If you live in a metropolitan city as large as mine (Atlanta), you get the idea that every community has a mega-church, or, at the very least, you’re a stone’s throw from a town that has one. Not so, according to a Duke University study1 researching America’s congregations.
Of course I was aware that mega-churches (1,000 or more regular participants) are not the norm, but it was eye-opening to me how skewed the statistics are against them.
Let me break it down for you:
59% of all churches ………..7-99 regular worshippers
35% of all churches………………..100-499 regulars
4% of all churches……………..500-999 regulars
2.5% of all churches…….1,000 + regular attenders
The research actually shows the median size of churches in the U.S. is 75 weekly worshippers. The study did extrapolate that the amount of mega-churches is rising rapidly though still far, far from the number of smaller to mid-sized congregations.
Nearly a third of my lifetime was spent in a mega-church context. In Hammond, Indiana my childhood church was a whopping 10,000+ in weekly attendance. Next, I was saved and baptized and called to preach in my early teens at a Decatur, Georgia congregation of 2,000. My college experience included membership in a church of nearly 10,000.
For two-thirds of my time on this planet, the average size church I’ve either pastored or participated in has been around 225. If I only tabulated those congregations I served as senior pastor, the number would fall to 100 on average.
Most weeks of my 17 years as pastor I felt like a failure because I could never seem to “grow a church” in league with what I felt was the national trend. I was not alone in my tribe. Later, I found out that – alarmingly – 70% of pastors wish they could resign their work posthaste, if only they knew they could support their families.2 40% do so eventually. Thankfully, I never went there. Perhaps it’s because I felt incapably trained to do anything else but preach. Perhaps, but perhaps not.
My favorite thing on earth is to expound the scriptures to hungry hearts and am loathe to picture myself in any other enterprise. That, and I’m pretty adamant about my call, which was pretty doggone supernatural. And my wife is awesome.
These days, I’m nearly 55 and I don’t have a church per se, but I still rock the pastor role pretty heavy – just in a more reduced and relaxed context.
I’m learning the living room serves as a pretty awesome sanctuary for hungry hearts. I do a lot of “Father Tim-type”3 shepherding and caring of souls one-on-one, and I be loving it! Local church ministry could’ve destroyed my marriage. I say ‘could’ve’ because (again) my wife is too awesome for words. I devoted so much of my soul to the work I often had only leftovers for Sandy and Graham. It was pretty telling when – three years after my resignation – Sandy looked over at me as we sat in our ‘sanctuary’ one afternoon and said
I can tell you like me again.
Well, how do you do, Scott…
For me, that was pretty darn eye-opening. I think we’ll remain in the lowest quadrant of the 59% for now. This is my lot – and it’s a lot. Ministry is cool again.
1 Duke University’s 2010 National Congregations Study
2 Schaeffer Institute of Church Leadership Development
3 Jan Karon’s Mitford novels have refreshed and repurposed me in ministry like no other. I’m grateful to that nurse who lent me her copy of the first volume back in 2006. She’ll never know what she did for my dry soul.