To grow, or not to grow?

First in a series of four posts

Let’s define a really small congregation as having an average annual attendance at services of less than 50 adults and children, and a small congregation as having an average attendance of between 50 and 200, and a mid-size congregation as having an average attendance of between 150 and 500, and a large congregation as having an average attendance of more than 450. The overlap between the various sizes is deliberate, because these are not exact numbers, but approximations based on the ways human beings interact with each other in various size groupings. We could add two more size categories: a house church, with about a dozen people, and a mega-church with over 2,000 attendees each week. I’d be willing to bet that the vast majority of Unitarian Universalist congregations are small congregations with an average attendance of between 50 and 200 people each week.

This small congregation is a very comfortable size of congregation for most of us. You can realistically know everyone in the congregation. Decision-making takes place informally and organically and doesn’t require a lot of formal organizational structure. And it’s the size of congregation that people are most likely to have experienced, so it feels familiar. (Ministers are mostly trained to serve this size congregation, so if a small congregation has a minister, the minister is also going to prefer this small size.)

Given all this, why would any congregation want to grow beyond an average annual attendance of 200 adults and children? To grow means you can no longer know everyone in the congregation. To grow means having to institute a formal organizational structure, which can be a lot of work. To grow means turning into a congregation that no longer feels familiar. (And your minister is likely to become far less effective for several years while s/he figures out how to serve a mid-size congregation.)

Given all this, if growth is going to be worth it, you’d have to come up with very compelling reasons to grow beyond a small congregation. Most small congregations that say they want to grow claim that the reason they want to grow is to have more people who can give money and volunteer time, and thus support more programming and better-paid staff — but let’s face it, this is not a compelling reason to grow, particularly not for potential new members who are thus perceived as mere resources to be exploited. But I think a few small congregations might actually come up with compelling reasons to grow, and here three I have heard real people mention:

(1) “We want to grow because we want to have more influence in the community.” One very specific example of this is Unitarian Universalist congregations that want to legalize same-sex marriage in their state; the bigger they are, the more political clout they will have to make this happen.

(2) “We want to grow because we know there are a lot of people out there who want to join our congregation.” It can be really depressing to continually turn people away from your congregation because there is no organizational room for them, or even literally no room for them in your building; sometimes it can take less energy (both psychic energy, and time and effort) to grow than to keep turning people away.

(3) “We want to grow because Unitarian Universalist has a saving message that the world is hungry for.” This reason is most often put forward by people whose lives have been changed for the better by Unitarian Universalism; for my money, it is the most compelling reason, because it recognizes that there is no essential connection between the size of a congregation and what Unitarian Universalism has to offer.

Can you offer any other truly compelling reasons why a small congregation should go through all the fuss and bother of growing to a mid-size congregation?

Next: How not to grow, gracefully

14 thoughts on “To grow, or not to grow?

  1. Charlie Talbert

    I’m not sure this rises to the level of “truly compelling”, but the fixed costs per member of a larger congregation — minister’s and support staff’s compensation, facility costs, etc. — are probably less than that of a smaller one, as would be the pledge requirements.

  2. Ron Robinson

    Thanks for this. You know my “heresy” is that the question ought to be asked more often whether we shouldn’t be growing smaller, at least in single local groups, so that we can actually spread out and multiply and do more more easily and have more influence in the community that way. I think it was one of Shane Claiborne’s chapters in The Irresistible Revolution that was titled something like Getting Bigger by Growing Smaller or Growing Bigger by Getting Smaller. A hallmark of the organic church and church multiplication associates approach too. If nothing else, reversing the question brings things into clear focus about mission I think. Thanks again.

  3. Tom


    I think the big question is whether it is better to have one church with 600 attendees or three churches with 200 attendees each. There are a ton of reasons why people prefer smaller churches. Channing thought a church should be an organic community, meaning that everybody knows the minister and, indeed, everybody else.

    I suppose the UUA dreams of politicized UU mega-churches having real political power, but I doubt many UUs share that dream. The reality is that if you want to have political influence, you should join a political organization. Anybody who attends church in search of political power is seriously confused.

  4. Jean

    I love watching the members of the little church across the street from my house. They have three services a week — Sunday morning and evening, and Wednesday evening. The same people seem to come to all the services, and I’d guess there are maybe 30 – 40 members, plus maybe 10 – 15 children. They are quite faithful about attending, all seem to know one another, and they have a small network of influence in this little town. Mostly, they help one another out — fixing cars, bringing meals to the elderly and “shut-ins,” doing yard work, etc.

    I doubt they think much about wielding political influence. The pastor has a day job repairing automobiles, and I bet a lot of his ministry takes place over a carburetor, a cooling system, or other gizmos gone awry. The function of this church seems to be to provide a kind of center to those who attend it. They’re all working class folks, making a living at what ever they do. To attend church is to make a space away from politics, the coldness of bureaucracy, the impersonality of the workplace.

    To expand a church like this would make it into yet another corporate model. As it is now? It’s a refuge of a sort. A home for the spirit, I guess.

  5. Carol

    A church with 3 services might be close to the same as 3 separate small churches.
    I know some small churches that don’t have enough people to attract new blood and be a robust ecosystem. A person goes to these, sees a small attendance with few of their profile (overheard at one church, “everyone here has gray hair!”), doesn’t meet a variety of people, and so never returns. The church then misses out on new energy, brains, money, companions, etc.

  6. Dan

    Charlie @ 1 — Good point, and I think a fourth compelling reason. From inside the church, the compelling reason is an economy of scale. For newcomers thinking about the church, the compelling reason is that here’s a place that isn’t going to drain them dry of money and volunteer time (more of a negative reason than a positive reason, but if the newcomer is comparing two nearby UU congregations, the larger one may well win out).

    Ron @ 2 — Yup. In the church world, that is the Mormon strategy, and they sure as heck are more successful than the UUs.

    Tom @ 3 — I agree with you. But for some folks, the idea of being part of an organization that has real political clout is very compelling indeed. So I think it stays as a compelling reason — though it raises the valid point that what is a compelling reason for one person will be a turn-off for another person.

    Jean @ 4 — Hmm, I think you’ve got a fifth compelling reason in there — church as a safe place, a refuge, that “third place” outside of work and home.

    Carol @ 6 — “Being a robust ecosystem” — I like that as yet a sixth compelling reason.

  7. danielle

    1. Growing your church offers the opportunity to diversify (be more “welcoming”).

    2. I’m a member of a large (but not mega) UU congregation. We have two services. There are usually 100-200 people at early service (the less popular of the two) and when we sing together I get chills. That glorious wall of sound is reason alone for me.

  8. Dan

    Danielle @ 8 — You’ve actually hit on a very compelling reason for growth for some people: the music is definitely better in larger congregations.

  9. Jean

    Dan @9 — Not necessarily. We’ve got some serious blue grass musicians out here, and I’m pretty sure most go to pretty small churches.

    However, if you don’t like bluegrass…or country…well then. Big city, I mean big churches, it is.

  10. Dan

    Jean @ 10 — Yes, small churches can offer good music. But big churches can offer more music, and can bring in excellent professional musicians. So while the small UU church in New Bedford had a superb church musician who did everything from Bach to Radiohead, there wasn’t much opportunity for amateur and occasional musicians to get involved. Compare that All Souls UU Church in Washington, DC, which has a big adult choir, the Jubilee Singers choir started by a member of Sweet Honey in the Rock, a youth choir, several professional musicians, a musician-in-residence program, etc. I’d be happy with a good amateur bluegrass band, but for some amateur musicians a big music program is a real draw.

  11. danielle

    Dan@11 — That’s my church! And I have to say, I know about 2/3rds of the other congregants, so it’s possible to know a lot of people, even in a big church. We make effective use of covenant groups to explore certain aspects of UUism, and those groups give you the opportunity to build deeper relationships within our big church.

  12. Joe

    Here’s a reason to grow: for members who are single, a church with more people has greater opportunities for meeting new people, dating and possibly marriage. Promote marriage and increase the love in the world by growing your church. ;->

  13. Dan

    Joe@12 — All kidding aside, recent sociological studies show that one of the reasons liberal religion is in decline is because religious liberals have a lower birthrate than religious conservatives. So apparently one of the best (long-term) ways to grow your church is through making babies….

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