This little church of mine, I’m gonna …

Attention former or current religion-beat professionals: It’s time for a moment of candor.

Raise your cyber-hand (in the comments section) if you are familiar with the term “microchurches.” Yes? No? Sort of?

I am rather embarrassed to say this, but you can put me in the “no” category. This is strange since I read all kinds of materials related to the broadly defined world of church growth theory and I also work in urban Washington, D.C., which a new Associated Press report portrays as the kind of place that should have “microchurches” blooming everywhere. In fact, I know people who attend small, niche, congregations that sound like these so-called “microchurches,” only I’ve never heard anyone use that term to describe them.

Strange. So here’s a pivotal chunk of this report from Waterloo, Iowa, which ran with a nail-that-trend headline that said, “Parishioners Flock To Microchurches For Worship.”

OK, I hear you already, asking: “If they are flocking to these congregations, why are they called “microchurches”? Hold on to that thought.

Microchurches have been around since New Testament days but have become more popular in the past decade. Though the groups differ widely in their practices, the majority serve less than 100 members, typically don’t own the building where they meet, often practice nondenominational evangelism and intentionally offer believers a worship atmosphere unlike that of established churches. Many of the groups wish to remain small and will plant a new congregation if numbers grow too large.

“People are yearning for a more intimate type of fellowship that they, in many cases, did not find in the very large church,” said Carol Childress, founder of FrameWorks, a church consulting firm based in Texas. “In the course of one generation, as a culture here in the United States, we made a 180-degree turn — from valuing strong individuals to searching for a sense of community.”

Interest in traditional churches started to wane about 30 years ago, said Pastor Brooks Hanes, who helped create the Kaio Church three years ago. The group was started by a handful of individuals who worshipped in devotees’ homes. Today, the congregation’s 50 members rent a Cedar Falls Baptist church for Sunday evening services and hold monthly discussions at area coffee shops and bars.

“Since the early ’80s, churches have been losing people,” Hanes said. “I’m learning that we need to go out into the community, out into our neighborhoods, to reach people. You can’t just expect people to walk in and enjoy church. They’re looking for something different.”

The story includes plenty of interesting information about Americans and their vague relationships with institutional religion, the kinds of numbers that typically show up in reports on the growth of nondenominational churches and what scholars have started calling a “post-denominational age.” Clearly, the Baby Boomers and the generations following in their wake are not big on institutional loyalty. They change churches all the time, shopping for the right fit.

All of that is well and good, as things go in this kind of story.

However, these kinds of numbers do not automatically point toward some new phenomenon called a “microchurch.” In fact, it’s clear many people — in big flocks — continue to cruise on over to their local post-denominational, nondenominational, even postmodern “we don’t do business as usual” megachurches.

So this story left me very confused. Why? What, pray tell, is the difference between a “microchurch” and a “house church,” a term that has been around for several decades? Can a “microchurch” simply be a “cell church” plant that is connected to a larger congregation or an established denomination? This seems to be the case, in the body of the story.

What about all of those tiny, declining congregations linked to the oldline Protestant denominations here in North America? I’ve seen statistics that 80-plus percent of Episcopal congregations struggle to find 85-125 active, participating members — a crucial hurdle if you want to pay the full salary and benefits for a pastor. Do all of those tiny oldline churches have the potential to become hip “microchurches”? Why not? They are churches and they are, well, micro in size.

One more set of questions: What about the clergy? Are they, as a rule, so-called “tent makers” who receive part-time pay for their church duties while holding down other jobs? Who ordains these men and women? How are they trained? To whom are they accountable, should something go wrong? How are they paid?

Tell me, once again, what exactly is a “microchurch”? That’s a rather important fact to nail down in a trend story of this kind.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • MattK

    “the majority serve less than 100 members”

    That’s most Protestant congregations in America.

  • Peter

    Don’t most Orthodox churches in the U.S. have less than 100 members?

  • Jerry

    I was one of those wondering when I suggested this story to get the perspective of the bloggers here. Based on Terry’s comments I looked a bit further. From what I could find out, I guess someone invented micro church as a counter to “mega church” and it stuck. So it seems that “microchurch” is mostly a rebranding of house church just like “podcast” is really an “mp3 download”.

  • Camnio Media

    never heard of micro churches, but off the topic that pictures looks neat.

  • tmatt


    Interesting question. Many (but not all) ethnic churches have huge memberships, but that may not be reflected in attendence other than in major services, visits by the bishop, etc. (in many, but not all cases). That’s kind of a Catholic pattern, too.

    The new convert friendly, pan-Orthodox parishes may be small, but make up for that with highly dedicated bodies of about 100-150 members. That would be my parish, for example. We have also helped start a mission and two campus ministries. Are we a MICROchurch?

  • MattK

    Peter, I wanted to say “most churches in America” but in my search for data I only found data on Protestant churches. I was talking with my bishop about membership a few weeks ago. He said it is almost impossible to calculate membership in the Orthodox Church.

  • Brooks

    If it means anything, the term “microchurch” was put upon me by the interviewer. I did not understand the term at first, but when she interviewed it made sense.

    The difference between an house church and a “micro” church is that house churches tend to meet in houses primarily. In our case, we started as a network of House Churches, Neil Cole style, and grew out of that model (ironically and happily) into what most people would call a “small church.”

    Immediately we lost most of our house church-involved planting team, during the few months we started a strategy to plant Kaio Church.

    Eventually God dropped a few more people and a few more families into our gospel community (now *there’s* a term I love, in reality that better describes our church than ‘micro church’) and now we are gaining more traction.

    Your point – and the questions raised – about tent-making are keen and spot-on. I am a full-time (OK laid-off) worker in the tech industry and part-time employee at Kaio Church. Living this way with my wife and five children has been difficult to say the least. I have struggled to find sympathetic leaders even with amazing networks such as Acts 29 (twice booted at BC, oddly enough), who apparently have said Kaio is too small and not growing exponentially “enough.”

    One of the other items of discussion not printed in the article was that my goal is to preach the gospel in such a way that the city will be changed into a community that loves Jesus. This means that I hope someday we will no longer fit the micro church moniker.

  • Jay

    One thing confusing about the article, GR posting and the comments is the false dichotomy between microchurches and megachurches. There are clearly at least three categories:

    1. Ordinary, normal churches, with the little steeple and the sign out front. To use tmatt’s rubric, they have enough money to pay one full-time pastor.

    2. House churches, which in most cases do not seem to be proud to be house churches — but rather hope to transition to normal churches.

    3. Megachurches, with thousands of members on the rolls and an ASA of at least 1000.

    Where do storefront churches fit? For some, they are a transition from #2 to #1. For others (a lot of Calvary Chapels that I know), that is their “normal” mode.

  • Chris Bolinger

    Brooks, thanks for posting a comment!

  • Dave

    Heckfire, my UU congregation is a microchurch by 3 of the 4 criteria!

  • Mari

    There is an old report I am thinking of of 1950 churches in Washington DC that list steeple churches, storefront, and townhouse churches. At least one steeple church has membership numbers that may put it in the micro-level, due to middle class flight. Strangely, a former storefront leveled the original building and became a steeple church.
    What is needed is a better definition of ‘micro’ and figuring out if long term goals play a part.

  • Paul

    I would say that the key distinction between a microchurch as defined in this article, and the majority of Protestant congregations in the United States that have under 100 members, is choice. There are indeed many congregations in the US that are small. Some have always been small. A great number more were once larger but are now small. They don’t have a desire – or plan – to be small. They simply are.

    A micro-church indicates intentionity. The goal is to remain small, because smallness of size is perceived to offer advantages that a larger group of worshipers might not have. One such goal is financial flexibility to respond in active ministry to a specific geographical area – namely the street or neighborhood where the micro-church meets. Without the expense and distraction of a physical property to maintain, a smaller group of worshipers might be able to apply their offerings to other purposes. Helping to support a full or part-time minister might (and I argue should) be one. Responding to the needs of the neighborhood would be another one. A related benefit could be focus – the ability (necessity) to focus ministry very, very specifically.

    Another issue that the article doesn’t deal with is how Biblical any sort of size-oriented model is. I don’t recall anywhere in Scripture where God or anyone else said ‘we’re going to worship this many, and only this many’. As well, I don’t remember anywhere in Scripture where God or anyone else set out the goal of growing as large as possible. Biblically, the distinction of a gathering of believers is the preaching of the Gospel. Any other metric beyond this may be novel or even effective, but runs the risk of continuing to distort the purpose of gatherings of God’s people.

  • Brian

    My hometown of St. Marys, PA, sports one of the smallest churches in the U.S.: Decker’s Chapel.

    Just wanted to pass that along.