One reason small churches aren’t growing: saturation

Thumbing through an analysis of our community today, it hit me.  There are too many churches in our area.  Within a 5-mile radius of our church, there are 25 other churches.  And, this doesn’t even count churches without telephones, which include at least 8 more that I know of.  That’s 33 churches for a population of about 4,000 households, or about 8,000 people.  

Take out the 10% of the population that is totally unaffiliated, and you have 7200 people.  Divide 7200 people by 33 churches, and you have an average of 218 members per church.  Of course some have more and some less, but 68% of all the churches in our area have between 125 and 350 members.  Our church fits right in that number.  

Of course, this doesn’t mean that everyone attends faithfully, or even comes at all.  We have several dozen members who never show up, but so does everyone else.  But, it does help us get a realistic handle on the potential of our outreach.  When I pastored in suburban areas, if we didn’t add 100 new members each year and baptize at least 25 per year, I was disappointed.  Here I’ll be lucky to see 100 new members in 10 years, and we are baptizing about 3-7 people per year.  

Those are the reasons we’re focusing on community transformation.  We hope to help others become more faithful disciples of Jesus by bridging racial divides, providing tangible help to families in need, and creating gathering places for our community.  We hope to be good news to our community, as well as to the individuals within it who might come to our church.  What is your experience?  Is your community “churched” and if so, what does that mean for your ministry?  

The report also noted that our area is highly “churched” (duh), and skews older than the national average.  Did I mention that our county population actually declined since the last census?  You’re beginning to get the picture.  

The great news is our area is higly churched.  The downside is that numerical growth of any of our congregations is limited.  Our primary strategy is building relationships, and adding new members gradually over the long term.

9 thoughts on “One reason small churches aren’t growing: saturation”

  1. I must say I am encouraged by your approach. Your area sounds very similar (if not exactly like) ours. Long-term, gradual growth is the only possibility, especially considering the strong familial loyalty of our community.

  2. I know what you mean by “churched”, we have a whole page in our local newspaper on Fridays that lists the churches in our town and it is FULL! We are in an Air Force town, so we do get new members via transfers. We, like you work on community projects like our upcoming Block Party. Relationship building is also a key to growth, like you mentioned, in a small “churched” community. This last month, however, we have averaged about 15-20 visitors in our Sunday School. Campaigns tend to bring visitors, we just pray that some will find a home with us.

  3. 33 churches in a town of 8000?!?!? Wow! That is absolutely crazy! Does the community actually NEED that many churches? This has always been a HUGE issue for me. Why do we plant churches where there are already LOTS of churches? I understand that we need diversity and people need “choices” BUT 33 churches?!? Sadly, I think it comes down to building our own kingdoms versus building God’s Kingdom. 😦

  4. The current stat in TX is that 1/2 of our population is “unaffiliated” with any religious group. I always wondered about that, since people seem to think they are Xian just by being born here. Go figure.


  5. I’m not sure what VA is now, but a couple of years ago, we were at nearly 1/2 unaffiliated (3 out of 7 million, I think). Of course, that includes Northern VA which is almost like a different country from where I am. 😉

    Most church planting that I am aware of goes on in the areas with fewer churches per capita. Rural areas generally get “replants” or “restarts.” In my opinion, the “all of the above” approach is needed.

  6. Thanks for all the comments on “church saturation.” To clarify, Baylor’s survey asked which church respondents attended, making the idea of affiliation more concrete. But, I also recognize that not everyone who considers themselves “affiliated” actually attends even 3 of 8 Sundays. More work to be done. -Chuck

  7. We are also in a similar situation. We have a large number of small churches in our city of 12,000. It was interesting when Outreach Magazine did a mystery visitor in what we would consider one of the largest churches in our community they considered it a small church. Even though we have many churches we have done a informal survey and found that there is about half of our community does not attend any church or would consider themselves Christians. Several years ago Oregon was considered the least churched state and our county was the least churched county in our state (as a % of population). I believe that we still have work to do, but it will come not in large numbers like some of our urban counterparts.

    It is interesting to me that some of the largest churches in the Portland and Boise areas are actually smaller than us if you take the population within a 20 mile radius and figure comparable % of population and compare our sizes. We might be doing better than we think.

  8. Steve, thanks. The definition of small church varies greatly. Outreach typically considers attendance under 300 “small” but that’s a pretty good size church, in my opinion. Your comments remind us that context is important in assessing our own ministry situations.

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