Learning from larger churches

What leaders of smaller congregations can learn from larger churches to keep single members happy and committed

‘Let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another.’ Hebrews 10 v 24-25

The size of the average church has been in decline for some time, but there’s one kind of church that’s bucking the trend. Recent decades have seen a drift of worshippers from small, local congregations to large churches and so-called ‘megachurches’.

In the UK, a megachurch is defined as one with over 2,000 members, and there are currently 16 of them in the UK – the largest being Hillsong in London, with a membership of over 8,000. However, most cities and towns will have at least one large church, with congregations numbering from 350 to 1,000 or more. While these large churches grow, smaller, local congregations often dwindle and struggle to survive. In fact, according to the latest English Church Census, just five per cent of the 37,500 churches in England are home to almost third of the nation’s churchgoers, and this trend is set to continue.

Younger adults (teens to 30s) seem particularly drawn to larger churches – indeed, many large churches market themselves largely at students and young professionals. This means smaller churches face losing the generation of people who may be getting married, starting families, and producing the next generation of members – leading to an ageing congregation and an uncertain future. It can also lead to a ‘brain drain’ effect where younger members with the time, energy, talent and drive to help a church grow and thrive are lost forever. This can be particularly devastating in rural areas, where people may reject their small village church to travel to the nearest town for a more sizeable Christian community. Sadly, many rural churches have already been forced to close.

So why are megachurches and other large churches so attractive to younger people and singles?

‘There are major advantages that come with scale, and some large churches thrive by offering a range of services or small groups that serve the tastes, needs and circumstances of a wide constituency,’ explains Dr Mathew Guest from Durham University’s Department of Theology and Religion, an expert in contemporary Christian churches. ‘Single people may feel less isolated within a large church simply by virtue of not being the only single person there, and also having gatherings that reflect their circumstances, such as a singles group. However, not all individuals wish to be “singled out”, preferring to integrate with a wider group within a church and not be defined by their lack of a marriage partner.

‘Smaller churches may offer a more supportive experience of community, by virtue of being more intimate and less anonymous. On the other hand, a smaller church can feel all the more oppressive, if it promotes a particular line on marriage and family. Generally, people like to keep company with others who are like themselves. One question that arises would be: how might churches see themselves as serving single people? Some churches may see serving single people as chiefly about maximising their chances of meeting suitable marriage partners. Some singles may appreciate that, while others might take exception to being perceived as unfulfilled because of their single status.’

So, what can smaller churches learn from large churches, in order to keep single members happy and committed? And what unique qualities can small churches capitalise on to serve their congregation’s needs?

The chance to meet potential partners

I was one of only two single members in my previous church – both women. Clearly, I wasn’t going to meet a Christian husband there!’ Jane, 32

‘Megachurches [and larger churches] provide a larger pool of potential life partners, and some actually have groups and events specifically for singles,’ says Dr Mark Cartledge from Regent University School of Divinity, who ran a research project into UK megachurches at the University of Birmingham.

Many single Christians hope to find a spouse who shares their faith, so naturally they’re attracted to churches with a large number of other singles. Some large churches provide social events for singles to meet and mingle, such as Holy Trinity Brompton’s monthly “First Friday” gatherings in wine bars around London. Other churches even offer speed dating and similar events.

What you can do:

  • Look at ways to help members widen their Christian social circle (and meet potential partners). Consider joining up with other churches in the area for shared social events – for instance, a cheese and wine evening, barn dance or church picnic.
  • Encourage members to set up local Christian social groups, such as a walking group or monthly pub meal, and support them by sharing information with other local church leaders.
  • Be positive and encouraging about singles exploring other means of meeting potential partners, such as Christian dating websites (you can learn more about that here.

Opportunities to get involved… or to stay anonymous

‘I have a lot going on in my life, and I don’t have the energy to do much at church. I value the warm welcome, but then I prefer to sit at the back and leave quietly – no questions, no expectations.’ Robert, 41

‘The demands in [larger churches] are not great, at least initially,’ says Dr Cartledge. ‘You can come as a spectator for quite a while before you make up your mind whether to stay or go.’

In large churches, people can get lost in the crowd if they wish. This can be a relief to those who prefer to avoid attention or don’t want to be targeted for volunteering. However, many people are ultimately keen to get involved, and large churches also offer countless opportunities to run groups or get involved in ministries. In fact, 54 per cent of people in large churches volunteer in some capacity – a higher percentage than in smaller churches.

What you can do:

  • It’s essential to make new people feel welcome (a positive feature of large churches), but it’s also important to give them space. Allow people to experience the church in their own time, with the minimum of pressure, and don’t try to sign them up to get involved too quickly.
  • However, ensure you provide opportunities for members to get involved if they want to, and to explore their talents and how they’d like to contribute – singles especially often feel excluded from leadership roles. Getting involved also encourages a stronger commitment to the church, and makes people feel valued. Empower your volunteers and your church may thrive and grow as a result.

A dynamic worship experience

'I love the worship at my [large] church – it’s dynamic, exciting and real. The lifeless dirge at my local church just doesn’t compare.’ Alison, 26

‘Younger people are attracted by the worship culture of large churches,’ says Dr Cartledge. ‘It feels cool and doesn’t demand much. Research suggests megachurches are good at attracting and keeping men because they don't look or feel like traditional churches.’

Large churches have the money, resources and staff to produce a slick and professional worship ‘experience’. They tend to use high-energy, pop-style worship songs, led by a band with multi-media elements. This often appeals to people in their 20s and 30s.

What you can do:

  • Small churches can’t hope to recreate the high-octane experience of hundreds or thousands of people losing themselves in loud, energetic worship songs, with a band, multi-media backdrops and light shows. Neither should they try to, as many people don’t find this style conducive to worship, preferring a more traditional or contemplative approach. However, whatever worship style you favour, you can strive to do it with skill, proficiency and authenticity.
  • Be open to exploring alternative styles of worship within services – chat to your parishioners about what they’d like to try.
  • Many small churches join together with others several times a year for a ‘celebration’ service, which give members a bigger corporate worship experience.

Activities to suit everyone

'My village church had a mother and toddler group, and lunches for retired people, which is great – but there was nothing for a young, single man. I felt invisible and struggled to get to know anyone.’ Keith, 29

‘Many young professionals are looking for social networks to plug into and make friends,’ says Dr Cartledge. ‘The small group structure used by megachurches provide the social networks to help newcomers integrate and make friends.’

Most large churches have a dizzying number of activities happening every day of the week, from the spiritual to the social, aimed at every demographic in the church. They also tend to assign members to smaller ‘cell’ groups to allow closer relationships to develop. These are important for developing friendships and an attachment to the church community.

What you can do:

  • With a small congregation, there are limits to what you can provide. However, you can be mindful of having social activities that are inclusive of everyone, regardless of age or marital status – for instance, sports activities, a dinner club or book group.
  • Canvas church members about the activities they’d like and encourage them to run events themselves – and to invite friends along (also a good way of introducing people to the church).
  • Consider linking up with other churches in the area to allow for a broader range of activities and more people to get involved.

Strategy and success

'I have a chance to grow spiritually here, instead of stagnating. The church is moving forward and has a clear vision, and the teaching is relevant to my life.’ Lydia, 25

Many people in large churches enjoy feeling part of a big, successful project, with strong leadership, a clear vision and a strategic approach – something that appeals to young professionals. There’s often a large pastoral team available to offer individual counselling and mentoring, practical discipleship and teaching that is pertinent to their lives.

What you can do:

  • A small church is just as capable as a large church of having a clear purpose and direction, communicating that to its members, and energising them to play their part.
  • The advantage of a small church is that leaders can have a clearer understanding of the circumstances of individual members, and can tailor their teaching to reflect that.
  • Be aware of the challenges facing members of your congregation, and offer pastoral support and individual guidance.

Build on your strengths as a small church

Large churches may be winning the numbers game at the moment, but small churches can offer some benefits that large churches struggle with. Don’t forget the unique advantages of smaller congregations, and build on them. These include:

  1. A strong sense of community: A small congregation allows people to get to know each other well, and to build strong relationships. This leads to members helping, supporting and looking out for each other, which is how a church should function.
  2. The importance of the local: These days, people are very mobile, travelling long distances daily for work and leisure, and often barely knowing their neighbours. Being a member of a local church can help people feel more rooted in their area, provide them with opportunities to get to know people and facilities nearby, and to have somewhere to come ‘home’ to.
  3. The value of the personal: While people sometimes enjoy anonymity, ultimately most people long to be known, loved and appreciated for who they are. Small churches allow a person to be an individual, not just a face in a crowd.
  4. The ability to adapt: Big churches are massive machines, and it can take a great deal of time and willpower to alter direction or adjust to changes. Smaller churches are potentially more flexible and able to adapt to changes in the lives of their congregations or their locality.
Catherine Francis, 13 July 2016