Church Size and Spiritual Belief

December 7, 2009 by

Church size matters. Well, not really, but it can have an interesting affect on the spiritual beliefs of a congregation.

Despite the persistent perception that mega-churches somehow water down the faith in order to attract people, research shows that members of larger churches consistently have more orthodox beliefs. A Barna survey released in October shows significant differences in belief between churches of fewer than 100 people and churches of more than 1,000 people.

On every single belief indicator–questions ranging from the accuracy of the Bible, to the responsibility for personal evangelism, to the reality of Satan–people attending larger churches were more likely to give the orthodox response. The differences ranged from as low as 9% to as high as 25%.

When the research pushed beyond belief to practice, large church attendees were 17% more likely to be active across seven different behavioral indicators (attending church, reading the Bible volunteering at church, etc.).

So can we finally put to rest the idea that mega-churches are somehow weak on theology?

Size of the Numbers
On a less related note, the study found that 41% of adults attend a church of fewer than 100 people. If you push the congregation size to 200 you account for 64% of church attendees. Only 9% attend a church with 1,000 or more people.

Post By:

Kevin D. Hendricks

When Kevin isn't busy as the editor of Church Marketing Sucks, he runs his own writing and editing company, Monkey Outta Nowhere. Kevin has been blogging since 1998, runs the hyperlocal site West St. Paul Reader, and has published several books, including 137 Books in One Year: How to Fall in Love With Reading, The Stephanies and all of our church communication books.
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14 Responses to “Church Size and Spiritual Belief”

  • Gideon
    December 7, 2009

    Living and growing up in a city covered in megachurches (Tulsa) and this is only anecdotal.. but my experience with the individuals going to megachurches isn’t that they don’t have ‘orthodox’ beliefs, but rather they have little else but orthodox beliefs. They know the right ‘answers’ but don’t seem to understand the nuances of any of the theology, history, context, etc. They have ‘assertions’ about what Christianity is but seem to have very little understanding beyond that.
    Is that a problem? I don’t know. It’s certainly an issue everywhere, but it seems (again, anecdotal) that the megachurch fosters this particular problem a bit more than a smaller one.

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  • Robert Glenn Smith
    December 7, 2009

    Here’s the only issue I have with the study.
    It doesn’t address whether or not the churches of 1000+ just attract these types of people or if they are producing them.
    Maybe the reason why the smaller churches are less doctrinally sound is because once someone becomes doctrinally sound they leave smaller churches.

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  • bondChristian
    December 7, 2009

    Yes, I think those who have a problem with big churches often come to them from a small church mindset. In a small church, you’re greeted by people you know each week. So a small-churcher goes to a large church and fails to be greeted that way by anyone. Part of it then is the connection level. At a large church, you have to put forth more effort to connect personally.
    Also, small-churchers will feel their doctrine is more sound because it’s more specialized for them. Niche churches have niche doctrines and practices. Not wrong, just different.
    -Marshall Jones Jr.

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  • bondChristian
    December 7, 2009

    On the other hand (now that I think about it), the research here might be a bit skewed. I mean, who defines what orthodox doctrine is? Isn’t it just conservative doctrine, which usually implies it’s what most believe?
    In that case, of course the large churches will seem more orthodox. It’s because they’re the churches who define what orthodox is. By definition, you can’t have an unorthodox 99%, right?
    I’m not sure I’m making sense here (hunger is getting to me). Just some thoughts though. By the way, I’m both a small church and large church member (two churches).
    -Marshall Jones Jr.

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  • Jon Allen
    December 7, 2009

    This is an interesting result, however I would suspect that the cause does not lie in the size of the congregation, but in the quality of the teaching and the availability of response opportunities.
    I am in no way saying anything negative about the teaching in smaller churches, but it would stand to reason that a “mega-church” would have a teaching pastor who is extremely knowledgeable and an excellent communicator. That would likely lead to a better understanding of the scriptures on average.
    Although it takes more initiative in a large church to get involved, once that step is taken, there are often more opportunites for ministry than in smaller churches. There is a greater variety of ministries with more resources supporting their success.
    Just from a logical standpoint that makes some sense to me. This is, of course, on the average. There are small churches with excellent teaching and varied ministries and there are megachurches with “watered-down” teaching and few opportunities for ministry. This is just my assessment.

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  • Kevin D. Hendricks
    December 7, 2009

    Gideon, that’s an interesting theory, but it doesn’t explain why small churches seem to producing people with less orthodox beliefs.
    Robert Glenn Smith, if people become doctrinally sound in small churches then leave, then why are the people who stay in small churches not as doctrinally sound?
    Marshall Jones Jr., the definition of orthodox, at least for this discussion, would be defined by Barna, since they did the research. They have a pretty specific criteria for how they define ‘born again’ and ‘evangelical,’ and it comes from basic belief questions–do you believe in a real, physical hell, do you believe the Bible is accurate, do you believe good deeds can get you into heaven, etc. It’s not defined by churches but by the researcher.
    Jon Allen, that’s a great point. I don’t think anyone is claiming there’s a direct, causal connection between the size of the church and the orthodoxness of the belief. There’s obviously something else causing it, and perhaps it has to do with the resources available to a larger church, like you note.

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  • Betsy
    December 8, 2009

    I think the methods used by the pastors of these organizations are what make the parishioners in larger churches more orthodox.
    An ambitious, big ego pastor uses a particular language to ingrain the desired practices of the church in the minds of the people. This is about charisma, not about calling. It’s about narcissism, not holiness.
    Pastors who start in smaller churches, but branch out to grow membership immediately rather than nurture and get to know the members already there are looking for something more that is ego driven. This is a bad sign right off the bat and should be recognized as such.
    It is unfortunate that people do not recognize the use of language techniques that contemporary clergy use to get their desired message and outcome to the congregation.
    Larger congregations of late are preaching more of a “prosperity doctrine” and pieces of the bible that are relevant to their message are pulled out and harped on, hammered on, and twisted to fit their message of how God wants you to be wealthy, happy, and prosperous in whatever you wish to do. Only these verses are necessary to know and to repeat. Reading the whole bible isn’t really necessary when your pastor has his own book he wants you to read. So, really, in these larger churches, is the bible even relevant?

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  • Jon Allen
    December 8, 2009

    Betsy, I believe your comment is an unfounded generalization. I find that these types of comments most often come from people who don’t understand larger churches or have had only limited experience in one or two. I used to feel like this until I was a part of one.
    The presumption that larger churches teach prosperity and easy-Christianity is simply not true. Some do, but so do some small churches. On the whole, larger churches teaching is just as sound and comprehensive as smaller churches.
    I would consider the language techniques you mentioned good teaching and good communication.

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  • Ken Eastburn
    December 8, 2009

    I’m thinking I’m going to agree with the previous comment that said that larger churches can afford to hire someone whose only job is to preach.
    I am surprised, though. I’ll admit that I’ve always thought megachurches to water down the gospel and that this is how they actually get to be megachurches.
    But, there is something to be said for understanding the nuances of faith.
    Much to think about.

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  • Kevin D. Hendricks
    December 9, 2009

    So Betsy, an ego-driven pastor with lots of charisma who focuses on prosperity more than the Bible actually results in members with more orthodox beliefs? How does that work?
    This is exactly the type of generalization I was suggesting should be put to rest. If you’ve got some research to back that up, great. But this research would seem to suggest the opposite.

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  • Sean Salter
    December 15, 2009

    The old saying “size doesn’t matter” is true.
    and this report is a bunch of donkey dung doo doo that doesn’t deserve to be discussed. srsly.
    First off, the report interviewed 3,000 people. . . not a large enough pool of people to be taken as a serious report.
    If these people wanted to have a more accurate assessment, they would have pulled from a MUCH larger pool, and then crossed examine responses and compare them to denominations and the doctrines they teach, was well as size.
    Only the unwise and foolish request research to back up statements. If you have common sense and wisdom, research, you don’t need. . . just sayin.
    Studies do one of two things. They either 1.) tell us something wisdom and common sense already teaches us 2.) Illustrate someone’s agenda. Thats all. Nothing to see or learn from here.
    So we discovered that people from large churches are more likely to posses the ability to regurgitate a small list of “orthodox” beliefs. Why can I say that? The study was done so poorly that I can make that conclusion from it.
    A fool would also believe that he is ready to ride a motorcycle out on the streets because he aced a written exam about how to ride a motorcycle. (meaning, just because someone can get an A+ on a multiple choice test in economics, doesn’t mean he is going to take $100 and turn it into a $1,000)
    Did they ask these mega-church attenders questions that might illustrate how they have several unbiblical beliefs like tithing? I doubt it.
    What is orthodox, and why is it the pinnacle anyways? At the end of the day, all God cares about is do you love Jesus and profess he died for your sins, do you love your neighbor as yourself.

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  • Sheila
    January 14, 2010

    I would like to say to Sean that I personally haven’t seen a lot of wisdom or commonsense in church. So I do think it is wise to request research to back up statements. Perhaps the church would stop assuming that it is achieving something when it has no evidence. And since I haven’t read the study, I am not prepared to say much else about the study other than thank God for the Barna Group who challenge us to think before we assume.

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  • Church Lake Worth
    March 17, 2010

    Wow, that’s all very surprising data. I guess the assumption is to become larger (like expanding major league baseball) is to water it down. I know on the other side, part of a growing congregation of 150, that the more people get involved – the more want to get involved. Whether in bible study or on a work party. As a Lutheran LCMS church, I’d like to think we’re fairly orthodox and conservative to the Bible, so go figure.

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  • LouAnn
    February 8, 2011

    The interesting thing about studies is the best conclusion is to study it more.

    As for people saying large churches water down faith, perhaps that’s been their experience.

    As for people who say that members of small churches have a less cohesive set of beliefs (relatively speaking, hedge here, hedge there), perhaps that’s been their experience.

    I thought we were all on the same team — large or small. And if we’re comparing sizes, like us humans love to do, then we ought to stop it right now. That’s unhealthy. And it’s not about size, it’s about the quality of the education and the passion of the people.

    I’ve been to large — lousy and excellent — and small — lousy and excellent. And all I can tell you, is I’m getting better at spotting authenticity. And I’m thankful for that.

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