When I came across an old Barna Report that suggested that the smaller the church is, the fewer Christians there are, I suppose I wasn’t surprised, but I’d be lying if I didn’t admit to being dismayed. Although I’ve had a lot of experience with small membership churches as a consultant/coach, I’d always secretly hoped there was truth in the claim that many, if not most, of these smaller churches were a “faithful remnant.” And to be sure, there are indeed a number of very faithful church folk out there who attend smaller membership churches.

But as I’ve observed when I’ve preached, pastored, consulted, and coached in many – dare I admit most – of these churches, the “faithful remnant” claim didn’t seem to bear up well in the light of reality. It’s true that when church experts talk about ongoing, unresolved, crippling conflict in churches, the hotbed of their conversation is primarily in reference to smaller membership churches. When church sociologists speak about unhealthy churches, they tend to admit that, in general, the smaller the church, the less healthy it is. But the straw that broke my heart was this Barna Report. Their findings demonstrate that those in smaller membership churches are less likely to manifest faith practices and beliefs than those in larger churches. Put another way, in smaller membership churches, there are simply fewer practicing disciples of Jesus Christ.

How can I say that? How can Barna suggest that? Well, here are some of the findings:

  • On all nine of the belief statements tested, attenders of large churches were more likely than those engaged in a small or mid-sized congregation to give an orthodox biblical response – e.g., the Bible is totally accurate in all the principles it teaches, Satan is not merely symbolic but exists, Jesus led a sinless life, God is the all-knowing, all-powerful creator of the world who still rules the universe, etc.
  • On seven of the eight behavioral measures, attenders of large churches were substantially more likely than those of small churches to exhibit behaviors classifying them as “active.” (These included behaviors such as attending church in the past week, reading the Bible in the past week, volunteering at their church in the past week, etc.) The average difference related to these seven behaviors was 17 percentage points.

Let me be really clear here. The first bullet point bothers me a lot less than the second. I’m sure that “right thinking” is important, but the North American mainline and evangelical church has spent a couple of generations pushing their theology agenda as if heaven and hell (or not) hangs on their particular dogmas. But the fact is, we’re not going to solve the “right thinking” issue on this side of life’s curtain. God is God, and regardless of what one side or the other says about God, God’s the arbiter of how important all our arguments are – and who’s right or wrong. Besides, as I look at the listed belief statements, I don’t remember any of those points being key “get into heaven” or “go straight to hell” issues in Jesus’ teachings.

On the other hand, that second list bothers me a lot. Jesus didn’t seem to be too concerned about correcting most of the finer points of the Sadducees’ and Pharisees’ theology, but he got hot and bothered about right behavior towards others. In fact, a close reading of what Jesus taught reveals (surprise, surprise) that he was very concerned about how his followers should behave towards God, one another, their neighbors, and their enemies, and even about how they treated themselves. He kept talking about things like bearing fruit, witnessing, doing good works, and exercising love. Especially love.

Barna’s report is counterintuitive. For years, we’ve all heard the accusations that the big churches were practicing Christianity Lite.

 Church leaders across the nation have pointed their fingers at the megachurches and accused them of being all about having the best show in town, practicing entertainment religion, and preaching feel-good theology. But it turns out that folks attending the big churches are apparently experiencing more personal life transformation than those in smaller, intimate churches.

Of course, the most important question in all of this is “Why?” Why are those in smaller churches less likely to read scripture, share their faith, or even go to church than those in larger churches? Here are some of the reasons we’ve discovered in our studies of both large and small churches.

1. Smaller churches tend to embrace the Modern myth that education is the catalyst for personal transformation. One of the key tenets of Modernity is that increased knowledge motivates behavioral change, and so Christian education, preaching, and teaching from the local church all the way through our seminaries has emphasized information. However, in retrospect, it’s clear that increased knowledge doesn’t correlate with Christian faithfulness. North America has the best educated clergy and laity alike. The average American “Christian” knows more about God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, the Bible, biblical stories, and generalized theology than our counterparts in India, China, Africa, Southeast Asia, and Latin America. In each of those nations and regions, Christianity is spreading like wildfire, with over 90,000 individuals making a commitment to Christ each day – compared to the approximate loss of 3,000 Christians a day in North America and the West.[i] On the other hand, larger membership churches tend to emphasize behavioral change. The sermons and Christian education can be likened to training and coaching sessions that emphasize putting spiritual disciplines and practices to use. This has evoked criticism from many church leaders that the sermons and training in these larger churches is shallow and theologically unsophisticated – and though this might be true on some level, it’s proven its effectiveness over the alternative. Better informed Christians do not make better practicing disciples of Jesus Christ.

2. Smaller churches often put more emphasis on organizational survival and sustainability than they do on personal transformation. This is manifest in a number of ways, but I’ll just mention two. First, there is often more emphasis placed on getting people to serve on church committees and to get involved in church-related ministries (Sunday school teaching, potluck suppers, etc.) than there is on getting people to invest in spiritual growth activities such as small groups, accountability partnerships, or hands-on ministry beyond the church building. Second, the survival and sustainability mindset creates a heightened awareness and emphasis on the “us” of the local congregation. Both energy and conversation is channeled into what the church needs, rather than on what it would take to reach the community. This inward focus distracts the participants from the wider mission of the church, and thus from effective discipleship. In most cases, the larger the church, the more streamlined the organizational structure and the less fear about survival and sustainability. This allows the church leaders to help focus the church on personal spiritual development as well as on serving, reaching, and touching those outside of the church in mission. In addition, larger membership churches generally place their energies outside of the membership in order to make a difference in the lives of those in the community. This encourages their own membership to get involved in faith sharing, both on a conversational level and a good-deeds-in-the-name-of-Jesus level.

3. Smaller churches are often more invested in maintaining tradition than in adopting effective methods, tools, and technologies for communicating both the gospel and discipling. The learning styles of our culture has changed significantly over the past sixty years. Though in the early 1950s there were two primary modes of teaching and training (reading and lecture), today screen technology has surpassed both. In addition, there has been an increasing emphasis on kinesthetic learning and expression (learning by touch and movement). By and large, smaller churches are reluctant to adapt or adopt these tools. Larger churches tend to be flexible with how they disciple and communicate the gospel. They are often the first adopters of new technologies and they are generally more nimble and willing to sacrifice “what’s always worked” slightly ahead of its expiration date in order to be forthright and effective in their communications. These churches tend to have little investment in maintaining traditions, choosing instead to embrace the attitude of “whatever it takes” to disciple their membership and to reach the community.

4. Smaller churches tend to impose low expectations on their members. The popular “warm body” model of church membership that comes with low or no expectations of their membership is particularly rampant in smaller churches. There is a good bit of fear in these smaller churches that by putting high expectations on their members the church will find itself empty on some future Sunday morning because the members will leave. Indeed, I now know of several churches that allow full “membership” to people who have never been, and refuse to be, baptized. Few small churches place any significant requirements on their members. Indeed, few expect or require their members to commit to worship attendance, sacrificial giving, personal spiritual development, etc. Larger membership churches often place significant expectations on those who are interested in membership, and regularly demand an even higher level of commitment from those who serve in a leadership capacity. Many churches demand that potential members take multi-week membership introduction classes; classes that teach less about the denomination or church history and more about personal holiness and spiritual disciplines. It’s not uncommon for these churches to have leadership covenants for all church leaders, from committee or team leaders and teachers to the custodial team members, to commit to small-group participation, sacrificial giving (often tithing), weekly participation in worship, and a full commitment to fulfilling their leadership position. Indeed, these large churches are unhesitant in removing from leadership those who do not fulfill their commitments.

5. Smaller membership churches not only have low membership and leadership expectations, they seldom practice accountability among the membership. Again, this is often related to the fear of losing members … even poorly behaving members. Smaller membership churches are notorious for harboring bullies and terrorists, that is, people who behave badly in order to “get their own way.”

There are a number of articles on this phenomena in my blog and published in Net Results, but let me repeat just one thought. No other organization would tolerate the kind of behavior smaller churches regularly see in their church meetings and functions. People who behaved like that at work would be terminated – often without notice. Behavior like that would get them thrown out of virtually any service club (the Lions, Elks, Kiwanis, Rotary, Optimists, etc.). And even the local restaurant would demand that they leave and not come back. But smaller churches not only tolerate it, they make excuses for the behavior. When that kind of environment exists in the church, discipleship is seldom taken seriously by those in the congregation. The subconscious reasoning may be that “If a Christian can behave like that, then I must be doing alright.”

Beyond the accountability of bullies and terrorists, members and leaders are seldom held accountable for discipleship practices either. It’s the rare small-membership church that not only insists on basic faith practices, but actually inquires of its leaders and members whether they’ve read scripture during the week, or shared their faith, or even prayed. In addition, those who do not keep their commitments in terms of participation, or even in accomplishing the ministry tasks they agreed to fulfill, are rarely removed from leadership. Large membership churches seldom have these issues. Leaders who misbehave tend to either be removed immediately or quickly rehabilitated (or else!). Those who don’t fulfill their responsibilities are removed. And so it goes. But again, that accountability extends beyond misbehavior and missed deadlines.

Larger membership churches often have no problems asking their members about their spiritual practices. They have a high bar for their expectations and they are willing to hold people accountable for what they’ve covenanted to do.

I guess what bothers me the most about Barna’s findings is that I want to maintain a belief that the smaller membership church is in a unique place to make a significant difference in the lives of their membership and in their community. But until the small membership church is willing to face these five issues and place their energy and emphases on personal spiritual growth and maturity, I’m afraid that they will continue to fulfill Lyle Schaller’s prophecy that as many as 150,000 churches in the US will close before 2050… and that we’ll keep on dissolving forty-one churches every single day.[ii]

Question: If you’re the leader of a smaller church, how has your church confronted these issues? Share your response in the Comments Section below.

[i] For statistical information , see Tom Clegg, Lost in America. [ii] See Lyle Schaller’s Tattered Trust.