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How to Lead Christian Communities of Any Size

August 26, 2015

This article discusses how Christian leaders can properly lead Christian communities of any size.

For a few decades now, there has been a steady migration from smaller church communities of less than 1,000 members to megachurches that can reach upwards of 20,000 worshippers every weekend. With the explosion of megachurches both in the United States and globally, many Christian leaders have altered how they serve in Christian communities of all sizes. What should today’s ministers know about leadership in both the megachurch setting and the smaller church setting?

Changes in Church Attendance

To best understand how to lead a congregation, it is imperative to be aware of the trends affecting American Christianity, particularly in the area of church attendance.

American Church Sizes350,000 religious congregations were active in the United States as of 2010. Of those, about 314,000 were Protestant or other Christian churches. The average church has 186 regular attendees.

The Hartford Institute for Religion Research estimates that roughly 350,000 religious congregations were active in the United States as of 2010. Of those, about 314,000 were Protestant or other Christian churches. The average church has 186 regular attendees. America has a far higher number of smaller churches, but only 11 percent of churchgoers attend smaller churches. Meanwhile, 50 percent attend the largest 10 percent of churches (defined as 350 participants or more).

The Size of Megachurches

According to a Christian research group called the Leadership Network, more than 1,700 churches had at least 2,000 attendees at weekly worship services in 2014. This figure is up from about 1,500 in 2010 and less than 800 in 2000. In fact, the number of megachurches in America has doubled during every decade over the past 50 years. In 1960, there was one megachurch for every 7.5 million Americans; in 2010, there was one megachurch for every 200,000 Americans.

The Leadership Network projects that 10 percent of Protestants attend a megachurch despite the fact that megachurches only represent about half of 1 percent of the Protestant churches in America. Megachurches are full of young people; 62 percent of members are between the ages of 18 and 44. In addition, 31 percent of members at megachurches are single, compared to just 10 percent of all churches.

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The State of Smaller Churches

While megachurches continue to grow and thrive, smaller churches face declining numbers of members. These churches are more often associated with mainline Protestant denominations. The number of Americans who were members of mainline denominations has slid nearly 19 percent since 1990, according to U.S. News & World Report. During the same time period, the number of Christians who identify as nondenominational (most megachurches are nondenominational) has exploded from fewer than 200,000 people to more than 8 million.

Differences Based on Church Size

The differences between megachurches and smaller churches affect how Christian leaders approach operations. Pastors and other leaders need to understand the main differences so they can minister appropriately to their congregations.

Increased Size, Increased ComplexityMegachurches are much more complex because of their size. Factors such as age, family status, interests and even theological beliefs of people in the congregation must be taken into consideration.

Megachurches are much more complex because of their size. Factors such as age, family status, interests and even theological beliefs of people in the congregation must be taken into consideration. Timothy Keller, the founding pastor of a New York City church with more than 5,000 weekly attendees, suggests that larger churches need to offer more programs to meet the needs of their congregations. He also stresses that larger churches need more staff; he suggests that a church have at least one staff member for every 200 people in attendance.

Another challenge for larger churches is identifying and retaining newcomers. Because the congregation is larger, members and leaders have a harder time seeing who is new and encouraging them to become more involved. This underlines the need for programs specifically aimed at visitors and programs designed for new members.

Smaller Size, Less Change

Smaller churches have many of the opposite problems as larger congregations. In most smaller churches, the congregation consists of members who have been there for a longer period of time. Members have relationships with one another and with the church leaders. A closer-knit community makes face-to-face communication far more important.

Because of the smaller group, members must volunteer more often and hold more responsibilities. Smaller congregations are more likely to have elected decision-makers, allowing the pastor to delegate some responsibilities related to operating the church.

Approaches to Church Leadership

The differences among Christian communities that are created by their size require different leadership strategies. The way the minister of a small church approaches a situation would likely be different from how the pastor of a large church would go about it. That’s why leadership styles need to be studied.

Strategies of Megachurch Leaders

Tony Morgan has served on leadership teams at several megachurches across the country. He has since become a leadership expert for churches of all sizes. He offers the following three tips on leading a megachurch.

Connect every program and ministry to a senior leader.

Morgan believes that every program should be connected to someone on the senior leadership team. While larger churches often have more programs for members, each of these should have a strong connection to the senior leadership. This allows for a unified vision and ensures that nothing flies under the radar. This can help prevent issues down the road and give congregation members a better idea of who the church’s leadership is.

Set clear, measurable goals.

It seems like a given, but it’s very important for leaders of megachurches to develop a clear plan with goals based on continued growth. Whether it’s a membership target or an initiative to develop more programs and ministries for current members, Christian leaders can stay on the same page with each other and the congregation by setting a plan. It also allows leaders to set priorities and find areas of improvement for the church.

Lead more through volunteers.In a smaller worship environment, Christian leaders can find and train helpers who truly understand the nature of the congregation and community.

Although megachurches are often able to hire more staff, sometimes that isn’t the answer. By encouraging service, ministers can find and train helpers who truly understand the nature of the congregation and community. This option saves the church money in the long run and creates a deeper bond between members and leadership staff.

Leading a Small Church

The Small Church Leadership Network recognizes the important role of a smaller church in the lives of its members and in the fabric of the local community. Glenn Daman, D.Min., provides helpful suggestions for leadership in small church ministry.

Relationships are key.

As has been mentioned, interpersonal contact is more of a priority in smaller churches. The greatest strength of a small church is the family atmosphere it can build. These relationships come into play in every facet of church operation, from decision-making to evangelism. The most important responsibility leaders have is to care for people individually. A small church minister should follow the servant-shepherd model rather than acting as an administrator. Christian servant leadership should be displayed in churches of any size.

Work through the “tribal chief.”

The lay leaders within the congregation are often easy to spot. These “tribal chiefs” are imperative because they tend to serve as unofficial spokespeople for the congregation. If they approve of something, it’s likely the rest of the congregation will. Ministers should cultivate strong relationships with them.

Build present and future ministry upon the past.

Most small churches have a long and rich history, so honoring the church’s heritage is important to members. Leaders have to strike a balance between expressing their goals and vision for the church and maintaining the church’s traditions.

A Future in Christian Leadership

Congregations of all sizes need strong and effective ministers to guide them through life as a Christian community. At Grace College, the online master’s program in ministry studies helps Christians develop their leadership skills and prepares them to work in a variety of ministry settings. Learn more today.