Are Small Churches Better than Large Churches?

truemanIn the midst of a stimulating article in the new issue of Themelios on how to handle the decision to do a PhD, Westminster’s always provocative Carl Trueman offers a comment about church size that caught my attention:

“Second, church involvement brings with it a natural accountability at a very practical level. Here I guess I show my strong preference for smaller churches. I cannot prove from Scripture that a church should never consist of more than three hundred or so people, but I would argue that a church which is so big that the pastor who preaches cannot know every member by name, and something about their daily lives, needs, and struggles, is a church where the pastor cannot easily fulfill the obligations of a biblical shepherd of God’s flock. Put bluntly, I want to be in a church where my absence on Sunday will soon be noticed and where the pastor or elders can draw alongside me and ask the pertinent questions.

I want to be in a church where the eldership takes note if my behavior towards my wife or children is sub-par on a Sunday (hinting at much worse in private). I want to be in a church where I pray for the leadership and where they pray for me—not just in a generic sense of being part of the membership, but informed prayer based on real relationships. In other words, I want to be in a church where my pastor is, well, my pastor and not just that guy who is preaching over there in the distance on a Sunday morning. Put yourself in a small, faithful church, and the pastor is more than likely to hold you accountable to the basics of Christian belief and practice.”

I would love to hear what readers think of this.  Do you agree with Trueman?  Does your personal experience lead you to think that the theologian is off his rocker?  What arguments would you make either way?

I find myself agreeing with Trueman on a personal–though not necessarily exegetical–level.  I mean this as no rebuke against large churches.  But in my experience, smaller churches seem much more able to perform the ecclesiastical and spiritual duties enjoined upon local churches by the New Testament voices.

This does not mean that I think that big churches are bad or unscriptural.  I would not say that.  But it does seem to me that it is easier in some key ways for smaller churches to hold members accountable, care for one another, and that sort of thing.

What do you think?

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  • Owen,

    I’m an advocate for small churches but I don’t think that a small church is “better” than a large church or vice versa. A small church is very different from a large church, but God works mightily in any size church as long as His Word is proclaimed and modeled.

    My two cents.


  • Owen-

    Since I pastor a church larger than what Trueman thinks is ideal it’s probably no surprise that I find his thought process to have at least a hole or two in it. One glaring issue that I think his argument may not address is that large church that employs a plurality of elders. While our church may have 700+ on a Sunday morning I would dare say that there is not a member who is not personally related to at least one of our 9 Elders.

  • I’ve pastored in both a small rural church (250) and now in a large urban church (12,000). Both have advantages and disadvantages. I feel a bit of what Trueman is talking about, but I’ve been pleasantly surprised at the extent to which true community and pastoral shepherding is possible in a large church context. Of course, not everyone in our congregation knows our senior pastor. But (as Michael notes above) once you include the elders and under-shepherds, the shepherding gap isn’t as problematic as one might think.

    For me, the real difficulty with large church ministry is not an inability to shepherd effectively, nor do community. The more pressing danger is the temptation to rely upon all of the remarkable nature resources that attend a large church ministry (talented singers, cutting edge sound and video equipment, cafes, book stores, etc.,) as the primary fuel that drives the ministry. And at some point, we in the big church need to be very careful we don’t allow our increased capacity for showcasing our natural talent to be a substitute for the actual work of the Spirit. I think my church does a pretty good job with this, but the tension is always there.

    Now lest we be too critical of large churches as simply relying upon natural talent and ability, I think it is fair to point out that most small churches do the same, just are less successful at it. When I was ministering in a small church context, we put our best singers and teachers forward, and we used the best AV equipment we could afford. But when you have 12000 people to draw from, you’re singers are going to be a bit better, your teachers and preachers a bit more compelling. But the fact the big church has this stuff and the small church doesn’t typically isn’t because the small church isn’t trying to get it. It’s just they’re not as successful. Even a poor man can be a materialist.

    And one other thought regarding small church. Just as the large church ministry needs to be very careful about relying too much on natural gifting for success, the small church (most especially those committed to a small church model) need to be very careful about not adopting the small church model as a cop out. The large church, for all of its hang-up (both potential and actual) is driven by a grand vision to reach people for Christ. God help us to not content ourselves with reaching only a handful. Of course, this doesn’t mean every church need be large. Spinning off church plants is always a viable (though logistically tricky) option. But the small church pastor who intentionally tries to keep his church small with no thought of reaching people beyond those already in his congregation…well, something about that doesn’t square well with our Lord’s directive in Matthew 28:19-20.

  • Al Mather

    My wife and I talked about this some last evening. We would agree in general terms to what was being said.

    I can not imaging being a pastor of a 300 member plus church and knowing the members on the same level that I am becoming acquainted with the members of our much smaller fellowship here in Princeton, ME.


  • One more thought in addition to my (too) lengthy post above. The pastor must be careful to not see himself as the sole means of pastoral care. This can become a bit messianic if one isn’t careful. The model in 2 Timothy 2:2 is one in which the pastor equips others who equip others, on down the line. I as a pastor need to be reproducing myself. If the pastor of a church insists on being the only real force for pastoral care and discipleship in the church, then at some point he’s not really giving effective discipleship (since he isn’t reproducing himself) and the church will never grow beyond his personal capacity to disciple. Again, this isn’t to say a church should just keep growing and growing numerically. Maybe a spin-off is the best option. But the pastor who isn’t trying to reproduce himself is hamstringing the spiritual growth of his ministry.

  • James Taylor

    Having been part of a church with a 1000+ congregation where, in the main, effective care and pastoring was exercised by a well planned leadership structure, I tend to disagree with Trueman here.

    Whilst I think that the preaching pastor(s) do need to be in touch with and know about the concerns and struggles of the congregation in order to pastor effectively by their preaching, I do not think they need to know every individual in order to be able to do this.

    An effective small group system with good training of leaders and effective communication between leaders, those who train them, and preaching pastors helped to create, in our experience, a healthy church where individuals were looked after.

  • As someone relatively new to pastoring, I would have to say that excerpt resonates with me a great deal. I know I still have a long ways to go in learning healthy boundaries, etc., but I cannot imagine fulfilling my pastoral vocation with such a large church.

    That being said, our community is in the inner city, with very high needs and few elders thus far available. So our group of 30 is challenging to me already. When I see three-figures being related to as a small church, I find I have to sit down for a minute.

    Great quote, thanks!


  • good article! i really like your points.

    i cant agree fully, though, because i do think a lot depends on the emphasis of fellowship in the church. here is my experience: my previous church had less than 200 people, with a moderate emphasis on fellowship. i attended regularly, and was also involved in a small group. my current church has over 5000 people with a heavy emphasis on fellowship, and especially home groups. i see people from my church at least 3 times a week, but as many as 5 or 6 times each week.

    i serve more in my current church, because being more involved helps me see more how my gifts can fit in with our mission. i also feel more cared for in this church because people know more about what is going on in my life. i think the leaders that i know do a good job with shepherding our group, even though they are not elders. i have also been confronted more about sin, as well as exhorted more than in my previous church. furthermore, my church meets in different locations throughout the city, so the sunday service i go to has less than 200 people, and i have been over to the house of our head pastor on numerous occasions.

    all that is to say, i sometimes do wish i went to a smaller church and i see the advantages of smaller church. however, different churches have different structures that can accommodate more people and still be involved in each person’s life on a personal level. i also would agree with the point that the most important part is that God’s word is taught. and if that is happening, it seems natural that it might end up growing a lot as more and more people meet jesus.

  • Both Dr. Trueman’s thoughts and Gerald Hiestand’s comments are well worth pondering. A faithful pastor is a treasure, whether he’s in a large church or a small one. A shallow, man-centered pastor is a pain, whether in a small church or in a large one.

    I was a member of a church of under 200 people where the pastor had no interest in shepherding the people. I’m now in a church several times that size. My pastor and the other elders and the deacons are genuinely concerned about the spiritual state of the members.

    I love small churches, but the church in Jerusalem had thousands of members after its first day of existence. We’re on dangerous ground if we think the Lord didn’t know what he was doing on the day of Pentecost.

  • jim

    We just left our large church (700) for these reasons. We are now attending, and will likely join a small church where two pastors have already initiated meetings with me.

    One thing I noticed about the big church experience is that there were times when I really liked not being noticed. Based on discussions I’ve had with other men, there were a good amount of families who were just showing every Sunday to hear a good sermon, attend an occasional event, and basically not be bothered.

    As much as I detested it, that’s where I wound up, and my guess is that there are alot more just going through the motions than would care admit

  • But then, just when I thought we had the whole issue settled, along comes this study from Barna Research:

  • owenstrachan

    This is a great discussion, all. I appreciate the feedback, varied as it is, and I’m thinking over what various contributors have said.

    I have one thought that has developed in recent days that I’ll share in an upcoming post. Until then, good discussion. I don’t know why, but this blog draws thoughtful commenters in seemingly disproportionate fashion to others I’m aware of.