Small Congregations – Big Challenges

thriving or survivingWhile I have spent most of my life affiliated with large congregations, I realize that there are more small congregations than large ones and that small congregations increasingly face big challenges.


The 2015 FACT (Faith Communities Today) research (American Congregations 2015: Thriving and Surviving) was published earlier this month.  It is the latest survey in a series that started in 2000, and was repeated in 2005, 2008, 2010, and 2015.  Since the 2015 survey includes responses from over 4,400 randomly sampled congregations, it offers unparalleled insight into American Christianity.

More Small Congregations

For the first time ever in the FACT survey, small congregations are a majority.  The percentage of congregations with less than 100 in worship each week has increased from 46.6% in 2005 to 49.1% in 2010 to 57.9% in 2015 (p.2)

Additionally, the median worship attendance has continued to decline dropping from 129 in 2005 to 105 in 2010 to 80 in 2015 (p.2).

Bigger Challenges

Overall, smaller congregations (100 or fewer in worship) are only half as likely to exhibit spiritual vitality as larger congregations (p.2).

Innovation Recommended

Small congregations have fewer resources, but must resist the temptation to simply repeat the status quo or to rely on the oldest members to drive growth.

  • Implementing changes in worship is strongly correlated to both increased vitality and growth across all fifteen years of FACT surveys (p.10).
  • Congregations with less than one third of members who are seniors are significantly more likely to be growing than congregations with more than a third of members who are seniors (p.4).

So What?

Rather than focus on decline, small congregations will benefit from realistic visioning processes that build on best practices and leverage the latest data.  Those tasked with leading small congregations should also take time to learn about small churches that are thriving (for examples, see Cathy Lynn Grossman’s article “Tiny Churches, Big Hopes: Some Thrive Despite the Odds”).

  • Have you spent more of your life in small churches (100 or fewer attending worship on a typical Sunday) or in larger churches?
  • What are some of the relative strengths of small congregations when compared to larger congregations?
  • Think of the small congregation you know best. Would you describe it as thriving, doing okay, struggling, or unlikely to survive. Explain.


Check Out my Thoughts on Earlier FACT Research

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