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Too Big to Grow: Helping Large Congregations to Stop the Rot

By Bob Jackson.

National attendance decline is concentrated in the larger churches

Most churches in Britain are small. The average Church of England parish has an attendance of 50 adults and 10 children. So, most of our ‘larger’ churches are not the well known mega-churches, but comparatively ordinary ones with an average Sunday attendance of, say, 150 or more, although congregations in the south are significantly bigger than in the north. It is said that the churches nationally in Britain are bleeding to death. If so, just where is the bleeding happening? The answer is: in the larger churches. Attendance at small churches is holding up very well, but in large ones it has been declining rapidly.

The evidence that this is the national pattern across the denominations is impressive. The table below is derived from the 1989 English Church Census and the 1998 English Church Attendance Survey. It relates to nearly 9000 churches of all denominations that answered both the surveys.

The larger the church in 1989 the greater the chances of it having a smaller congregation by 1998. Six out of ten of the very smallest churches actually grew in size in the period, but only one in ten of the largest churches grew.

The same findings are made when looking at smaller groups of churches, for example in Church of England dioceses. The table below shows the situation during the 1990s for adult Sunday attendance in one diocese in the south of England.

So, most of the attendance loss in a diocese of over 320 churches is in just the 32 largest ones. This finding is not only very striking, it is also very hopeful because if the main losses are concentrated on such a small number of large churches, perhaps something can be done about it.

For twenty years until last year I was the minister of large Anglican churches in Yorkshire, and in that time became very aware of the special problems and opportunities of the larger churches. In the Diocese of York, I made the usual statistical finding that attendance decline was concentrated in the large churches and, in fact, if their decline could be halted it looked like attendance decline in the diocese as a whole could be stemmed. A series of day conferences was arranged for leaders of larger churches, and some consultancy visits made. The main aims were to work out together the reasons for attendance decline and the appropriate responses for stimulating future growth. Over a period of several years the large churches that took part in the exercise began to slow down their decline and then to start growing again. This is shown on the graph.

Large churches that didn’t take part continued their decline. By 2000, most of the large churches had joined the process to some degree and the prediction had come to pass - the large churches’ collective attendance was growing strongly enough to lift the whole diocese back into attendance growth. It looks as though paying attention to the issue had actually paid off. Decline was not inevitable - it could be reversed by some, comparatively modest, collective effort accurately targeted at the heart of the problem.

You may be wondering what were the causes and solutions that we identified. There is no single reason and no one quick fix - life is usually too complicated for that. In the space available here, all that is possible are summary lists of causes and actions:

Causes of attendance decline in larger churches


Worldwide, it seems that small churches grow relative to large ones because they are healthier. Members of small churches are more regular and frequent in their worship attendance. Smaller churches have a more tightly knit community with a greater sense of obligation to each other. Members are more likely to be integrated into a small group, and have a role in the church that seems to match their gifts.


Members of large churches appear more likely to have a modern consumer attitude to their church than do members of small churches. People may still have a residual loyalty to the corner shop, but none to the supermarket. Surviving churchgoers today are more likely to aspire to ‘belong to a fellowship’ than to ‘attend a service’. It is much easier to start to belong to a small fellowship than a large one. Small fellowships may, therefore, be more culturally appropriate to the times. Fewer people now prefer a large church to a small one because what they aspire to get out of church has changed. Once it was teaching and inspiration, now it is belonging.


The stress and busyness experienced at work and often in the home have increased markedly in recent years. On average, people come to church more stressed out and exhausted than used to be the case. More people feel the need to receive, and fewer people have the capacity to give. Lay leadership in larger churches is much more demanding and time consuming than in small ones. Large churches have had increasing difficulty in finding leaders with the time and energy required for the major jobs.


Larger churches suffer from the practical problem that newcomers are hard to spot and integrate. If a new churchgoer has not made several friends within the first month or two, they will probably stop coming. Typically, someone new will not come every week, and this compounds the problem of keeping in touch with them through a big crowd. Newcomers also tend to feel that a large church does not merely not notice them, it also does not need them. There seems little point trying to break in.


In a small church, everyone knows that Mrs Smith was not in church this week, and one of her friends will probably either know that she is away visiting grandchildren, or will call round to check she is okay. This is much harder in a large church, and the problem is again compounded by irregular attendance. The church leaders do not know why Mrs Smith is not in church today and she may be thinking to herself: ‘Those people at that church don’t care about me.’ And so Mrs Smith may easily drift away. In an era when people no longer come to church so much out of a sense of duty, but for the encounter with God and friends that they ‘receive’, they are much more likely to drift away from a large church which fails to follow their movements. Large churches today may have more attractive front doors, but they have wide-open back doors.


Congregations in large churches have a higher proportion of children and young adults than in small churches. It is the larger churches that are more likely still to have a system of children’s groups. As the church is losing children and young adults more rapidly than it is losing older people, larger churches are declining more rapidly.


Large churches in suburbs tend to have a faster turnover of members than do small ones in villages. This is partly because of the age distribution - job moves have little impact on congregations who are all retired. And, as society has become ever more mobile, transience is on the increase. The capacity of a church to absorb new members does not vary a lot with the church’s size. One reason is that all new members need to develop some sort of relationship with a church’s leaders. It is a daunting task to keep on replacing each year all the members of a large church who have moved house out of the area.


The leadership style needed today to maintain and grow large churches is very different from that in small ones. In today’s complex world, the minister of a large church may need a range of skills not considered at ordination selection or theological college, or picked up later. Many clergy in charge of larger churches feel themselves to be under prepared and under supported for the task. Members of large churches appear, on average, to be less happy with their minister than are members of smaller churches. Some ministers are tempted to leave early, and some large churches find it hard to locate a suitable replacement willing and able to take responsibility.


There is a special case of leadership and organisation style being at the heart of some church decline - the glass ceiling, which is normally in the area of 100-150 adults, and never lower. It is a glass ceiling because most churches cannot see it coming and do not understand clearly what it is they have bumped into. Very few clergy succeed in changing their leadership style, and finding enough support, to enable them to lead the church through the ceiling. The result is that, although numbers of larger churches have shrunk in recent years back into the ‘small’ or ‘medium’ categories, very few have grown through the ceiling to replace them.


This can arise because the leader brings about much needed change. The trouble is that change usually brings losers and conflict. It can arise, equally, because there has been no change. Some members are frustrated, and the lack of change has led to numerical decline so that morale has slumped. Breakdown of communication is a common cause of conflict, or at least of inadequate relationships. In a large church where people may attend different services and may not attend every week, communication is a key problem.


The increasing experience of large churches is that they can only run well, avoid decline, and grow further, by employing their own paid staff team. Secretaries, administrators, youth workers, pastoral care managers, evangelists, and associate ministers have multiplied. Just at the time it has become more and more costly to maintain the ministry of a large church, Church of England dioceses have been demanding larger and larger ‘Parish Share’ contributions. As well as paying for their own new staff members, larger churches are now expected also to help pay the costs of the smaller churches. Conflicting financial demands have placed increasing restrictions on the ability of some churches to adopt what they know to be good practice.

How decline can be tackled


A large church is unlikely to turn around its numerical decline unless it tries to. The first step for a church may be to face the facts of its own decline, to investigate them to discover where and when that decline has been taking place, and to frame some policies with the objective of growing again.


It is a remarkable feature of contemporary church life that tiny churches are, on average, growing. The popular image of the tiny rural congregation about to expire could not be more wrong. In York Diocese there are over 200 churches with an average adult attendance of less than 20. Yet in the last decade none have closed. The strengths of these small congregations include great commitment to each other and to keeping the church going. Everyone knows everyone else and everyone has a job. Everyone is needed.

One obvious lesson is that larger churches need effective small group structures to allow them to re-create the relational advantages of the small churches. A large church needs to aim at creating a place for every member where they will be immediately missed if they don’t turn up, where they are well known, where they have a role and are needed, where they meet their friends. House groups, interest groups, working groups like choirs, and cell groups are an increasingly necessary part of sustaining the life and size of large churches. For all sorts of reasons, some churches will find that the fairly dramatic change to a cell structure will give them a much greater chance of long-term future growth. It takes high-level organisational ability and a big time commitment to build up and oversee a small group structure giving good quality relational glue to a large congregation. The senior minister may not be the best person to be directly responsible for this. But someone needs to be charged with this key task.


Another way of re-creating the advantages of the small is in the worshipping unit. The congregation may by no means fill the building but it may still be too large for its own health and effectiveness. There are many advantages of a multi congregational approach for large churches. Congregations stuck in uneasy compromises can sometimes be divided up with gratifying growth consequences. Also, in a world where Sunday activities are on the increase, looking for opportunities for new congregations mid-week sounds a sensible idea. A church can aim to build a network of quite modest sized congregations that each avoids the health and relational problems, the missing of newcomers and the loss of drifters that hamper large congregations while keeping the advantages of the strong - sizeable mission ambitions, ‘celebration’ size when occasion demands, a wide range of gifts and talents, and financial strength. A church that is a coalition of small interlocking communities, each with its own identity, but finding unity through shared vision, ethos and leadership, can combine the advantages of the small and the large together.


We now move to approaches that do not involve either breaking up the large congregation or refocusing on small groups. These are about how to make the large congregation work better while staying large or growing larger. A welcome team can be appointed to watch out for newcomers and fringe members, and help them to integrate. The welcome team can consider its job is done when someone new is settled in a small group, is attending regularly, and has made four new friends in the congregation. Different welcomers may be given different age groups to look after, or different rows of pews, but they must each be on duty every week for the job is rarely done in one contact. A different pastoral care team may be given the job of noticing when regular members are not there, and following them up, at least to find out if they are ill. Members of both the ‘front door’ and ‘back door’ teams will need to be well trained, supported and led for their ministry to be effective.


Leaders of large churches may need to stop trying to stuff square pegs into round holes in order to keep the show on the road. A better approach may be to fit the life and activities of the church around the gifting and inclinations of the people. Square pegs in square holes exude more energy, enthusiasm and happiness. They are less likely to burn out and more likely to be regular attenders. Also, the best sort of professional leadership team for large churches today is usually a set of specialists, all trained and expert in an area of church life that suits them best. The era of omnicompetent clergy may need burying.


Busyness and burnout problems are best tackled in two ways. One is to take a hard look at priorities and to stop doing those things that emerge as low down on the priority list. Large congregations should not feel guilty that they cannot do everything. Instead, they should aim to do a few things well. In this way they can offer a higher quality product in their key areas while safeguarding their own members from burnout. The other way is to use the increasing prosperity of church members, and so, ideally, of churches, to employ professionals to do what the amateurs no longer have the time, skills and energy for.


This may be the most important thing of all to review. Ministers should not feel threatened. On the contrary, a review of a church’s leadership style and structure should be designed to make the leader’s job description more realistic, to relieve him or her from some of the unrealistic expectations, to strengthen the team around them, and to provide them with increased training and resources to enable them to do their job well. Is the minister the best person to be the church manager? Or could someone else do that to release the minister to pastor or preach or be a visionary? How can co-operative ministry best be forwarded in which people will have their own spheres of responsibility, and leadership will come from teams rather than one person?


Many of the above solutions for improving the prospects of larger congregations

lie mainly in the area of being church in semi-inherited mode better. They are less radical than the cell or multi-congregation responses. Some churches are able to adopt radical solutions, while for others the practical possibilities are limited to more modest measures. These may well be worth doing and have gratifying results, but they should not be used to edge radical thinking off the agenda. Many new ways and forms of being church are emerging, and larger churches seeking new strategies should be prepared to consider them.

Experience suggests that there are no automatic blueprints for turning round our large churches, and that every case is likely to be unique with its own unique solution. This is why it is important for denominations, dioceses and other agencies to help large churches explore the range of possible responses and develop their own tailor made solutions. But that there are solutions, some modest, some radical, is beyond doubt. When large churches go looking for them with prayer, determination and a little help from outside, they tend to find them.

The Revd Bob Jackson was curate and vicar of three large Anglican churches in Yorkshire, before becoming Research Missioner for ‘Springboard’, the Archbishops’ evangelism initiative, in 2001. He combines this half time post with personal church training and consultancy work, and is always happy to help large churches with their issues. He is the author of a number of books. Most relevant to the present article is the booklet, written with Canon Robert Warren, called There Are Answers (to church attendance decline) available from Springboard (01235 553722). His new book, Hope for the Church (ISBN 07 151 555 12), about how national church attendance decline can be reversed is due for publication on 25 October 2002 by Church House Publishing.

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You are reading Too Big to Grow: Helping Large Congregations to Stop the Rot by Bob Jackson, part of Issue 26 of Ministry Today, published in October 2002.

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