 thoughts on “What is the best size for a church?”

  1. Without meaning to, a lot of the time, we, the national church institutions, just default to thinking about bigger churches, because a lot of people’s picture of the norm of the church is a vicar and about 100 people on a Sunday morning

    One hundred people is a ‘bigger’ church? Seriously?

    And once you reach 150 as a congregation, it is probably time to think about church planting

    What about churches which have existed quite reasonably for decades with around 800 people on the Communion Roll? Obviously in that situation you need assistant ministers, an active eldership, etc etc. You can’t just have a flat ‘one church one minister’ structure. But neither is it the case that such are necessarily inherently unstable, if they get the organisation right.

    • Well, yes, I do raise the question about size descriptors in the piece. It all depends on where you are coming from; fifty years ago I think we would be saying something different…

      Are you thinking of any particular example of a church with 800? As some have pointed out in discussion on social media, in reality a church with 800 actually functions as several congregations, each of around 150, who do not often interact. They are, in effect, different ‘churches’ meeting in the same building.

      (This is one reason why it is important to note that NT language of ‘ekklesia’ is often better translated as ‘congregation’, in that it refers to a group of people meeting together, rather than an institutional organisational unit.)

      • Are you thinking of any particular example of a church with 800? As some have pointed out in discussion on social media, in reality a church with 800 actually functions as several congregations, each of around 150, who do not often interact. They are, in effect, different ‘churches’ meeting in the same building.

        I can think of a few. And while yes at that point you have to have at least two morning services, probably a separate youth service, and people sort themselves into lots of different groups (often based around activities, eg drama groups, choirs, etc) I think it’s rather unaccurate to characterise this as ‘different churches meeting in the same building’: there’s significant overlap between groups, people do sometimes go to a service other than the one they usually do, and of course the two morning services tend to share a preacher and a sermon so there’s that point of connection too.

        So while yes within the church each individual person is likely to only know a subset of the others, if you’re impling that any of those subsets are completely ‘closed’ such that they in effect operate as a separate structure, I think that’s unlikely. In reality each person’s ‘known subset’ overlaps with other ‘known subsets’.

        For example, one person might go mainly to the early service, be a member of the choir, and the walking goup; another might go to the early service and be a member of the choir and make banners; a third might go to the late service, be a member of the drama group, and the walking group; those three will never (usually) all be together but all will know each other, and all can discuss last Sunday’s sermon whether they heard it at 9:30am or 11am. So I think it would be inaccurate to characterise them as existing in separate churches but simply sharing the same building.

        • Thanks, though in my experience that is not so common these days. Church which host a variety of traditions tend to have much more distinct relational dynamics.

          • Church which host a variety of traditions tend to have much more distinct relational dynamics

            Um, I am not referring to churches which host a variety of traditions, was I unclear? I meant churches of a single tradition.

        • Ive never quite understood the necessity for so many services in the Anglican church – why 2 morning services just 1 1/2 hours apart?

          I think Ian is right, or at least partly, regarding ‘They are, in effect, different ‘churches’ meeting in the same building.’ I used to go to the Sunday evening service but not the morning one. I knew few if any from the morning service. My fault of course as I am slightly anti-social. But I think having a number of services on one day sets up such divisions.

          • Ive never quite understood the necessity for so many services in the Anglican church – why 2 morning services just 1 1/2 hours apart?

            Well, when you only have 400 or so seats and more than twice that number of people who want to come to the service, what else can you do?

            I appreciate not many Anglican churches might have to face this problem.

          • In our case -1. Our building holds 100 and gets uncomfortable at 70-80. There wasn’t an option to extend and alternative venues are not readily available. 2. We found that different times were better for reaching different people because geography is not the only barrier to coming. 3. We were putting out a statement of desire to multiply and also of being available whenever people could gather. 4. There are challenges about relating across but first this is as much about size eg how well do the people who sit in the balcony really know those who sit down at the front. And if you say they can meet at coffee time this is true with multiple services. 5. The multiple Congregations do develop their own identity. Are they seperate churches is probably more a question of how you govern them and your polity. So Presbyterians and Anglicans probably shouldn’t need to get too hung up on this. It perhaps causes a bigger challenge for those of us with Congregational politics. In our case we think the mission is worth the tension

  2. An excellent book on this is Alice Mann, ‘The In-Between Church’ which explores the dynamics of different church sizes, and why churches keep hitting certain membership ceilings. It has the added advantage of being only 100 pages long.

    • Thanks David, how interesting. I was only disappointed to find it didn’t have chapters of 5 or 15 pages, and a total of 147 pages…!

      (My Revelation commentary consists of 144,000 words…!)

  3. Very interesting piece. I am part the Inspire Movement, a growing ecumenical and international discipleship movement which draws on John Wesley’s wisdom. (https://inspiremovement.org) Wesley organized the movement into Societies (probably around 50), Classes (12-15) and Bands (3-6). The premise Inspire is ‘mission spirituality’, i.e. growing as disciples in order to spread the gospel. The heart of Inspire is the Fellowship Band of 3 or 4, in which people can forge deeper relationships and be accountable to one another in their discipleship. Larger groups of 12 and bigger gatherings of 30+ fit naturally into this pattern. The Wesleyan focus on the Spirit-filled transformation of individuals through the deep, accountable fellowship of the church, and then the sharing of that transformation in evangelistic mission points to the importance of smaller, more intimate groups that focus on spiritual growth. I encourage anyone to consider this approach in their church strategy.

    • Thanks Richard, that is truly fascinating, and concurs with the Dunbar insights from anthropology connected with neuroscience and psychology! (If you wanted to offer a guest post on how and why Inspire works, that would be interesting too…)

    • I have never yet belonged to an accountability group, nor have I been in a church where they (publicly) exist.

      So questions for Ian and Richard. In a St Nic’s Core Group (4 or 5), in a Fellowship Band (3 or 4), are the group of equal status, or is there a leader? If a leader, how does the accountability of the members to the leader differ from the accountability of the leader to the members? (Like, are the members supposed to share their secrets, while the leader is allowed to keep his/her secrets private?) How often are husband-and-wife in the same Group/Band? Is the Group/Band itself accountable to the wider community and if so how?

  4. I explored this theme a little for a blog or CMS drawing on John Taylor’s The God Between God where he argues that the size of the early church communities could be discerned from the prevalence of the NT word allelon, ‘one another’. He argues they would have been pretty small, though doesn’t specify a number. For me a key issue is the ability of a church community to listen and adapt to its changing context. If the church is by nature missional and therefore called to join in with God’s mission in the world, we need to be of a size that isn’t so encumbered by organisational demands that we fail to pay attention to our context.

  5. So here is our experience 1. There are a variety of constraints meaning there isn’t one right answer 2. We went from having one congregation of about 80 on 2010 to now having 3 Sunday Congregations of about, 40 60 and 15 plus a Spanish speaking church plant of 30. Benefits are that we can share resources whilst having a level of intimacy. I can interact with 50 in a way I would not so much with 150. However we are now having to adapt again. 1. Planting from 80 is exhausting. 2. I originally had a contract which said I did, 50% of the preaching but 50% of 52 is very different to 50% of 150.

  6. So here is our experience 1. There are a variety of constraints meaning there isn’t one right answer 2. We went from having one congregation of about 80 on 2010 to now having 3 Sunday Congregations of about, 40 60 and 15 plus a Spanish speaking church plant of 30. Benefits are that we can share resources whilst having a level of intimacy. I can interact with 50 in a way I would not so much with 150. However we are now having to adapt again. 1. Planting from 80 is exhausting. 2. I originally had a contract which said I did, 50% of the preaching but 50% of 52 is very different to 50% of 150.

  7. Practically it’s the size your church leader can cope with. Leaders’ management and personal relationship capabilities are the main limiting factors. Other things being equal the more that the leader needs to be in control of things the smaller the church will be. If the leader is able to trust others to get on with what God has called them to do then the potential for growth is maximised.

    • Practically it’s the size your church leader can cope with

      Why the assumption a church will have one leader? Would it not be better for a church to be led by a group of elders than a single leader?

  8. Thanks again for a thought provoking article, Ian. As a rural vicar I’m concerned that this offering a ‘textbook’ way of thinking that’s rather different from reality. There are 8,000 C of E churches with Sunday attendance below 28 ( many of which are doing very nicely). How does this article ‘land’ for them?

    • In at least three ways.

      First, at that size they are functioning as the third group in the ‘5, 15, 50, 150’. They are not really ‘congregations’ as such but more like ‘pastorates’. The question even for a small church is how the internal structure is organised. Are there cells of 3-5 for growth and accountability, and home groups for learning together?

      Secondly, often such groups will be doing well, a much better proportion of the population than in urban areas. But, as Ed Stetzer comments, there are good and bad things about being a small community that all knows each other. The main challenge is being open and flexible to welcome new arrivals.

      Thirdly, there is a serious question about sustainability. As someone commented on Facebook, you do get significant economies of scale in a large congregation, because there are basic overheads that need to be done whatever the size of your congregation.

      Does that all make sense?

      • Yes that’s helpful Ian – certainly the first couple, where we do have some prayer triplets and home groups. In many ways rural ministry can feel like doing ministry to one’s extended family – you can’t just ‘do your own thing’, it has to be long-term, diplomatic, alive to local complexities etc. Keeping a cutting edge in that situation can be a challenge.

        I think the 3rd about sustainability is interesting & complex. There are many perfectly sustainable smaller congregations, of course, and in fact the reasons churches shut is quite complicated – it’s certainly not always to do with size – think of deanery reorderings etc. The Church Buildings Council are doing some work around this – it’s not ready for release yet but you may see a copy in due course.

  9. I can recommend the course “everybody welcome” by Bob Jackson. I led this in a middle of the road Anglican Church and it was well received and understood. It applies to all church ‘types’ and doesn’t have a particularly evangelical emphasis. It certainly helps to focus attention on visitors as the most important people in the congregation and away from prevailing cliqueishness.

    Is there a study on the impact of dividing congregations for church planting? In the 90s when this concept gained traction with John Wimber’s influence there was anecdotal evidence that the dividing up entailed frequent collateral damage to the health of new congregations because of the disruption to existing relationships. I did find this in the limited experience I had of planting.

  10. Our church (Baptist) is relatively small (15 – 20 max ) although we get many more than that number who come to our outreach activities during the week. (toddlers groups , lunch club etc) and we punch above our weight.

    The effect of this is that any visitors we get on Sundays (usually on holiday- we are in a holiday coastal town), cannot hide and are noticed and welcomed by other members of our congregation straightaway. A result of this that is we have developed a reputation as a ‘friendly church ‘ and many of our visitors come again when they are down our way as they say they like our welcoming.

    I think the ‘ best size’ of a church is largely influenced by demographics and geography . Our church is in a rather sleepy town which is not easy to get to by car or public transport . Our regular congregation is made up of those who live and work in the town and do not travel in from outside or from longer distances. However, while it would be nice to have more, the best size for us is what the HS adds to our numbers. We see our primary responsibility to be faithful in testifying to Jesus and preaching the Gospel as well as doing what we can for our local community.

    We once had a coachload of Christians on holiday that came in one Sunday that outnumbered us completely.

    And here was I thinking it was my preaching…

  11. My wife and I had an amusing moment 10 days ago on holiday in a definite holiday location in Devon. We went in search of a church service where we were staying. A local evangelical church had a service at 11.15 which seemed better for those on holiday than the earlier times of the local Anglican or URC/Methodists. We missed the beginning as the service was not at their old chapel but a buiding shared with the URC/Methodists. (The very next day a clear sign was put up indicating this.) There were perhaps 70-80 there of varied ages and probably mostly locals. At the end of the service, no-one spoke to us inside, nor the preacher and others lined up as we left. However, as we went outside there was someone with a camera taking photographs for their church directory. He was quite insistent that we should have our photos taken, but we declined.

    We were anonymous not by virtue of being thought visitors but by being thought regulars.

  12. Ian, have you read any of David Wasdells research ‘Let my People Grow’ on the best missionary size for a church-which he suggests is 175. George Lings has more recently done work on his research.

  13. Yes he gives a thorough statistical analysis through the CofE figures. George has looked at more recent statistics and found very similar results.


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