Is it easier to live out biblical Christianity in a small church or a big church?
Before engaging this question, it should be noted that there are healthy and unhealthy big and small churches.
What I’m comparing are healthy big churches, especially in areas (such as Texas) where Christianity still functions like a kind of de facto establishment, to healthy small churches in places more influenced by post-Christian culture and secularism.
I have spent time in both kinds of churches – a relatively large Baptist church of around 1,500 members in Waco, Texas, and a small Baptist church of around 100 members in South Bend, Indiana.
One model is not better than another. Instead, they come with a series of tradeoffs. Here are three of the most obvious:
1. A band of brethren versus a teeming crowd.
At small churches, especially in relatively secular areas, you tend to have a high rate of personal and collective commitment to the church.
I have been reminded of this in St. Andrews in Scotland, where I’m currently teaching a semester abroad course, in one impressionistic but telling way: almost everyone at our church here sings, and sings loud.
I can sing pretty well, and I sing loud in church, and such singing stands out at our church in Waco.
Not so much here – my voice joins with many others who are belting out praise to God.
In large churches, you are constantly fighting against the nominalism of many attendees.
But wouldn’t we prefer that those people be in church, whether they’re nominal or not?
If they’re constantly hearing faithful gospel preaching, they’re more likely to turn the corner spiritually in church, rather than while lying in bed on Sunday morning.
2. All hands on deck versus a deep bench.
In small churches, you tend to have a higher percentage of people serving in the church, which enhances those people’s buy-in.
In large churches, you tend to have a lower percentage of people mobilized, but you have more options (often talented options) on which to draw.
Because I could sing (and since I used to sing in a garage band), in South Bend I ended up leading worship on Sunday mornings.
In Waco, there are many talented, passionate musicians and singers, so I’ve gravitated toward teaching adult Sunday school, which probably syncs up more with my gifting.
Our music in South Bend was heartfelt but limited by available talent and sound system.
In Waco, our program can match up with the highest quality church music in America.
3. A church like a small group versus the critical need for small groups.
At a small church, you tend to know everybody, and everyone can feel like they’re spiritually connected to one another. You’ll probably end up praying and serving with almost everybody else at some point.
In a large church, it feels relatively anonymous. During the “welcome time,” you better not ask anybody, “Are you new here?” They probably have been going to the church longer than you.
Again, it is a good thing to influence more people with the message of the gospel, but a large church had better offer a robust, intentional program of small groups and adult Sunday schools, or you really will have serious problems with nominalism and people falling through the cracks.
In the end, pastors and other leaders need to pay attention to the kind of church God has given them and attend to the particular challenges that come along with them, wherever the church falls along the size continuum.
Thomas Kidd is professor of history at Baylor University and is a senior fellow at Baylor’s Institute for Studies of Religion. He blogs regularly at The Anxious Bench, where a version of this article first appeared. It is used with permission. You can follow him via his newsletter or on Twitter @ThomasSKidd.