- Small and medium-small churches serve far more people than the super-mega-churches, mega-churches and large churches combined.
In one church, a worship pastor brings the band to a climactic crescendo as the lights dance over the 3000 worshipers. The smoke thins, the pastor walks out, coffee in one hand, Bible in the other, “Let’s do this,” he says. In another church, the worship leader strums an acoustic guitar, nodding to the pianist and teen-age bass player, happy to bring the worship time in for a solid landing. The drummer couldn’t make it because he was sick, and the other singer was out-of-town. But he’s happy for who is available and willing, and thanks God for them. In the last church, the pastor does his best to get through an old hymn on the guitar he learned to play only a few years ago at seminary, while his wife plays chords on the piano. Mabel is in the front row and would be at the old electric organ, but her arthritis is acting up. The fifty worshipers nod and smile along.
Which example represents the average church in America? And what does that mean to the worship industry?
The average pastor-to-worshiper ratio in America is one for every 90 attendees and this is pretty consistent for all church sizes (experiences may vary).
The average church venue seats 200 people. That’s not huge, but not small either, of course, it’s rare for the seats to be full in most churches.
Church size breaks down into six basic categories, at least according to research by The Hartford Institute for Religious Research, Lifeway Research, Gallop, Pew Research Center, and The Barna Group. So if you disagree with the categories, email one of them. I did think up some of the names for the categories so I take full responsibility for those.
When asked, point-blank, if they went to church every Sunday, 47% of people polled said they did. However, when researchers Kirk Hadaway and Penny Marler looked deeper into the data, they found closer to 20% actually attended weekly. Apparently, we think we go to church more often than we do, and probably less often than we should.
Let’s Go Deeper
There are 177,000 “small churches” that average 60 worshipers per Sunday. They represent 59% of all churches and account for 9 million worshipers in total. Most of these churches have limited resources with one pastor who is often part-time, bi-vocational, with some that are full-time. Church programs are volunteer-led and run.
Next are “medium-small churches”. There are 105,000 “medium-small” churches with 100 to 499 worshipers per week. They represent 35% of churches nationwide and account for 25 million worshipers in total. Staffing varies for churches this size, with the average having 1-5 pastors or staff either part-time or full-time. These churches rely heavily on volunteers for their programs.
The next category is “medium-sized churches” with 500 to 999 worshipers. They represent 4% of churches with 8 million attendees nationwide. They have larger numbers of staff and tend towards staff-led volunteer-based programming and ministries.
Then we have “large churches” with 1,000 to 1,999 attendees. They represent 2% of churches overall with 9 million attendees. These churches have approximately ten to twenty staff who lead most church programs and oversee volunteers.
Now we come to the “mega-church”. Mega churches have 2,000 to 9,999 attendees. There are 1,170 “mega-churches” making up only 0.5% of the total churches in America, serving 4 million attendees. A “mega-church” can average anywhere from twenty to over one-hundred pastors and paid staff, with multi-million dollar budgets. Programs are primarily staff-led.
Last is the infamous “super-mega churches”. These churches have over 10,000 worshipers every Sunday. There are about fifty in the United States, with the largest being Lakewood Church in Houston, Texas (at least they claim to be the biggest). Super-mega-churches make up 0.01% of the total churches, and all combined serve 700,000 weekly worshipers. Lakewood Church’s average weekly attendance (self-reported) is over 43,000, with 386 paid staff, and a budget of over $90 million a year.
The average church in America is small. They have limited staff and limited resources in both musicians, production, and sound. Despite their limitations, these small and medium-small churches serve far more people than the super-mega churches, mega-churches, and large churches combined.
- Lifeway Research
- Hartford Institute for Religious Research
- Barna Group
- Pew Research Center
- Gallup Inc.
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Christopher Watson is an author of six books, both fiction and non-fiction. He is also a musician and composer with a B.A. in Music from Azusa Pacific University. For several years Christopher led worship at The Springs Church while attending Dallas Theological Seminary in Dallas Texas. He's been involved with worship in a number of churches in California and the Pacific Northwest both as a musician and in production and technology. Now he lives and writes in Washington State with his amazing wife, wonderful daughters, and highly intelligent dog, Ellie Mae.