What Size is Our Congregation?

By Dan Hotchkiss

It’s harder to size up a congregation than it used to be. It’s still worth trying, though, because no one fact says more about a group of human beings than its size. A group of 20 people behaves differently from a group of 200, or 400, or 800. The question is: which number tells what size a congregation is?

Once upon a time, you could say with confidence that the best measure of a church’s size was its average worship attendance. That idea was the basis of the familiar church-size categories first set forth in 1983 by Arlin Rothauge. If you knew a church was Family, Pastoral, Program, or Corporate-sized, you could say a lot about how it was likely to behave and predict many of the challenges it was apt to face.

For churches that approach life the way most white, mainline Protestant churches did in 1983, Rothauge’s categories—and the literature they spawned, including Alice Mann’s The In-Between Church and Raising the Roof—can still be used quite simply and directly. Susan Beaumont’s Inside the Large Congregation extends and updates the categories to address different patterns found in larger groups: Multi-Celled, Professional, Strategic, and Matrix. I use these categories all the time, and leaders tell me they bring clarity to what seemed incomprehensible.

But there’s a risk in thinking we know more than we do. Congregations are complex, unique, and open-ended. As Rothauge himself warns, using “fixed categories to examine a living organism” can tempt us imagine we’ve pinned down what remains a mystery. At the very least, he says, we need to ask, “In what given moment did we mean to describe that social process?” If a congregation is an organism, it will change—indeed, “a new shape and more appropriate destiny [for congregations] may be in the making!”

We may well hope so. In 1983, the career path of a mainline Protestant church was measured by its capacity to support paid staff, build buildings, and sustain a balanced program of activities, committees, and outreach efforts. We forget how recently this standard of success was set. A century ago, it was rare for a congregation to have more than 100 or so active members. The typical church building was a house of worship—sans office, classrooms, and the other trappings of the “institutional church.” For what churches expected of themselves then, that was enough—but now many churches expect more.

Such shifts in expectation make a big difference to the way size categories play out in the life of congregations. One person can speak before thousands, but to run an institution of a thousand takes a structure that divides them into hundreds, fifties, and tens. The progression from the Family to Pastoral, Program, and Corporate-sized church tells the story of those structural changes.

But not every congregation chooses to become an institution. Many churches keep on operating with what now seems a tiny staff—one minister, perhaps a part-time secretary, someone to play the organ or piano. In the past this was made possible by a relative abundance of free labor—mainly from the women of the congregation. But then as now, it makes a lot of difference what a church or synagogue expects of itself. A group with a simple, static purpose can manage more informally than a more ambitious group of the same size.

Today, as in the past, many congregations are in flux, and expectations once again are at the heart of it. Rates of religious affiliation have declined to levels not seen since the 1920s. Among those who affiliate, rates of attendance have declined to what may be unprecedented levels.

We see a wave of experiments with new ways of gathering for religious purposes. Denominations and large congregations—motivated partly by alarm at the deterioration of old ways, partly by enthusiasm for inventing something fresh—have started to compete for some of the new action. Established institutions that once sneered at viral movements like Vineyard and Chabad now look for ways to imitate them, fostering their own house churches, havurah groups. Using social media, once-stuffy congregations (and some that are still stuffy) convene prayer and study groups in coffee shops, workplaces, and micropubs.

When such efforts succeed, they diminish the simplifying value of the old size measures and create a need for new ones. A congregation that has more than a single entry point needs more than a single headcount.

So how do you tell what size your congregation is? The right metric depends, as it always has, on the question you are asking:

If you want to know how many seats you need or how many parking spaces, attendance at your largest frequent gathering is still the most important number. For most churches this will be a worship service. For a synagogues it is more apt to be an education time.

If you want to know whether you are staffed or housed appropriately, you need to think about your congregation’s current expectations of itself. Affluence is also an important factor, because wealthy people hire more help and live in bigger houses than poor people do.

If you want to “act your size” organizationally, you need to pay attention to the number who actually participates in making decisions.

Most congregations need to pay more attention than they do to the number of people who give significant financial support. If you are getting more and more from fewer households, that is a concern.

No matter what you’re counting, trends matter more than absolute amounts.

If we were once too ready to declare that we had found the key and squeezed out all the mystery from congregations, today it sometimes seems we feel only the shifting ground under our feet. Some of us react to this by clinging tighter to the things we think we know. Others revel in the chaos, expect only novelty, and quit looking for patterns altogether.

Size still matters—but there is no single number that sums up a congregation. For what it’s worth, there never was.

Dan Hotchkiss consults with congregations and other mission-driven groups from his home near Boston. Dan’s best-selling Alban book Governance and Ministry: Rethinking Board Leadership, has helped hundreds of churches, synagogues, and non-profit organizations to streamline their structure and become more mission-focused and effective.