Is bigger always better?

When it comes to congregations, is bigger always better?

On the American scene, megachurches — often popping up right along the interstate, packing in thousands Sunday after Sunday, topped by a cross as big as all outdoors — have definitely attracted the public’s attention. And for some folks, they are wonderful places, with top—notch preaching and music, with small groups for every age and interest, with deep commitments to growing faith and to community outreach.

But they are also not the only game in town.

The U.S. Congregational Life Survey found that the majority of congregations — 56 percent — are small, averaging fewer than 100 in worship. And despite their financial difficulties these small congregations demonstrate significant strength and vitality in a whole range of areas, scoring better than the biggest churches on measures such as fostering spiritual growth, sharing faith, having empowering leaders, and being places where most worshipers are actively involved.

Mid-sized congregations — those with 100 to 350 in worship — show strength too, particularly in caring for children and youth.

In general, large congregations with more than 350 in worship don’t outperform smaller congregations on any of the ten identified strengths. But that’s just in general — any particular large congregation might be doing tremendous work in one — or more — of the strengths.

Yet focusing too much on size — paying most attention to the biggest congregations — is not really the best way to measure congregational strength, the project’s researchers have found. It is understandable that people talk about size, sometimes even worry about it. This is especially true in small congregations where people may feel fragile as their members age. They worry that the place they love so dearly and which their families have worked so hard to make strong, often over generations, may shrink until they no longer can survive.

In denominations with declining memberships, “people tend to believe that all churches are losing members, and perhaps the end of the church is near,” said Deborah Bruce, one of the co-directors of the U.S. Congregational Life project. But some churches in every denomination — even the ones losing members overall — do experience rapid growth, and many denominations are looking closely at those growing congregations to see what’s happening there and what they can learn. (Other resources about church growth)

Some people also have the idea that congregations in areas experiencing rapid population growth will naturally be growing themselves. But that’s not always true — even in places with booming population growth, people pick and choose which congregations interest them most, which congregations meet their spiritual needs.

The survey found only three factors that regularly predict numerical growth — caring for children and youth, having high rates of participation in congregational activities, and welcoming new people. So new folks must be showing up to start with. Even a growing area can have a declining congregation, because “if you don’t have people coming in the door, you’re not going to be growing,” Bruce said.

Before the results were in, Bruce and co-director Cynthia Woolever expected that being located in an area of growing population and being a conservative Protestant church would be strong predictors of numerical growth — but that proved not to be the case.

Also, megachurches — despite all the attention they receive — are not the norm. “Megachurches are not as common as people would think,” Bruce said. Out of 350,000 congregations in the U.S., about 850 are considered megachurches, meaning they bring in 2,000 or more worshippers on a typical weekend (and are not Catholic parishes, since Catholic churches sometimes bring in big numbers because their boundaries are drawn to include large numbers of people). Fewer than 1 percent of U.S. congregations are true megachurches, “but they get a huge amount of press,” Bruce said.

It’s important to remember that what’s typical in the U.S. are small congregations, congregations that tend to have a number of strengths.