Growing up I enjoyed how the sunlight at your back would give you a very large shadow. It masked my own small size as a child and made it appear that I was much larger. For a long time now we have heard of the great influence of mega churches and the church watchers like Lyle Schaller (and others) have told us that we must grow or die. The age of the small congregation is over. They cannot afford a Pastor. They cannot do effective ministry. They cannot find a future without growing. In the Missouri Synod this has been the mantra since the mid-90s or so and now we regularly hear about the bane of having so many small congregations. They are called permanent vacancies and nearly every District President I know sees them as big problems for the Church.
I stumbled across this from Mollie Ziegler Hemingway and it seems to cast a slightly different light upon this age old truth about bigger being better and small congregations dying.
Q: What’s the size of U.S. churches?
A: The median church in the U.S. has 75 regular participants in worship on Sunday mornings, according to the National Congregations Study http://www.soc.duke.edu/natcong/ . Notice that researchers measured the median church size — the point at which half the churches are smaller and half the churches are larger — rather than the average (186 attenders reported by the USCLS survey http://www.uscongregations.org/charact-cong.htm ), which is larger due to the influence of very large churches. But while the United States has a large number of very small churches, most people attend larger churches. The National Congregations Study estimated that the smaller churches draw only 11 percent of those who attend worship. Meanwhile, 50 percent of churchgoers attended the largest 10% of congregations (350 regular participants and up). Want to know more? Check the websites for the National Congregations Study at http://www.soc.duke.edu/natcong/ The US Congregational Life Survey (USCLS) website has statistics about congregations by religious traditions at http://www.uscongregations.org/
Mega churches do not get that designation until they get more than 2,000 per week in worship. According to the graph, well below than 10% of the Protestant Christians in America attend such churches yet their influence as trend setters and their shadow looms large over American Christianity. Even adding in all those congregations where over 1,000 are in attendance each week and these congregations still represent somewhat less than one quarter of American Christians (Roman Catholic and Orthodox excluded).
Funny but what I get to thinking about this, it seems that the vast majority of Lutheran congregations fall into the the first or second tier of church attendance (according to the graph above). We are not unusual in that regard but rather ordinary. In fact, the Missouri Synod average is a little higher than the national average tallied in Hemingway's story and the median size is also a bit larger.