SUB-CONGREGATIONS & LifeWay Interviews Bob Whitesel on How Large Churches Can Reap Benefits of Smallness

When Big Goes Small: How Large Churches Are Learning From Those With Less

by Aaron Earls, Facts & Trends, LifeWay, 3/29/16.

…In the last five years, the typical megachurch’s main sanctuary decreased in size from 1,500 seats to a median of 1,200, according to the 2015 Megachurch Report from Leadership Network and Hartford Institute for Religion Research.

The move to smaller sanctuaries is an outgrowth of the burgeoning multisite church movement. Instead of building a large church and asking people to come to one place, megachurches are building smaller spaces in more places.

Since 2000, churches with multiple campuses have grown steadily from 23 percent to more than 60 percent of all megachurches, according to the 2015 Megachurch Report. “Megachurches have shifted their philosophy from building bigger and bigger,” says Ed Stetzer, executive director of LifeWay Research, “to spreading further and further…”

Why Megachurches Go Small

Larger churches often recognize what small churches might miss—there are advantages to being little. Through small groups, multisite campuses, and now microsites, those megachurches are attempting to continue their growth while retaining small-church benefits.

“Churches are taking advantage of Dunbar’s number,” says Bob Whitesel, a professor at Indiana Wesleyan University and church growth expert. Robin Dunbar, a British anthropologist, found humans can comfortably maintain only around 150 stable relationships. Beyond that, says Whitesel, “relationships don’t seem to have much depth.”

This is why he believes many churches stall around this plateau. “Once it gets bigger than that, people stop inviting others because they no longer know everyone else at church,” he says.

It’s incumbent on large church leaders to capitalize on smaller groups that organically emerge in the church. Whitesel calls these “sub-congregations,” and they mirror other numbers Dunbar found in his research. Groups of 50 can unite around a task, such as the music ministry or preschool volunteers. Small group gatherings of 15 have the feel of an extended family, and groups of five are intimate connections.

These numbers have been seen not only in sociological research but also in church history, Whitesel says. “In the Wesleyan revivals, every leader had to be involved in what they called ‘Band Meetings’ of five individuals. Larger groups of 15 were called ‘Class Meetings.’”

With this sociological and historical support, church consulting experts identify at least four areas that can be more easily developed in smaller churches.

Accountability — With larger churches, anonymity is easier. Attendees can sneak in late, sit in the back of an enormous sanctuary, and leave without interacting with anyone. But this leaves individuals prone to slipping away from the church as quickly as they slipped in.

Whitesel says smaller numbers allow people to “connect with a group that brings accountability and interdependency.” If the church goes through changes, being connected to a smaller group—be it a campus or a small group—serves as glue to hold people in place.

Community — …Microsite campuses allow much larger churches to “meld together the feel of a small group with the production of a large church,” White says.

Leadership growth — As with accountability, attendees at a megachurch may be tempted to avoid leadership. They may feel intimidated by the size of the church or a lack of education and training. Going small forces new people into leadership roles…

Reproducibility — …This type of planting churches and starting new sites is not exclusive to megachurches. LifeWay Research’s analysis of more than 800 church plants found more than 1 in 5 were launched from a church with an average attendance below 100. The clear majority (60 percent) were started by churches of fewer than 500.

Read more at …

SMALL GROUPS & Why A Growing Church Stays as Small As Possible #Video

QUOTE: “Small groups are one of the most important structures in the church for discipleship.” Bob Whitesel.

VIDEO of Bob Whitesel Ph.D., Oct. 2012 at the Conference, Nashville, TN. Published by For more info see Cure for the Common Church: God’s Plan to Restore Church Health (Wesleyan Publishing House).

Speaking hashtags: #PowellChurch #DWC

TRENDS & Thom Rainer’s 15 Church Trends for 2015 #ThomRainer #LifeWay

Commentary by Dr. Whitesel: “Thom Ranier is a first-rate researcher as well as a friend. We both have received the Donald A. McGavran award for leadership in church growth. So when Thom comes out with his annual ‘trends for the year’ – everybody should take notice. Listen to this podcast for the details, but here are the major points.”

Some highlights from the episode include (taken from the website):

  • The Millennial generation is almost insisting on smaller worship gatherings.
  • A larger percentage of church attendees are attending larger churches.
  • The multi-teaching pastor trend we are seeing in churches is a healthy trend for pastors and churches.
  • In 2015, less than 5% of churches in America will continue to hold a separate Sunday evening service.
  • The majority of churches in America have been isolated from their community in recent years. But that is changing.
  • Denominations are becoming more streamlined with more money going to the mission field.
  • A church that does not put an emphasis on small groups is likely not a healthy church.

The 15 trends to look for in 2015 are:

  1. More partnerships between denominations and churches.
  2. Continued increased in the number of multi-site churches.
  3. Smaller worship gatherings.
  4. Continued flow of people from smaller churches to larger churches.
  5. The tipping point for a plurality of teaching pastors.
  6. The tipping point of churches eliminating Sunday evening worship services.
  7. Congregations growing in favor in their respective communities.
  8. The beginnings of prayer movement in our churches.
  9. More emphasis on congregational singing.
  10. More focus on theological education in local churches.
  11. The waning and reconfiguration of denominational structures.
  12. A rapid increase in bivocational church staff.
  13. Increased difficulty in matching prospective pastors with churches with pastoral vacancies.
  14. Growth of verbal incarnational evangelism.
  15. The tipping point for small groups.

Listen to more at …

A video of Bob Whitesel: SMALL GROUPS & How To Missionalize Them To Revive Your Church

Bob Whitesel, Oct. 2012, Conference, Nashville, TN

“I have yet to find a declining or plateaued church that has above 40% of its people in small groups. Most of them have 10-15% of their people in small groups.” – Bob Whitesel at Turnaround 20/20

A video of Bob Whitesel: SMALL GROUPS & Growing Churches Require Small Group Membership

Bob Whitesel, Oct. 2012, Conference, Nashville, TN.

“If you emphasize small groups, then your church will survive pastoral changeover, location change and all the calamities that tend to divide. The small group becomes the glue.”  Bob Whitesel


Speaking hashtags: #StLizTX #StMarksTX