What is the Right Size Church?

This article is extremely important for all churches, but especially for newer congregations like ours. It will be well worth your time to read it carefully.


by DR. TIMOTHY KELLERhttps://blogs.thegospelcoalition.org/tgc/files/2013/08/unnamed.png
A church’s functional style, its strengths and weaknesses, and the roles of its lay and staff leaders will change dramatically as its size changes.

One of the most common reasons for pastoral leadership mistakes is blindness to the significance of church size. Size has an enormous impact on how a church functions. There is a “size culture” that profoundly affects how decisions are made, how relationships flow, how effectiveness is evaluated, and what ministers, staff, and lay leaders do.

We tend to think of the chief differences between churches mainly in denominational or theological terms, but that underestimates the impact of size on how a church operates. The difference between how churches of 100 and 1,000 function may be much greater than the difference between a Presbyterian and a Baptist church of the same size. The staff person who goes from a church of 400 to a church of 2,000 is in many ways making a far greater change than if he or she moved from one denomination to another.

A large church is not simply a bigger version of a small church. The difference in communication, community formation, and decision-making processes are so great that the leadership skills required in each are of almost completely different orders.


Every church has a culture that goes with its size and which must be accepted. Most people tend to prefer a certain size culture, and unfortunately, many give their favorite size culture a moral status and treat other size categories as spiritually and morally inferior. They may insist that the only biblical way to do church is to practice a certain size culture despite the fact that the congregation they attend is much too big or too small to fit that culture.

For example, if some members of a church of 2,000 feel they should be able to get the senior pastor personally on the phone without much difficulty, they are insisting on getting a kind of pastoral care that a church of under 200 provides. Of course the pastor would soon be overwhelmed. Yet the members may insist that if he can’t be reached he is failing his biblical duty to be their shepherd.

Another example: the new senior pastor of a church of 1,500 may insist that virtually all decisions be made by consensus among the whole board and staff. Soon the board is meeting every week for six hours each time! Still the pastor may insist that for staff members to be making their own decisions would mean they are acting unaccountably or failing to build community. To impose a size-culture practice on a church that does not have that size will wreak havoc on it and eventually force the church back into the size with which the practices are compatible.

A further example: New members who have just joined a smaller church after years of attending a much larger one may begin complaining about the lack of professional quality in the church’s ministries and insisting that this shows a lack of spiritual excellence. The real problem, however, is that in the smaller church volunteers do things that in the larger church are done by full-time staff. Similarly, new members of the smaller church might complain that the pastor’s sermons are not as polished and well researched as they had come to expect in the larger church. While a large-church pastor with multiple staff can afford to put twenty hours a week into sermon preparation, however, the solo pastor of a smaller church can devote less than half of that time each week.

This means a wise pastor may have to sympathetically confront people who are just not able to handle the church’s size culture—just like many people cannot adapt to life in geographic cultures different from the one they were used to. Some people are organizationally suspicious, often for valid reasons from their experience. Others can’t handle not having the preacher as their pastor. We must suggest to them they are asking for the impossible in a church that size. We must not imply that it would be immaturity on their part to seek a different church, though we should not actively encourage anyone to leave, either.


Every church has aspects of its natural size culture that must be resisted.

Larger churches have a great deal of difficulty keeping track of members who drop out or fall away from the faith. This should never be accepted as inevitable. Rather, the large church must continually struggle to improve pastoral care and discipleship.

Out of necessity, the large church must use organizational techniques from the business world, but the danger is that ministry may become too results-oriented and focused on quantifiable outcomes (attendance, membership, giving) rather than the goals of holiness and character growth. Again, this tendency should not be accepted as inevitable; rather, new strategies for focusing on love and virtue must always be generated.

The smaller church by its nature gives immature, outspoken, opinionated, and broken members a significant degree of power over the whole body. Since everyone knows everyone else, when members of a family or small group express strong opposition to the direction set by the pastor and leaders, their misery can hold the whole congregation hostage. If they threaten to leave, the majority of people will urge the leaders to desist in their project. It is extremely difficult to get complete consensus about programs and direction in a group of 50–150 people, especially in today’s diverse, fragmented society, and yet smaller churches have an unwritten rule that for any new initiative to be implemented nearly everyone must be happy with it. Leaders of small churches must be brave enough to lead and to confront immature members, in spite of the unpleasantness involved.

There is no “best size” for a church. Each size presents great difficulties and also many opportunities for ministry that churches of other sizes cannot undertake (at least not as well). Only together can churches of all sizes be all that Christ wants the church to be.


Reading books on church size can be confusing, as everyone breaks down the size categories somewhat differently. This is because there are many variables in a church’s culture and history that determine exactly when a congregation gets to a new size barrier. For example, everyone knows that at some point a church becomes too large for one pastor to handle. People begin to complain that they are not getting adequate pastoral care. The time has come to add staff. But when does that happen? In some communities it may happen when attendance rises to 120, while in others it does not happen until the church has nearly 300 in regular attendance. It depends a great deal on expectations, the mobility of the city’s population, how fast the church has grown, and so on. Despite the variables, the point at which a second pastoral staff member must be added is usually called “the 200 barrier.” That is a good average figure, but keep in mind that your own church might reach that threshold at some different attendance figure.

Here are the general trends or changes that come as a church grows larger.


The larger the church, the less its members have in common. There is more diversity in factors such as age, family status, ethnicity, and so on, and thus a church of 400 needs four to five times more programs than a church of 200—not two times more. Larger churches are much more complex than their smaller counterparts. They have multiple services, multiple groups, and multiple tracks, and eventually they really are multiple congregations.

Also, the larger the church, the more staff per capita needs to be added. Often the first ministry staff persons are added for every increase of 150–200 in attendance. A church of 500 may have two or three full-time ministry staff, but eventually ministry staff may need to be added for every 75–100 new persons. Thus a church of 2,000 may have twenty-five staff.


On the one hand, the larger the church the more decision making falls to the staff rather than to the whole membership or even the lay leaders. The elders or board must increasingly deal with only top-level, big-picture issues. This means the larger the church, the more decision making is pushed up toward the staff and away from the congregation and lay leaders. Needless to say, many laypeople feel extremely uncomfortable with this.

On the other hand, the larger the church, the more the basic pastoral ministry such as hospital visits, discipling, oversight of Christian growth, and counseling is done by lay leaders rather than by the professional ministers.

Generally, in small churches policy is decided by many and ministry is done by a few, while in the large church ministry is done by many and policy is decided by a few.


The larger the church, the more systematic and deliberate the assimilation of newcomers needs to be. As a church grows, newcomers are not visible to the congregation’s members. Thus new people are not spontaneously and informally welcomed and invited in. Pathways for assimilation must be identified or established by asking questions such as these:

  • +  How will newcomers get here?
  • +  How will they be identified by the church?
  • +  Where will unbelievers learn Christianity’s relevance, content, and credibility?
  • +  Who will move them along the path?
  • +  Where will believers get plugged in?
  • +  Who will help them?
  • The larger the church, the harder it is to recruit volunteers and thus a more well-organized volunteer recruitment process is required. Why is this so? First, the larger the church, the more likely it is that someone you don’t know well will try to recruit you. It is much easier to say no to someone you do not know than to someone you know well. Second, it is easier to feel less personally responsible for the ministries of a large church: “They have lots of people here—they don’t need me.” Therefore, the larger the church, the more well-organized and formal the recruitment of volunteers must be.


The larger the church, the better communication has to be. Without multiple forms and repeated messages, people will feel left out and complain, “I wasn’t told about it.” You know you’ve crossed into a higher size category when such complaints become constant. Informal communication networks (pulpit announcements, newsletter notices, and word of mouth) are insufficient to reach everyone. More lead time is necessary to communicate well.


The larger the church, the more planning and organization must go into events. A higher quality of production in general is expected in a larger church and events cannot simply be thrown together. Spontaneous, last- minute events do not work.

The larger the church, the higher its aesthetic bar must be. In smaller churches the worship experience is rooted mainly in horizontal relationships among those who attend. Musical offerings from singers who are untrained and not especially talented are nonetheless appreciated because “we all know them” and they are members of the fellowship. But the larger the church, the more worship is based on the vertical relationship— on a sense of transcendence. If an outsider comes in who doesn’t know the musicians, then a mediocre quality of production will distract them from worship. They don’t have a relationship with the musicians to offset the lack of giftedness. So the larger the church, the more the music becomes an inclusion factor.


The larger the church, the more it is subject to frequent and sudden change. Why?

First, smaller churches tend to have little turnover: individual members feel powerful and necessary and so they stay put.

Second, the larger the church, the more power for decision making moves away from the whole congregation to the leaders and staff. Too much is going on for the congregation or the board or eventually even the staff to make all the decisions as a group. As decision-making power comes into the hands of individual staff or volunteer leaders, change happens more quickly. Decisions can be made expeditiously without everyone signing on.

Further, as we saw above, the larger the church, the more complex it is and therefore the more schedules, events, and programs there are to change.


The larger the church, the more it loses members because of changes. Why? Smaller churches seek at all costs to avoid losing members. As a result, certain individuals and small groups often come to exercise power dis- proportionate to their numbers. If a change were made, someone invariably would experience it as a loss, and since the smaller church has a great fear of conflict, it usually will not institute a change that might result in lost members. Thus smaller churches tend to have a more stable membership than large churches do.

In larger churches small groups and individual members have far less ability to exert power or resist changes they dislike. And (as noted previously) since larger churches undergo constant change, they regularly lose members because “It’s too big now” or “I can’t see the pastor anymore” or “We don’t pray spontaneously any- more in church.” Leaders of churches that grow large are more willing to lose members who disagree with procedures or the philosophy of ministry.


The larger the church, the less available the main preacher is to do pastoral work. In smaller churches the pastor is available at all times, for most occasions and needs, to any member or unchurched person. In the large church there are sometimes more lay ministers, staff, and leaders than the small church has people! So the large church’s pastors must recognize their limits and spend more time with staff and lay shepherds and in prayer and meditation.

The larger the church, the more important the minister’s leadership abilities are. Preaching and pastoring are sufficient skills for pastors in smaller churches, but as a church grows other leadership skills become critical. In a large church not only administrative skills but also vision casting and strategy design are crucial gifts in the pastoral team.

The larger the church, the more the ministry staff members must move from being generalists to being specialists. Everyone from the senior pastor on down must focus on certain ministry areas and concentrate on two or three main tasks. The larger the church, the more the senior pastor must specialize in preaching, vision keeping and vision casting, and identifying problems before they become disasters.

Finally, the larger the church, the more important it is for ministers, especially the senior minister, to stay put for a long time. As noted above, smaller churches change less rapidly and have less turnover. With this innate stability, a smaller church can absorb a change of minister every few years if necessary. But the larger the church, the more the staff in general and the senior pastor in particular are the main sources of continuity and stability. Rapid turnover of staff is highly detrimental to a large church.



The larger the church, the smaller the basic pastoral span of care.

In smaller churches, classes and groups can be larger because virtually everyone in the church is cared for directly by full-time trained ministry staff, each of whom can care for 50–200 people. In larger churches, however, the internal groupings need to be smaller, because people are cared for by lay shepherds, each of whom can care for 10–20 people if given proper supervision and support. Thus in a larger church, the more small groups you have per 100 people in attendance, the better cared for people are and the faster the church grows.


The larger the church, the more it tends to concentrate on doing fewer things well. Smaller churches are generalists and feel the need to do everything. This comes from the power of the individual in a small church. If any member wants the church to address some issue, then the church makes an effort in order to please him or her. The larger church, however, identifies and concentrates on approximately three or four major things and works to do them extremely well, despite calls for new emphases.

Further, the larger the church, the more a distinctive vision becomes important to its members. The reason for being in a smaller church is relationships. The reason for putting up with all the changes and difficulties of a larger church is to get mission done. People join a larger church because of the vision—so the particular mission needs to be clear.

The larger the church, the more it develops its own mission outreach rather than supporting already existing programs. Smaller churches tend to support denominational mission causes and contribute to existing para- church ministries. Leaders and members of larger churches feel more personally accountable to God for the kingdom mandate and seek to either start their own mission ministries or to form partnerships in which there is more direct accountability of the mission agency to the church.

Consequently, the larger the church, the more its lay leaders need to be screened for agreement on vision and philosophy of ministry, not simply for doctrinal and moral standards. In smaller churches, people are eligible for leadership on the basis of membership tenure and faithfulness. In larger churches, where a distinctive mission and vision are more important, it is important to enlist without apology leaders who share a common philosophy of ministry with the staff and other leaders.





  • +  The house church is often called a “store frontc hurch”in urban areas and a “country church”in rural areas.
  • +  It operates essentially as an extended small group. It is a highly relational church in which everyone knows everyone else intimately.
  • +  Lay leaders are extremely powerful and they emerge relationally—they are not appointed or elected. They are usually the people who have been at the church the longest and have devoted the most time and money to the work.
  • +  Decision-making is democratic and informal and requires complete consensus. Decisions are made by informal relational process. If any member is unhappy with a course of action, it is not taken by the church.
  • +  Communication is by word of mouth, and information moves very swiftly through the whole membership.
  • +  The pastor is often a “tent-maker” and does church ministry part-time, though once a church has at least ten families who tithe, it can support a full-time minister. The minister’s main job is shepherding, not leading or preaching.How it growsHouse churches grow in the most organic possible way—through attraction to their warmth, relationships, and people. New people are simply invited and continue to come because they are befriended. There is no “program” of outreach.

    Crossing the threshold to the next size category

    The house church, like any small group, gets to saturation rather quickly. Once it gets to 40+ people, the intense face-to-face relationships become impossible to maintain. It then faces a choice: either multiplying off another house-church or growing out of the “house-church dynamics” into the next size category, the small church.

    If it does not do either, evangelism becomes essentially impossible. The fellowship itself then can easily become ingrown and stagnant—somewhat stifling, sometimes legalistic.

    An ongoing problem for the stand-alone church of this size is the low quality of ministry to specific groups like children, youth, and singles. If it opts to multiply into another house church, the two (and eventually several) house churches can form an association and do things like youth ministry together. They can also meet for joint worship services periodically.

    If it opts to grow out of the house-church size into a small church, it needs to prepare its people to do this by acknowledging the losses of intimacy, spontaneity, and informality and agreeing to bear these as a cost of mission, of opening its ranks to new people. This has to be a consensus group decision, to honor the dynamics of the house church even as it opts to change those dynamics.



  • +  The range of this category goes from churches that are barely out of the house-church stage up to churches that are ready for multiple staff. But they all share the same basic characteristics.
  • +  While the relational dynamics are now less intense, there is still a strong expectation that every member must have a face-to-face relationship with every other member.
  • +  And while there are now appointed and elected leaders, the informal leadership system remains extremely strong. There are several laypeople—regardless of their official status—who are “opinion leaders.” If they don’t approve of new measures the rest of the members will not support the changes.
  • +  Communication is still informal, mostly word of mouth, and relatively swift.
  • +  The pastor is still primarily a shepherd. While in a larger church people will let you pastor them if you are a good preacher, in a smaller church the reverse is true: people will listen to your sermons if you are a good pastor.
  • +  Effective, loving shepherding of every member is the driving force of ministry—not leadership or even speaking ability. A pastor who says, “I shouldn’t have to shepherd every member, I’ve delegated that to my elders or small group leaders,” is trying to practice large-church dynamics in a small-church environment.
  • +  However,as the congregation grows the pastor of a small church will feel more and more need for administrative leadership skills. Small churches do not require much in the way of vision casting or strategizing, but they do eventually present a need for program planning, mobilization of volunteers, and other administrative tasks.
  • +  Changes are still processed relationally and informally by the whole congregation, not just the leaders.But since the congregation is larger, decisions take a longer time than in either the house church or the medium-sized church. Ultimately, however, change in a small church happens from the bottom up through key lay leaders. No major changes can be made unless you get at least one of these people to be an ally and an advocate for them.

How it grows

Like house churches, small churches grow through newcomers’ attraction to the relationships in the congregation. However, in the small church it can also be a personal relationship to the pastor that is the primary attraction for a new person. The pastor can begin two or three new ministries, classes, or groups, as long as he has secured the backing or participation of one key informal leader. Together they can begin a new activity that will bring many new people into the church.

Crossing the threshold to the next size category

This church may eventually face the famous “200 barrier.” To make room for more than 200 people in a church takes a significant commitment to some or all of the following changes.

+ First change—multiplication options.

  • There must be a willingness to question the unwritten policy that every voting member should have a face-to-face relationship with every other member.
  • When a church gets to the place where the older members begin to realize that there are members whom they barely know or don’t know at all, the complaint may be voiced in a tone of moral authority: “This church is getting too big.” Another form of this complaint is that the church is getting “impersonal.” Essentially, this attitude must change if newcomers are to be welcomed.
  • Often the key change that a congregation must allow is a move to multiplying options such as more than one Sunday service, or putting more emphasis on small group ministry than on having one unified corporate prayer meeting.
  • As a general rule, multiplying options generate a growth spurt.The single best way to increase attendance is to multiply Sunday services. Two services will immediately draw more people than one service did. Four Sunday school electives will generally draw more people than two Sunday school electives. Why? Because when you give people more options, more people opt!
  • +  Second change—a willingness to pay the cost of an additional primary ministry staff person.
  • It is a sociological fact that a full-time minister cannot personally shepherd more than about 150–200 people. At some point any pastor will lose the ability to personally visit, stay in touch, and be reasonably available to all the people of a growing congregation.
  • The minister’s span of pastoral care can be stretched with part-time or full-time specialty or administrative staff, such as children’s workers, secretaries, administrators, and musicians,. There are variations to this figure depending on the minister’s personality and energy level and the local culture. For example, a more white-collar community tends to demand far more specialized programs than does a working-class community, and therefore you may find in such a place that you need a full-time ministry staff person for every 100–150 in attendance.
  • Eventually that second ministry staff person must be hired. This is commonly another ordained pastor, but it could be a layperson who is a counselor, overseer of small groups, or supervisor of programs who does a lot of shepherding work and teaching. It is important to be sure that this second person really can grow the church and, practically speaking, grow the giving that will pay his or her salary. So, for example, it may not be best to have the second ministry staff person be a youth minister; it would be better to hire a small group minister or a minister of evangelism and outreach. Or, if the senior minister is excellent at outreach, the second staff worker could be a pastor/counselor who complements the gifts of the first minister and works on the church’s internal growth. Initial staffing must be for growth.
  • The tension that often arises in a church this size is that the church is big enough that the pastor begins to feel burned out but is not yet big enough to financially support a second minister.
  • +  Third change—a willingness to let power shift away from the laity and even lay leaders to the staff.
    • As you get to this size barrier, the old approach to decision-making, which required that everyone to come to a consensus, becomes far too slow and unwieldy. In the consensus model of decision making, it is considered impossible to proceed with a change if any member is strongly opposed, especially if it appears that the change would actually result in some people’s leaving the church.
    • As a church nears the 200 barrier, there is almost always someone who experiences the concomitant changes as a loss. Therefore no changes will ever occur unless many of the decisions that used to involve the whole membership now shift to the leaders and staff. But it is not just that the laity must cede power to the leaders. Long-time lay leaders must also cede power to the staff and volunteer leaders.
    • In a smaller church the lay leaders often know more about the members than the pastor does. The lay leaders have been there longer and thus have more knowledge of the past, more trust from the members, and more knowledge of the members’ abilities, capacities, interests, and opinions.
    • Onceachurchgetsbeyond200,however,the staff tends to know more about the church members than the lay leaders do, and increasingly the new members in particular take their cues from the pastor(s) rather than from the lay leaders.
    • The lay officers’ board or elders will no longer be able to sign off on absolutely everything and will have to let the staff and individual volunteer leaders make many decisions on their own.
  • +  Fourth change—a willingness to become more formal and deliberate in assimilation and communication.

• For a church to move beyond this barrier it can no longer assume that communication and the assimilation of newcomers will happen “naturally,” without any planning. Communication will have to become more deliberate instead of by word of mouth alone. Newcomers will have to be folded in more intention- ally. For example, every new family could be assigned a “sponsor” for six months—a member family who invites the new family over to their home, brings them to a new members’ class, and so on.

  • +  Fifth change—the ability and willingness of both the pastor and the people for the pastor to do shepherding a bit less and leading a bit more.
    • The next-size church requires a bit more vision casting and strategizing and a lot more administrative know-how. The pastor of the medium-sized church will have to spend much more time recruiting and supervising volunteers and programs to do ministry that in the smaller church he would have done him- self. This takes administrative skills of planning, delegating, supervising, and organizing.
    • In this next-size church the pastor is simply less available and accessible to every member. Even with the hiring of additional ministry staff, every member will not be able to have the same access to the senior pastor as he or she did before. Both the people and the senior minister need to acknowledge and accept this cost.
  • +  Sixth change—considering the option of moving to a new space and facilities.• Will such a move be crucial to breaking the next growth barrier? Sometimes, but not usually. Usually what is needed is planning multiple worship services, staffing for growth, and adjusting attitudes and expectations in preparation for a new size culture.MEDIUM-SIZED CHURCH, 200–450 ATTENDANCE


  • +  In smaller churches, each member is acquainted with the entire membership of the church. The primary circle of belonging is the church as a whole. But in the medium-sized church, the primary circle of belonging is usually a specific affinity class or program. Men’s and women’s ministries, the choir, the couples’ class, the evening worship team, the local prison ministry, the meals-on-wheels ministry—all of these are possible circles of belonging that make the church fly. Each of these subgroups is approximately the size of the house church, 10–40 people.
  • +  Leadership functions differently in the medium-sized church.
    • First, since the medium-sized church has far more complexity, the leaders must represent the various constituencies in the church (e.g., the older people, the young families).
    • Second,there is too much work to be handled by a small board.There are now influential leadership teams or committees, such as the missions committee or the music/worship committee, that have significant power.
    • Third,because of the two factors above, leaders begin to be chosen less on the basis of length of tenure and strength of personality and more on the basis of skills and giftedness.
    • Fourth,the role of the lay officers or board begins to change. In the smaller church, the officers basically oversee the pastor and staff, giving or withholding permission for various proposals. The pastor and staff then do the ministry. In the medium-sized church, the officers begin to do more of the ministry them- selves, in partnership with the staff. Volunteer ministry leaders often rise up and become the decision- making leaders. Chairs of influential committees sit on the official board.
  • +  As noted above, the senior minister shifts somewhat from being a shepherd toward becoming a “rancher.” Rather than doing all of the ministry himself, he becomes a trainer and organizer of laypeople doing ministry. He also must be adept at training, supporting, and supervising ministry and administrative staff. At the medium-sized church level, this requires significant administrative skills.
  • +  While in the smaller church change and decisions come from the bottom up through key lay people, in the medium-sized church change happens through key committees and teams. Ordinarily the official board or session in the medium-sized church is inherently conservative. They feel very responsible and do not want to offend any constituents they believe they represent. Therefore change is usually driven by forward- thinking committees such as the missions committee or the evangelism committee. These can be very effective in persuading the congregation to try new things.

How it grows

As noted earlier, smaller churches grow mainly through pastor-initiated groups, classes, and ministries. The medium-sized church will also grow as it multiplies classes, groups, services, and ministries, but the key to medium-sized growth is improving the quality of the ministries and their effectiveness to meet real needs. The small church can accommodate amateurish quality because the key attraction is its intimacy and family-like warmth. But the medium-sized church’s ministries must be different. Classes really must be great learning experiences. Music must meet aesthetic needs. Preaching must inform and inspire.

Crossing the threshold to the next size category

I have said that the small church crosses the 200 barrier through (1) multiplying options, (2) going to multiple staff, (3) shifting decision-making power away from the whole membership, (4) becoming more formal and deliberate in assimilation, and (5) moving the pastor away from shepherding everyone to being more of an organizer/administrator. You can grow beyond 200 without making all of these five changes; in fact, most churches do. Often churches grow past 200 while holding on to one or more of the smaller-church attitudes. For example, if the senior minister is multi-gifted and energetic, he can take care of the organizational/administrative work and still have time to visit every member of his church. Or perhaps new staff persons are added but the decision-making is still done on a whole-congregation consensus model. But to break 400, you must firmly break the old habits in all five areas. As for the sixth change—moving to new space and facilities—this is usually needed for a medium-sized church to break the growth barrier, but not always.



+ We have seen that in the small church, the primary circle of belonging is the entire church body. In the medium-sized church, the primary circle is the affinity class or ministry group, which is usually 10–40 in size. However, in the large church the primary circle of belonging becomes the small group fellowship. This is different from the affinity class or ministry in the following ways:

  • It is usually smaller—as small as 4 and no bigger than 15.
  • It is more of a “miniature church”than is the affinity class or ministry. Affinity classes or ministries are specialty programs, focusing only on learning or worship music or ministry to the poor and so on. The small group fellowship does Bible study, fellowship, worship, and ministry.
  • +  Leadership also functions differently in the large church. In the small church, leaders were selected for their tenure; in the medium-sized church, for their skills and maturity. Both of these are still very desirable! But in the large church, these qualities must be combined with a commitment to the church’s distinct vision and mission. The larger the church becomes, the more it develops certain key ministries and strengths that it emphasizes, and the common vision is an important reason that members join. So leaders need to be screened for vision as well as other qualifications.
  • +  In the small church, the board gave or withheld permission to the pastor(s), who did the ministry. In the medium-sized church, the board is made up of lay leaders and committee chairs who share the ministry work with the pastors and staff. But in the large church, the board must work with the senior minister to set overall vision and goals and then to evaluate the overall ministry. Unlike the small church board, they don’t oversee all the staff—they let the senior minister do that. Unlike the medium church board, they may not necessarily be the lay leaders of ministry. Instead they oversee how the church and ministries are doing as a whole.
  • +  In the large church, the roles of individual staff members become increasingly specialized, and that also goes for the role of the senior minister. He must concentrate more and more on (a) preaching and (b) vision casting and strategizing. He must let go of many or most administrative tasks; otherwise he becomes a bottleneck.
  • +  While in the small church change and decisions happen from the bottom up through powerful lay individuals, and in the medium-sized church they come from the boards and committees, in the large church they happen “top down” from staff and key lay leaders.

How it grows

The small church grows mainly through new groups, classes, and ministries initiated by the pastor, sometimes with the help of an ally. I call this the “backyard approach,” since it grows from informal new fellowship circles. The medium-sized church grows mainly through ministries that effectively target “felt needs” of various groups such as youth, seniors, young married couples, and “seekers.” I call this the “side-door approach,” since it brings in various people groups from your city or neighborhood by addressing their felt needs. The large church, however, grows through a “front-door” approach. The key to its growth is what happens in the worship services— the quality of the preaching, the transcendence of the worship experience, and so on.

Crossing the threshold to the next size category

The same five changes mentioned before need to be taken to the next level.

  • +  First change—multiplying options. Up to the “800 barrier,” churches can still get away with having a mediocre or poor small-group system. The people may still be getting shepherded mainly through larger programs, affinity classes, and groups that are run by staff people directly. But if God keeps sending you new people, so that you are bumping up against the 800 barrier, you must have the majority of your members and adherents in small groups that are very well run and that do pastoral care, not just Bible study. Multiple services were more important when addressing the 200 or 400 barrier, but small group life is the key to navigating this change.
  • +  Second change—multiplying staff. Up to the “800 barrier” churches can still get away with a small staff of generalists, but after the 800 barrier there must be much more specialization. Staff members must be increasingly gifted, and not simply workers, nor even leaders of workers, but leaders of leaders. They must be fairly mature, independent, and able to attract and supervise others.
  • +  Third change—shifting decision-making power. Up to the “800 barrier,” decision-making power was becoming more centralized—migrating from the periphery (the whole membership or the whole lay board) to the center (the staff and eventually the senior staff). Now the decision-making power must become more decentralized— migrating out away from the senior staff and pastor to the individual staff and their leadership teams. As noted above, the staff must become increasingly competent and must be given more authority to make decisions in their area without having to run everything through the senior staff or lay board.
  • +  Fourth change—becoming more formal and deliberate in assimilation. Assimilation,discipline, and incorporation of newcomers must become even more well organized, highly detailed, and supervised.
  • +  Fifth change — adapting the senior pastor’s role. The pastor becomes even less accessible to do individual shepherding and concentrates even more on preaching, large group teaching, vision casting, and strategizing.THE VERY LARGE CHURCHCharacter
  • +  The very large church has a missional focus. In general, smaller churches give members a greater voice (see below), and thus the concerns and interests of members and insiders tend to trump those of outsiders. On the other hand, the larger church gives the staff and executive leaders a greater voice. The more staff-driven a church is, the more likely it is to concentrate on ministries that will reach nonmembers and that don’t directly benefit its own constituents—that is, church planting, mercy and justice ministries, and other new services and programs.
  • +  The very large church has several traits that attract seekers and young adults in particular:
    • Excellence.Those with no obligation to go to church based on kinship, tradition, ethnicity, or local history are more likely to attend where the quality of arts, teaching, children’s programs, and so on is very high.
    • Choices. Contemporary people are used to having options when it comes to the schedule or type of worship, learning, support services, and the like.
    • Openness to change. Generally, newcomers and younger people have a much greater tolerance for the constant changes and fluidity of a large church, while older people, long-term members, and families are more desirous of stability.

+ Low pressure. Seekers are glad to come into a church and not have their presence noticed immediately. The great majority of inquirers and seekers are grateful for the ease with which they can visit a large church without immediately feeling pressured to make a decision or join a group.

+ The very large church also has greater potential for developing certain qualities and ministries:

  • Being multicultural. A larger staff can be multi-ethnic (while a single staff/pastor usually cannot). A larger church with multiple services, classes, or even “congregations” can encompass a greater variety of interests and sensibilities.
  • Creating a full-service family support system. Families often need a variety of classes or groups for children in different age groups as well as counseling services, recreational opportunities, and so on. Larger churches often attract families for that reason.
  • Doing church-planting. Larger churches,in general,are better at church-planting than are either denominational agencies or smaller churches.
  • Carrying out faith-based holistic ministries. Larger churches have a bigger pool of volunteers, finances, and expertise for carrying these out.
  • “Research and development” for the broader church. Again, the larger church is usually a good place for new curriculum, ministry structures, and the like to be formulated and tested. These can all be done more effectively by a large church than by denominations, smaller churches, or parachurch ministries.ONE OF THE MOST COMMON REASONS FOR PASTORAL LEADERSHIP MISTAKES IS BLINDNESS TO THE SIGNIFICANCE OF CHURCH SIZE.

+ Of course the very large church has disadvantages as well:

  • Commuting longer distances can undermine mission. Very large churches can become famous and attract Christians from longer and longer distances, who cannot bring non-Christians from their neighborhoods. Soon the congregation doesn’t look like the neighborhood and can’t reach its own geographic community. However, this is somewhat offset by the mission advantages and can be further offset by (a) church planting and (b) staying relentlessly oriented toward evangelism and outreach.
  • Commuting longer distances undermines community/fellowship and discipleship. Christians coming from longer distances are less likely to be discipled and plugged in to real Christian community. The person you meet in a Sunday service is less and less likely to be someone who lives near you, so natural connections and friendships do not develop. This can be somewhat offset by an effective small-group system that unites people by interest or region.
  • Diminished communication and involvement.“A common pattern is for  a large church to outgrow its internal communication system and plateau . . . as many people feel a loss of the sense of belonging, and eventually [it declines] numerically.” People are no longer sure whom to talk to about things: in a smaller church, the staff and elders know everything, but in a very large church, a given staff member may know nothing at all about what is going on outside his or her ministry. The long list of staff and ministries is overwhelming. No one feels they can get information quickly; no one feels they know how to begin to get involved. This can be offset by continually upgrading your communication system. This becomes extraordinarily important in a very large congregation.
  • Displacement. People who joined when the church was smaller may feel a great sense of loss and may have trouble adjusting to the new size culture. Many of them will mourn the loss of feeling personally connected to events, decision making, and the head pastor. Some of these “old-timers” will sadly leave, and their leaving will sadden those who remain in the church. This can be offset by giving old-timers extra deference and consideration, understanding the changes they’ve been through, and not making them feel guilty for wanting a different or smaller church. Fortunately, this problem eventually lessens! People who joined a church when it had 1,500 members will find that not much has changed when it reaches 4,000.
  • Complexity,change,and formality.Largeness brings(a) complexity instead of simplicity,(b) change instead of predictability, and (c) the need for formal rather than informal communication and decision making. However, many long-time Christians and families value simplicity, predictability, and informality, and even see them as more valuable from a spiritual standpoint. The larger the church, the more the former three factors grow, and many people simply won’t stand for them.
  • Succession. The bigger a church, the more the church is identified with the senior pastor. Why? (a) He becomes the only identifiable leader among a large number of staff and leaders of whom the average member cannot keep track. (b) Churches don’t grow large without a leader who is unusually good in articulating vision. This articulation then becomes the key to the whole church. That kind of giftedness is distinctive and is much less replaceable even than good preaching. This leads to the Achilles’ heel of the church—continuity and succession. How does the pastor retire without people feeling the church has died? One plan is to divide the church with each new site having its own senior pastor. Lyle Schaller believes, however, that the successors need to be people who have been on staff for a good while, not outsiders.How it growsBasically, a very large church continues to grow only if the advantages described are exploited while the disadvantages described are resisted and minimized.



    A common problem in churches is that people attach a moral significance to their ideal size culture. They don’t see a large-church size culture as “different” but as “bad.” For example, some members may feel that a very large church is an “unfriendly” or “uncaring” church because they can’t get the senior pastor on the phone personally. However, if everyone in a church of 3,000 could get the pastor on the phone anytime they wanted, it would not lead to a more caring church at all. He could not possibly respond to all their needs. (On the other hand, if a pastor in a church of 150 can never be gotten on the phone, he is imposing a larger size culture in a smaller church, and that will lead to disaster.)

    Because a very large church is marked by change, the overall vision may stay the same, but few or no programs or practices are sacrosanct. Because it is complex, it is not immediately obvious whom to talk to or who needs to be in on a given decision; many new events may have unforeseen consequences for other programs. Because there is a need for greater formality, plans have to be written down and carefully executed, rather than worked out face to face and relationally. In a very large church, all of these traits must be considered the inevitable cost of ministry. There should be little hand-wringing and no moral significance attached to these traits (calling change “instability,” formality “being impersonal,” etc.). Different cultures are just that—different, not inferior.


    In general, the larger the church, the fewer people should be in on each decision. Why? The larger the church, the more diversity of views. If the older processes are followed, decisions take longer and longer to be made, and they result in watered-down compromises. As a church gets larger it must entrust decision making to fewer and fewer people just to maintain the same level of progress, decisiveness, and intentionality it had when it was smaller. Many Christians consider the size culture of a very large church to be by definition undemocratic or unaccountable. This is one reason that many churches never get very large, or shrink again once they do.


Another mark of a very large church, especially once it surpasses about 1,800 members, is that the “hub and spokes” structure, in which the senior pastor serves as the captain or “hub” and his staff are the “spokes,” becomes obsolete. Instead of being a team under the senior pastor, the staff becomes a team of teams. The power of directors and clusters of directors grows greatly. The church has become too complex for the senior pastor to supervise directors closely, and power is shifted to specific departments. This has two consequences. On the one hand, it means that staff leaders have more decision-making power for their own area. Other staff directors and even the senior pastor have less information and ability to second-guess them or interfere. This happens increasingly as a church gets larger. On the other hand, it means staff cannot expect to receive as much mentoring, instruction, and rescuing from the executive staff as they did when the church was smaller.


Studies show that churches of fewer than 800 members are staffed primarily with seminary-trained ministers, but the larger a church gets, the fewer trained ministers are on staff. Why is this?

First, the larger church needs specialists in counseling, music, finance, social work, and childhood development— whereas seminaries train generalists. Very large churches do not need theologically trained people to learn a specialty so much as they need specialists who can be theologically trained.

Second, the very large church cannot afford to bring on a newcomer with a steep learning curve as director of a large ministry. In a church of 500, you may have a youth ministry of 30 kids, so you can hire a young person out of seminary to be the youth pastor. But in a very large church there may be 300 youth—so the staff director has to be very competent from the start. The larger a church gets, the more competent the staff needs to be. The call to the staff changes from “Do what I tell you” to “Go out and make things happen.” Resourcefulness and creativity become more and more important. The staff often need to be able to inspire followers and to find creative ways to bring something out of nothing. They must move from being leaders to being leaders of leaders.

Third, the larger the church gets, the more distinctive its vision is. It has a highly honed and carefully balanced set of emphases and styles—its own “voice.” People who are trained theologically before coming to staff inevitably come in with attitudes and assumptions that are at variance with the church’s vision. They may also feel superior to other staff people who are not theologically trained or may underestimate their own ignorance of the church’s specific context. The larger the church, then, the more important it is to raise and train leaders from within. This means that staff coming from outside need thorough training in the very large church’s history, values, culture, and so on, and staff coming from within should be supported heavily for continued theological education.


A very key and very visible part of the large size culture is the changed role of the senior pastor. As stated earlier, in a very large church the preacher cannot be the people’s pastor. The senior pastor must move from an emphasis on doing the work of ministry (teaching, pastoring, administering) to delegating this work so that he can concentrate on vision casting and general preaching. Many churches and ministers never allow this to happen; indeed they believe it is wrong to make such a shift. While the senior pastor must not become a CEO and stop doing traditional ministry altogether, he must not try to do pastoral care or provide oversight for the church at large either. That responsibility must go to others. This is undoubtedly difficult; the senior pastor will have to live with guilt feelings over it all the time. It’s a burden he must be willing to bear, with the help of the gospel. Otherwise the pressures of trying to do it all will lead to burnout. The senior pastor, the staff and ministry leaders, and the congregation must allow this transition to happen.


Schaller shows that the very large church is more accessible and capable of reaching young people, single people, the unchurched, and seekers than smaller churches are. He then poses a question: If the need for very large churches is so great, why are there so few? Why don’t more churches (a) allow the senior pastor to become less accessible, (b) allow the staff to have more power than the board, (c) allow a small body of executive staff to have more decision-making power than the larger staff or congregation, or (d) allow directors more power to hire competent workers and release generalists? His main answer is that the key to the very large church culture is trust. In smaller churches, suspicious people are much happier. Every decision goes through a process of consensus that is accessible to any member. Any minority that is unhappy with something can block it. The larger the church gets, however, the more and more the congregation has to trust the staff, and especially the senior pastor. Though the staff (and the senior pastor) must do everything they can to be open to criticism, to be relationally available, and to communicate with people in a way that makes them feel included and informed, ultimately a very large church runs on trust.

Copyright © 2006 by Timothy Keller, © 2010 by Redeemer City to City. This article first appeared in The Movement Newsletter, and was reprinted in the Spring 2008 edition of Cutting Edge magazine, Vineyard USA.

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