Can A Church Be Too Big?

The Bible does not talk about a minimum, maximum, or “ideal” size for a church. (In fact, “church” was a new concept for most of the Bible.) We know that 3,000 believers were added to the fellowship in one day, when Peter preached to the crowd in Jerusalem on Pentecost (Acts 2:41 — a fact that I have heard used to defend megachurches, although the Bible does not tell us that all of these people became part of the same local fellowship). We also know that by Acts 7, the Apostles had to delegate authority for various operations of the ministry of the early Church. And by the time Paul mentored Titus and Timothy, there were leadership structures in place for church governance. But that’s about it. So although Scripture records several facts that indicate church growth, it is not a church-growth handbook.

The answer to the question of whether a church can be too big will therefore depend largely on your assumptions about church. These include theological assumptions about the nature and purpose of church (ecclesiology), followed by anthropological and then philosophical assumptions about how that nature and purpose(s) are best accomplished. These assumptions determine a church’s everyday practices in every area of its life and work, from leadership structures to discipleship strategies to worship styles.

(Of course, I have my own assumptions. And just like everyone else, I believe my assumptions are the most correct.)

As a church grows, it faces new challenges. A church of 1,500 will have different challenges than a church of 150. (But make no mistake, they both have challenges.) Again, assumptions about church will dictate how leaders approach and manage these challenges. But there is nothing inherently better (more “biblical,” “moral” or “spiritual”) about a church of 150 vis à vis a church of 1,500. Each has its unique strengths and limitations, and there are many ways to “do” church, from mega to micro.

In addition, any conversation about specific numbers will eventually run aground on technicalities. For example, if someone thinks that a church of 500 people is an “ideal” size, does that mean 500 regular attenders? 500 on the membership rolls? 500 including every adult, child, and their dog in attendance on a given Sunday, or just adults in the worship service? 500 per service, or total in all services? And if 500 is ideal, is 501 too many? Where is the “tipping point”?

So, is there an objective answer to the question, “Can a church be too big?”

I would suggest there is, and I would suggest the answer is this:

A church is “too big” when it does not have adequate leadership for its size.

By “adequate,” I’m talking about not only quantity, but also quality. By “quality,” I am referring to qualifications, and by “qualifications,” I am not just referring to organizational leadership skills or a willingness to volunteer. I am referring to spiritually mature, theologically formed disciples who are equipped with the ability to effectively steward (oversee) the resources with which they have been entrusted.

This type of leadership development takes time. Time to mature in Christlikeness, in theological formation, and in wisdom. Time to teach and train in leadership understanding, awareness, and skill, and to impart missional and operational values. It also requires intentionality: deliberate, focused effort on developing and maintaining a culture of continuous discipleship and leadership development.

I believe it is the presence of absence of these factors—time and intentionality, not outright church size—that determine whether or not a church is “too big.”

A larger church will naturally need more leaders. And the faster a church grows, the greater the risk it will not have enough qualified leaders, as numerical growth outpaces the time required to develop those leaders. But a small church can also have inadequate leadership for its size. And I believe that any church in which the majority of leadership authority and responsibility rests on one person is an unbalanced and unhealthy organization.

What do you think?

Do you believe a church can be too big or too small?
What assumptions shape your practice of church?
Do you have adequate leadership for your size? What are the challenges you are facing?

Angie Ward