How big is too big?

During the depths of lockdown I was out walking having a pastoral conversation when we bumped into someone who went to the same church. I was surprised to find myself being asked: ‘Would you introduce me to your friend?’ They had been members in the same largish church for around six years and, though they had seen each other, had never had a conversation.

At the very least, a church needs a team spirit across the congregation. But can this be there when people have never even spoken to one another?

Beautiful churches

When it comes to the practical workings of churches in ways that please the Lord, the pictures of a family and the church as the body of Christ are at the forefront in the New Testament. When the members of a church love one another like brothers and sisters and act together like a coordinated body with every member involved for the good of all, this is beautiful in God’s sight. Out of the matrix of family love within the church, a whole raft of ‘one another’ commands emerge in the NT. Further, the leaders are designated ‘elders’, indicating they are mature members of the community who, having brought

up their own earthly families well (1 Tim.3:4,5), will have a wise and fatherly approach to the church family. In Scripture we find that the initial large congregation in Jerusalem soon failed to treat each other as close family (Acts 6.1f).

Because of the need for greater organisation and the difficulties of communication with many more people, larger churches tend to go down the route of becoming professionalised. The church employs not just a pastor, but a whole staff – administrators, assistants, women’s workers, family workers, etc. Fairly soon church becomes something of a ‘spectator sport’ for ordinary church members as the professionals get on with the job.

The truth is that a family atmosphere and every-member participation come far more naturally in a smaller church, and are difficult to maintain in a larger one.

How big? 

There is no number laid down in Scripture for the size of a church. But I want to suggest that once a church begins to find it difficult to know one another and be a family in which everyone has a vital part to play, it is time to think about planting a new congregation.

Social skills are important in maintaining the cohesion and purpose of a church. These do depend on the ability to recognise and understand other church members. According to research, Dunbar’s Number – the natural upper limit to the number of people we can easily relate to in a group as human beings – is around 150.

Here is a quote from New Scientist. ‘Historically, it was the average size of English villages. It is also the ideal size for church parishes, and is the size of the basic military unit, the company. Although an individual’s social network may include many more people, 150 contacts marks the cognitive limit on those with whom we can maintain a stable social relationship involving trust and obligation – move beyond 150 and people are mere acquaintances’.

Scattered for the gospel

We do find large congregations in Scripture. But in the OT the gatherings of ‘all Israel’ were only for special occasions, while weekly religious life revolved around households and local synagogues. In the NT we find that the 3,000 converted at Pentecost, which soon grew to 5,000, not only ran into problems, but were soon scattered by persecution to carry the gospel into all the world (Acts 8.4; 11.19).

John Benton

John Benton is Director of Pastoral Support at The Pastor’s Academy,