In the U.S. and Canada, most Nazarene church members attend a large church; however, most Nazarene churches are small. By small I mean less than 100 people in worship attendance. For that matter, most evangelical churches are small—in fact, most Protestant churches are small.1 If less than 100 people in worship is the norm for Protestant churches, and we know from Nazarene statistics that the Africa and Eurasia regions are growing because they are starting a lot of small churches, then let’s celebrate our small USA/Canada Nazarene churches and find ways to start and support more of them.
Figure 1 illustrates just how small most churches are in the U.S. Several years ago, my counterparts in the Assemblies of God (AG), the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (LCMS), the Presbyterian Church-USA (PCUSA), and the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) shared their groups’ worship attendance figures with me. Although these groups vary widely geographically, have different political outlooks, cover the spectrum of Protestant beliefs, and vary in organizational size, their distribution of churches by worship attendance is remarkably similar to that of the Church of the Nazarene.
Figure 1: Comparison of Church Worship Attendance
Sizes by Denomination: U.S. 2000
For every group except ELCA, the majority of congregations are comprised of 26-50 people (in ELCA, it is slightly higher—the 51-75 size). Most of the groups have a solid majority of their churches in the 100 or less worship attendance size (AG = 66%; Naz = 70%; PCUSA = 62%; SBC = 63%). Even though I cannot include the Lutheran bodies in the above statistic, roughly half of their churches have 100 or less in worship (ELCA = 50%; LCMS = 48%). It is clear that the typical Protestant church is small. What is not as obvious, however, is how big a contribution they make to the denomination and the kingdom of God.
Small Churches Make a Big Impact
In 2009, there were 3,459 Nazarene churches with less than 100 in average worship attendance. That represents 71% of all Nazarene churches, which means that seven out of every 10 pastors lead a small congregation. On the other hand, the people attending these churches make up only 31% of the overall average attendance. This means that most Nazarenes attend a church that is larger than 100. All the same, more than 30% of Nazarenes in small churches is still a sizable proportion of the church.
What is interesting is that the combined efforts of all these small churches results in their receiving 39% of all new Nazarenes.2 That’s eight percentage points higher than their proportion of attendance! (See Table 1.) They also raise 29% of all money received at the local church level, and contribute 26% of the World Evangelism Fund (WEF). Considering that many of these churches are in small town and country settings without the economic strength of urban and suburban areas, or ethnic congregations whose attendees often have below average income levels, their contribution to WEF is no small feat.
Table 1: USA/Canada Churches of the Nazarene: 2009
Small Churches Produce Leaders
Former general superintendent V. H. Lewis, current general superintendent J. K. Warrick, and retired pastor Bobby Huffaker—who was senior pastor of the largest Church of the Nazarene in the U.S. and Canada region (Grove City, Ohio)—all have roots in small, rural Nazarene churches. These and many other leaders and pastors have been influenced by small churches.
Further evidence supporting the point that small churches do indeed produce leaders can be found in a survey conducted by the Association of Nazarene Sociologists and Researchers (ANSR). A 1996 ANSR poll asked pastors, “What was the size of the congregation that most influenced your acceptance of the call to preach?” Fiftysix percent indicated it was a church with less than 100 members.3 This is a striking statistic when one considers the fact that in 1996, only 26% of Nazarene members were in churches with less than 100 members. In other words, the influence of small churches was over-represented in the pastoral corps by 30%. I wish I had more recent data on the influence small churches have had on those called to the ministry, as it would be interesting to compare this poll to more recent ones.
Small Churches Work Everywhere
Small churches are everywhere. They are not confined to just rural settings, but can be found in the suburbs, in the cities, in wealthy as well as poor neighborhoods, and among all cultural groups. Table 2 shows the percentage of churches in urban, suburban, and rural community types by worship attendance size. It reveals that even in heavily populated areas, the large majority of churches average less than 100 in worship. The table also shows that in rural areas, only 4% of Nazarene churches reach 250 or more people. This is understandable when one considers that only 20% of the U.S. population lives in rural areas, yet more than 90% of U.S. territory is defined as rural. The population is just too spread out for churches to become large in rural areas.
“Research suggests there is roughly one congregation per every 500 people living in small town and country areas; roughly one congregation per every 1,500 people in metropolitan areas.”4 This statement suggests that churches could be much larger. If just half of the population attended church, then rural churches would average 250 people and metropolitan churches would average 750. However, statistics show that the vast majority of churches never reach these sizes, and I imagine there must be a variety of reasons why. Therefore, I would suggest that we need many more small churches. We need more in rural areas because of the size of the territory, and we need more in metropolitan areas because of the size of the population.
Table 2: USA/Canada Churches of the Nazarene by Community Type and Size, 2009
Small churches also make up the majority of every ethnic group’s congregations. Table 3 shows the percentage of churches among the largest ethnic groups in the Church of the Nazarene by worship attendance size. It reveals that in several of these ethnic groups, more than 80% of their congregations average less than 100 people. (Haitian congregations have the lowest percentage of churches under 100 [60%], and the highest percentage of churches with 250 or more [10%]). Do you want to reach a particular cultural group near you? Chances are they grew up and will feel comfortable in a small church.
Table 3: USA/Canada Churches of the Nazarene by Ethnic Group and Size, 2009
Nothing I have written here should be taken as a negative against large churches. All I’ve tried to show is that the small church is by far the most common-size church, small churches do make a significant impact within the Church of the Nazarene and for the kingdom of God, and small churches are effective in all kinds of settings. By accepting the small church as the norm, wouldn’t we start a lot more churches? Wouldn’t we expand the number of those in our Nazarene fellowship and the number reached for the kingdom of God? Wouldn’t a lot of small churches make a huge impact? “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into a large amount of flour until it worked all through the dough” (Matthew 13:33).
- This has been documented in several ways, including by Faith Communities Today in A Report on Religion in the United States Today, by Carl S. Dudley and David. A. Roozen, 2001 (available online at www.faithcommunitiestoday.org), and “Understanding Church Size Based on Empirical Data,” a presentation to the 2007 annual meeting of the Association of Nazarene Sociologists and Researchers by Bill M. Sullivan (available online at www.nazarene.org/ansr).
- New Nazarenes are those who become members either by profession of faith or by transferring from another denomination, as opposed to just transferring membership from one Nazarene church to another.
- ANSR Poll, Research Center, Church of the Nazarene Global Ministry Center, 1996. 4. Roozen, David A., American Congregations 2005 (Faith Communities Today, Hartford Institute for Religion Research, Hartford Seminary, 2007), 4. Available online at www.faithcommunitiestoday.org.