Medium-sized church crisis

I guess this diagram is rather self-explanatory, eh? Over the last 4-5 months I’ve had several conversations in which the discussion centered on this diagram. So I submit it to you to chew on.


If you are seeing the same thing, what are the plusses and minuses of this trend?

If you think I’m nuts, let me know!





27 responses to “Medium-sized church crisis”

  1. Ginny Avatar

    Are you hearing about an increase in house churches and/or church plants?

  2. Mark Avatar

    I think you leave out the experience of medium-sized churches that are older in mainline denominations. They are better able to ride out the changes, due to endowments.

  3. adam mclane Avatar

    @ginny- In my world, yes. I’m hearing of medium-sized churches going to more of a multi-site method to spread effectiveness. And I know of a few medium sized churches who are planting, which would move both churches to the “small” category. (under 200 weekly)

    @mark- no doubt. This doesn’t imply that all medium churches go away as a result of this current financial crisis. More like, its two trends I’m seeing.

  4. Kara Avatar

    I haven’t seen this in the midwest. I’ve seen two smaller churches dissolve [congregations were around 50], but the medium sized churches seem to be okay. our church has financial issues, but a split has never come up. we’re just riding it out.

  5. BigManWalking Avatar

    I think this problem is similar (though not the same) as restaurants or other businesses that have 3 choices to compete on – uniqueness, quality and price. In fact, most have no choice but to focus on quality or price. The ones in the middle like Bob’s Big Boy get squeezed by Coco’s and Jack in the Box or McDonald’s. One place is (at least, perceived) higher quality and the other is cheaper, but not perceived to be THAT much lower quality. Some people shop on price and some on quality which naturally means most gravitate away from those businesses caught in the middle. I know that a lot of people object to looking at church communities (hopefully they really are communities!) in this way, but the reality I see is that a lot of people are church hoppers who are looking for whatever it is they each are looking for. (I have at least one relative like this.) I believe some people LIKE small churches and some like what big churches can do because of their size. Usually those programs can be done better in a megachurch if they are working in church that’s not as large. There may be people out there who are looking for medium-size churches, but I think they are a small group. Perhaps they should focus on their uniqueness as far as marketing issues go. Or maybe they can read Tony Campolo & Mary Albert Darling’s The God of Intimacy and Action and pray and put hands and feet to the gospel of Jesus. Does God want their church to become a small church or a medium-size church or a megachurch or?

  6. Mike Avatar

    If the economic crisis lasts until 2011 (which i believe it will) this diagram will have a lot of validity for churches that are not a part of some rich denomination.

    Medium sized churches will see giving go down so much that they will have to cut staff deeply (and all programs) until all you have left is a pastor and a group of volunteers. While this might seem very attractive to some, to the masses it will smell of failure and the church will lose some of it’s own and have a harder time attracting others.(in a time when people will be more open to spiritual things as their economic lives crumble. I know of one mega church that is seeing lower per family giving, but higher attendance and even overall giving despite hard times. Simply put; more people, same giving as more people are added)

    For the medium sized church with a large bank note, this deal could be the death knell. I know of two churches where this is happening. No sugar daddy has come forward to pay the note off so they are going to close the doors and give the building to the bank.

    I believe this could be a great time of ministry for the middle sized church that can make it through. The message these churches will need to give to it’s people will be “we have to do the ministry together, there are no hired guns anymore. we must not center our ministry on attracting people but in heart to heart relationship outside the walls of the building.” THis could be a tough time for pastors of these churches as they will probably be taking a pay cut to keep things afloat.

    We can take great comfort in the fact that the Master still loves his bride and will care for her through this time. He uses painful times to produce beauty. I know He will in this case as well.

    This will be a great time of gut check for church members. How much do they really love the church that they have called home? It will be put up or shut up time in terms of the cash and energy they are truly willing to invest.

  7. Maria Meachum Avatar
    Maria Meachum

    I have simply seen the small churches fail not noticing medium ones going away. Cuious as to what constitutes a “medium” sized church.

  8. adam mclane Avatar

    @maria- I think I can shed light on this since it’s my drawing and all. 🙂

    Small would be up to 200 in weekly attendance.

    Medium would be 201-900ish.

    Mega would be anything bigger than that.

  9. Gman Avatar

    Shortage of Youth ministers?

  10. adam mclane Avatar

    Gman- I think you’re right to be concerned for our tribe in this paradigm…

  11. Teresa Avatar

    I interpret your diagram to imply middle size will become mega churches themselves OR will shirnk to small church size having lost members to mega churches… and then the middle man would simply cease to exist. I would hope enough people in the Body of Christ are sincere enough about their faith to not abandon their church families just beacuse times got hard. I think the diagram may be a bit too general… you know? I’d like to see more arrows – labeled to specify causes for the movement.

    Med -> Mega:
    1) Mega is still offering programs
    2) experiencing growth as people NEED God in this crisis

    Med-> Small:
    1) loss of members due to crises of faith
    2) loss of members dues to working extra jobs/shifts to make ends meet
    3) loss of members due to moving in with or closer to family
    4) loss of members to the Mega Church down the road
    5) loss of members to the small church (closer to home, appearance of more sincere faith, follwing an Associate Pastor let go from staff, etc…)

    As the crisis drags on – it will come down to how specific churches have implemented the idea of universal preisthood. Have we enabled or neutered the idea of lay ministry? It will really be determined by the leadership styles of the Pastor(s).
    Endowments will certainly be dipped into – and how they are spent will speak volumes to the world about what’s really important to the church – for better or for worse…

    I agree with Mike…”the Master still loves his bride and will care for her through this time. He uses painful times to produce beauty.” Of course what the Master determines to be beauty may rise from piles of pruned branches and heaps of ashes… perhaps a more pure bride?

  12. adam mclane Avatar

    @teresa This doesn’t imply that all medium churches go away as a result of this current financial crisis. More like, its two trends I’m seeing… the diagram would suggest that the medium sized churches are facing a direction.

    And going to smaller methods doesn’t mean that they cease to exist. It could mean that they ditch their buildings and meet in smaller contexts under the same umbrella today.

  13. tom Avatar

    interesting thots…although i’m not sure the dust has settled enough to really say. considering the average church in the states is still around 75 on the weekend…it will be interesting to see. i’d argue that at all levels there is going to be some restructuring of “the how” ministry is accomplished…which also might push even some clarity on “the what” or “the why” of what we do. there isn’t any margin to work from.
    we moved to the multi-site format and even that is not perfect.
    also even churches who have endowments are having to rethink because of the loss of value in the market. Glad our God reigns. the rest is details for us to live through. well done adam.

    thanks for the visual.

  14. Brit Windel Avatar

    I agree with Tom, and many who have posted. I think it is way to early to start making any claims. now to be prophetic and claim of the coming doom is all good and well 🙂

    there is always and always will be a constant shift of what ministry is and how it will look. The problem that is faced with American church (one of the problems) is that of the same caliber as America its self. we think we have it as near to perfect a model we can and have driven it into the ground and now have to rethink.

    wisdom is the one thing we all need in how to sustain…but not only sustain. God calls us to growth and strength, not timidity and to just merely sustain his kingdom but help in the process of building it

    I to as a youth pastor am pretty worried as to what this means for the youth and worship, and any ministry that doesn’t come with a pastoral title or a seminary degree to seal the deal…my $80,000 Bachelors and $35,000 Masters degrees in Theology, Youth and Family, and Spiritual formation still doesn’t help me when it comes down to anymore.

  15. Ginny Avatar

    You’ve hit on something here Adam. I just came off of a week of meetings with pastors (including youth pastors). The recurring theme was budget cuts. Some had taken pay cuts. Others had seen colleagues laid off. Others had their conference line items cut (they weren’t able to be there). All are at medium sized churches. And yet I’ve heard of 3 church plants in Chicago that are planned for the next few months. This will be interesting to track.

  16. Chris Kidd Avatar

    In the UK I think most churches aren’t changing that much. Budgets are being cut, but as most churches don’t have big staff teams it isn’t effecting that. A recent report even cites an increase in Sunday attendance.

  17. Ray Pritchard Avatar

    Adam, your observations are spot-on. I would broaden it to include ministries as well. Larger ministries generally have a substantial donor base to turn to in times like these. New or start-up ministries have smaller donor bases but generally have lower overhead. It’s the ones in the middle that are being squeezed.

    I have a friend who for years led a company worth hundreds of millions of dollars. Having been through this sort of thing before, he says churches must do what businesses do and make tough choices now, not tomorrow. He laid out the plan his company follows. They have already cut expenses across the board by 25 percent and may do more. “It’s tough now but we’ll be in good shape when this recession finally ends,” he told me. Churches have a tougher time doing this, some wait too late.

    Anyway, neat little graph. I’ve thought for years that middle-sized churches are being squeezed out of the market. The recession just accelerates that trend. Ray


  18. Paul Avatar

    I don’t interact with a lot of churches, but I’m not seeing that the economy is effecting churches of different sizes differently.

    I’m a part of a medium sized church and we’ve reduced our budget and staff slightly this year. I’ve heard most medium and mega churches are doing the same thing.

    I would imagine that small churches that were already in bad shape financially as well as medium and mega churches that took on a lot of debt for building programs before the financial crisis are having to take more drastic measures or close.

  19. adam mclane Avatar

    @ray “The recession just accelerates that trend.” I think this is so true. I agree wit this wholeheartedly.

    I think some of this has to do with efficiency. A megachurch can spread costs across many givers than middle churches can’t. Likewise, small churches can be very efficient by creating a volunteer driven ministry that wouldn’t be accepted elsewhere.

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  23. jeff Avatar

    I actually think the economic issues may hit the mega church hardest. Many of them are leveraged to the max to get into their buildings and are driven by paid staff, not a paid staff/lay mix. If the money dries up, look out.

    That being said, I have said before I think the mid-sized church will have a tougher time in the church “marketplace” in the years to come. I pastor at a mid-sized church and the folks that come to our church via a local mega church want more intimacy and relational connection..without sacrificing programmatic quality/excellence. Well, we don’t have a full time video person and a full time light/sound person and the preacher is not able to dedticate 30+ hours a week to their sermon. You do not get the same “experience” at my church as you do at the church down the road with the staff of 40.

    If you come from a small church hoping for more opportunities/activities for your children, my mid-sized church will offer that. But you will not have the “everybody knows everybody” feel like you had in the church you left.

    Mid-sized church are going to be increasingly squeezed because they can not offer the same programmatic excellence as the mega church nor the relational intimacy of the small church.

    Great conversation. I am going to get follow up comments by email to see what others have to say.

  24. adam mclane Avatar

    Jeff- awesome thoughts. I tend to agree with you. I’m going to talk about money next, but I spent a little time on this post explaining exactly the tension you mention…. there seem to be two kinds of church people right now, megachurch people and small church people.

    If you subscribe to the blog, soon you’ll see the post where I talk about money and why the medium-sized church will get squeezed and the mega/small churches will be OK.

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  26. […] couple months back I raised some eyebrows by saying that medium-sized churches were in crisis. Since that post I’ve had dozens more conversations which confirm that it isn’t just me […]

  27. Lindsey Whitney Avatar

    Yeah, I would agree with you. We’re a midsize church, headed towards megachurch. It will take us a while to get there, but that’s the direction we’re headed. Personally, I love the idea of church plants more than the idea of building expansions, but I’m along for the ride! 🙂

    Lindsey @

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