How Large Should A Congregation Be?

megachurchA faithful HB reader wrote to ask about a good problem. His confessional Reformed congregation is growing. The question is how to proceed? Should the congregation expand the building or seek to establish new daughter congregations? Below is my reply.


It is great to read about growth in the congregation. This is a good problem to have. There are lots of opinions about this. One difficulty is that we don’t have much direction on this in the Scriptures. We don’t really know how large the NT congregations were. Some of them did meet in homes (Rom 16:5; Acts 1Cor 16:9; Col 4:15), so we can infer that they were probably not huge. They certainly weren’t megachurches. We have an idea of the average size of a synagogue and they weren’t megachurches (about 100 people).  In the absence of clear biblical direction we are in the realm of prudential judgment. These are largely matters of wisdom about which good people may disagree.

There are several things to think about simultaneously. One way to go at this problem is to ask what is the ideal ratio of pastors to congregants? I was told in seminary that the ideal is one pastor for everyone hundred people. My experience as a pastor over the last 25 years suggests that this is a good ratio. If this is true, then, so long as a congregation is well staffed, theoretically, it could grow as large as it wanted. Others, however, have argued that about 200 to 250 is the ideal number of people in the congregation and that after a congregation reaches 200 to 250 people it should begin daughtering new congregations. There is much to commend this way of thinking too. Let’s call the first approach the centralized model and the second the decentralized model. On the centralized model (with a large pastoral staff), then the idea is that the congregation expects people to commute to church. If the idea is to decentralize and plant smaller congregations in the area then the congregation is effectively taking churches to the people, as it were.

One way to sort out the differences is to ask and answer the question: “why are we here?” It might be that the decentralized model is more oriented toward reaching new people and the centralized model seems more oriented towards taking care of those folks already in the congregation. Nevertheless, we should not set these two goals against each other. In whatever setting we find ourselves we should seek to reach the lost and to teach the reached.

Another factor is the nature of the area serve by the congregation. If it is a large metropolitan area that might lead in one direction. If it is a geographically smaller, more compact area, that might lead in another direction. Obviously, a smaller congregation will be more intimate and people are likely to know one another a little better. A smaller congregation will also, however, be less able to do certain things because they will have fewer financial resources. A larger, centralized congregation will be more able to fund certain things (e.g., missions) but the trade-off is that people are less likely to know one another and to be connected personally to one another. In the centralized model “small groups” take on increased importance. Small groups (cell groups) can be very useful but they can be challenging as they have also been known to become little “churches within the church” (ecclesiolae in ecclesia).

So, before you can answer the question whether to expand a church building or daughter new congregations the church must first answer these sorts of questions:

  • What sort of church do we want to be?
  • What is our unique mission in this area?
  • How do we see the future of the congregation/congregations?
  • What model will most effectively reach people in our area with the Gospel and facilitate Christian growth of those whom we have reached?
  • What is the most sustainable way of growing the church?

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  1. My uncle was an SBC pastor (originally New Covenant/ Calvinistic later Dispensational/ Neo-Arminian) One of the few things we agreed upon in the details was his philosophy on church size. His basic method was this:

    1) Start with a church of less than 150 (target size)
    2) Grow the church to ~200 (active members not on the rolls but have not been seen since the last century members)
    3) Bring in an associate pastor and form a new “Sunday School” with the understanding it will be spun off to plant a new church.
    4) Add at least 1/3 of the largest givers in the church (voluntarily) to the new Sunday School
    5) Spin off a new congregation reducing the church size to back below 150

    Rinse (he was Baptist so maybe Dunk?) and repeat.

    I will say it worked very well and his primary congregation spun off a number of other congregations that all modeled the same behaviour.

    I suspect something similar could be done with any size congregation and with any size spin off. I know he made offers to a number of seminary students to come be “Sunday School Teachers” and few of them saw the burnout I see so commonly in the typical SBC seminary grad where something like 10 years after graduation 2/3 of them are no longer active Pastors.

  2. “A smaller congregation will also, however, be less able to do certain things because they will have fewer financial resources.” This is, of course, assuming the government of the church is Independent or Micro-Presbyterian (=Brethren)?

  3. The idea that congregational size is a function of how much a “pastor” can handle is founded upon an unBiblical supposition that a pastor is doing all the work; preaching, outreach, and diaconal ministries. It ignores the “priesthood of the saints.” In my view, the calculus for ideal size is a function of the number of ruling elders. For example, if you want to follow the pattern of the apostles, then 12 elders x 12 families per elder = 144, and if each family unit consist of 3 persons on average, then the maximum is 432.

  4. Scott,
    I appreciate the open ended nature of your reply here as the matter is often complex. As you know, I’m a great advocate of church planting (soon to begin our fourth), but is easy to come up with arbitrary guidelines that don’t fit the reality on the ground. In some contexts, a well-established church of say 100 people of whom 20 were traveling from a town 20 miles away should probably think of planting a daughter church. On the other hand, if you live in an isolated small town and you have 300 people who all come from the immediate vicinity, there may be no obvious place to plant.

    Another factor is the pastor’s gifting. Generally, the larger the church the stronger the preaching gift needs to be (since inevitably he cannot have the same personal relationships with everyone). I have seen men whose gifts were ideally suited to shepherd a church of 120 who were frustrated by their inability to grow the church further, in a church culture where perpetual growth is regarded as a necessary good.

    One inevitable challenge for a larger church, even with a larger pastoral staff and eldership, is tension between the two functions of an elder: leadership and pastoral ministry. It is hard to provide effective leadership by a committee of 60 elders, yet a larger church may need that number to provide adequate shepherding. What often tends to happen is the addition of another layer of leadership, either above the elders in the form of a smaller “executive session” or below them in a layer of lay pastoral associates, who are sort of elders but not quite. Either of these is hard to justify Biblically in my view, yet I have sympathy with the challenges that larger churches face. They may be active in church planting and yet because of their dynamics continue to attract many people (think Tenth Presbyterian under Phil Ryken). The church is not a country club that can tell people they have to wait until someone dies before they can join!

    And yes, if Presbyterian and Reformed churches work together they can and should be able to multiply their resources. It’s not always quite that simple though, especially when our presbyteries are quite widely spread geographically.

    • In some contexts, a well-established church of say 100 people of whom 20 were traveling from a town 20 miles away should probably think of planting a daughter church. On the other hand, if you live in an isolated small town and you have 300 people who all come from the immediate vicinity, there may be no obvious place to plant.

      This is great.

  5. I met a pastor a few years ago (he’s one of three) from a “larger” congregation of slightly over 2,000 members who is wary of small groups as a solution to spanning the church’s clerical needs. He feels (and I agree) that unless small groups are somehow tethered to a pastor or they may run the risk of drifting off in undesirable directions.

    I’m not sure how he would tie himself or his assistants to groups. Maybe require pastoral review of any bible study materials? I’m don’t know. But over the years I have seen people get into quirky situations using books by authors like Beth Moore, etc., as study guides. This kind of thing can then put the pastor into clean up and repair mode when he hears people saying things that are unbiblical or even heretical.

  6. Prof. Duguid’s point about people traveling to corporate worship seems important to me. Instead of thinking in terms of a congregation’s size we may want to focus more on the value of a church being a local church.

    In New England, where I serve as pastor, many people drive 30 or more minutes to corporate worship. Frankly, this makes it a lot more difficult for them to invite their neighbors to corporate worship and it also complicates pastoral care when some members of the congregation live 45 minutes to an hour away. In such an environment, as Prof. Duguid has suggested above, it makes more sense for a growing congregation to plant other churches.

    On the other hand, if three or four hundred people in the same area all wanted to belong to a NAPARC congregation, it is hard for me to see why having four congregations instead of one would be advantageous.

  7. How large should a congregation be?

    I’ve come to this conclusion: The congregation should be no larger than the number of people that all the pastors can minister to individually. In this context, by “pastors” I mean ordained Teaching Elders or Ministers in “full-time” service.

    I write this as a Ruling Elder in the PCA. Our church is the largest in our Presbytery and may be the largest PCA congregation in Mississippi south of Jackson. We have three full-time pastors (including the Senior Minister), one near-retirement pastor who is part-time in title only (such is his commitment to the church), and 16 “active” Ruling Elders on the Session.

    My personal experience with several churches over the years is that approximately 1/3 to 1/2 of the Ruling Elders on the Session at any point in time will be able to engage in meaningful/substantial/consistent/”quality” shepherding and pastoral care. (I can’t find exactly the right word, but I trust you know what I mean.) This rule of thumb seems to apply to a parish system, a small-group arrangement, or some other formal or informal system.

    I’m not criticizing Ruling Elders by writing this. My own experience this year has humbled me and taught me a great deal. Through a combination of family and personal health issues, plus unusual problems at work (tornado, major fire, funding cuts, transition to retirement), sadly I’ve been “missing in action” with regard to my elder duties for most of the year. My experience is not unique, of course. Each year, several brothers go through difficult times, as is common with all Christians. It’s called “life.” Add to that the demands at every stage of life – young men with advancing careers and growing families, middle-age men with aged parents and children in college, older men with health and strength issues of their own. That being said, it’s next to impossible to count on all Ruling Elders on the Session to carry their expected pastoral load each year, even when their spiritual lives are strong and they take their vows seriously. (I speak as one who is privileged to serve with a group of very godly men, many of whom put me to shame.) Of course, trials and afflictions should make us better servants of Christ (Romans 5:3-5, II Corinthians 1:3-7, James 1:2-4), but the Ruling Elder with a full-time “secular” job often will be absent from many of his church duties as he goes through the fire. I suppose all this is obvious, but it’s often overlooked. The facts of real life are a wondrous corrective to the best-laid plans.

    Let’s be generous and say that a pastor can minister effectively, on a personal level, to 200 communing and non-communing members. I don’t know many churches of 1000 members that have five full-time pastors, each engaged in real pastoral ministry. Given the trend toward “executive ministers” (one of the evils of our day, in my opinion), and other niche and specialized positions, many pastors tragically don’t see regular pastoral care as their role. In spite of all the best intentions to serve this group and that group, the flock as a whole may suffer.

    The solution? I don’t claim any special wisdom to come up with The Answer. I am sure of several things, however: If the pastors cannot know and minister to each church member individually, (1) There are not enough pastors, (2) The pastors need to rearrange their duties and priorities, or (3) The church is too large.

    NOTE: I sent this to a PCA Teaching Elder friend before I posted. He was concerned that I may be advocating a “three-office” view. That was not my intention. I hold firmly to the “two-office” view and the parity of the eldership. My concern was not with theory, but with ministry in the midst of life as it’s actually lived, the “boots on the ground,” so to speak. In an ideal situation, every Ruling Elder would carry out his assigned shepherding duties as consistently as every “full-time” Teaching Elder. Such is rarely, if ever, the case, though, and our view of the right size for the congregation must take this into account.

    • Thanks Frank for your thoughtful comment.

      I share your concern about the rise of “executive pastors” and niche ministries. I was taught to pastor all of God’s people, to be in their homes, to visit them in hospital (and nursing home), and even to attend their football games.

      I’m grateful for the good work of our ruling elders.

      Advocating a three-office view isn’t the worst of all possible worlds, seeing how there were three offices in Israel (prophet, priest, and king), that our Lord himself had these three offices, that he dispensed them to the Apostles, who then instituted pastors, elders, and deacons, and that the Apostolic Fathers (e.g., Ignatius c. 120s) repeatedly recognized these three offices.

      For good, biblical-theological account of the three-office view, see Derke Bergmsa’s essay. There’s a link here:

  8. Scott,

    You mention the possible sizes of churches in the NT (house churches; synagogue-sized congregations.) How large were prominent Reformation churches – Calvin’s congregation in Geneva, for instance and John Knox’s church (St. Giles?) in Edinburgh?

    Any lessons there?


    • There were three major parishes in the old city. According to population was 25K in 1560 but 15K by 1580. There were country parishes that served the outlying areas. Memory is that the city was divided into districts or quarters. It was a parish system, not a voluntary system.

      In short, I don’t know that Genevan practice helps us much. If time permits I’ll try to check more resources but I don’t think that the size of the congregation was flexible. We’re in a different (free church vs state-church) system.

  9. Thanks!

    Any historic examples of larger Reformed congregations in a free-church system (at least, examples from before the modern church-growth movement) that might be helpful.

    I would think a growing church is not such a modern phenomenon that there aren’t precedents.

    • Certainly there were growing churches in the earlier periods. I’ve studied the church orders of the Dutch Reformed churches. They struggled to get enough pastors. They tended to create large, under-staffed, churches.

      I’m less certain about, e.g., 18th and 19th-century American Reformed/Presbyterian practice regarding church growth.

  10. We should be careful not to romanticize small congregations simply because the vast majority of NAPARC churches are quite small. Here is a simple hypothetical: If 1,000 people in Escondido all wanted to belong to a confessionally reformed church, what would be gained by having 6 to 10 congregations instead of just one? It could be argued that none of the pastors in a single church would know every member of the church (or for that matter, the members wouldn’t know each other). But, doesn’t breaking the church up into multiple congregations simply guarantee the very same result? Yes, the pastor and members could know everyone in the congregation that has been divided off from the rest of the reformed Christians in Escondido – but they wouldn’t actually know any more of their fellow Christians by making this division.

    Furthermore, large churches are not a new phenomenon. For example, the Hagia Sophia and the Medieval cathedrals would all qualify as large churches.

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