Why So Few Large Congregations?

It was a question I heard asked in a Sabbath School class—rhetorically, it turned out, for the questioner also had the answer. He opined that we don’t have many big churches because our faith is too rigorous for most people. There’s too much to give up: alcohol, tobacco, meat, a tenth of your income, and Saturday football. “People won’t make the sacrifices,” he said. In his opinion, the Seventh-day Adventist Church isn’t for everyone. Like the Marines, we’ll settle for a few good men. As for the unreached, well, “strait is the gate and narrow is the way… and few there be that find it.”

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://spectrummagazine.org/article/2016/01/21/why-so-few-large-congregations
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Thank you for telling it like it is!

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A well written essay from one who has been there and done that. To look for growing churches, look for those associated or near an Adventist hospital, university, or publishing house. Even conference offices have a little drawing power. But size is not the essence, the burning question is it a list church or a Gospel church. A retired Gebersl Conference officer would travel from Augusta to either Atlanta or Columbia to head a Gospel pastor. I accompanied him on several trips, and fully understood his passion. tom Z

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What is a “gospel” pastor? How limited or how large is this concept in your view?

I am not sure I could adequately define a Gospel pastor. I think the best I can do is to name a few. Currently Timothy Keller, J.I. packer , recently. John R. w. Stott, Lloyd-Jones. within Adventism, Paul Heubach, Des Ford, Graham Maxwell, Smutts, Of course there are more. Tom Z. p.S. I forgot the most important-- Dr. Edward Heppenstall. there were and are more. Wilber Alaxander, Jim Coffin, Loren,


Loren, you crushed the nailhead. Until we recognize that pastors and local congregations are Adventism’s heartbeat, we will fall short of denominational health. I love your column, and thank you for it.



I would ADD one [1] more item.
We are TIED to the Conference we belong to.
In my town there are 2 SDA churches. Each one belongs to a different Conference.
Therefore, we dont have anything to do with each other – Never. And I have been here now going on 11 years.
There has never been a UNITED PLAN for invading my town with the SDA message. Actually, I dont believe either church even has their own plan.

EDIT- Frank
It is like trying to tame an animal in the wild, or befriending a wild bird.
One has to offer something they will enjoy first, over a period of time, before they will become friendly enough to pet. They have to know it is SAFE, you are SAFE to touch.

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In a Post-God age (Post-Modernism is over) I would suggest an egalitarian leadership structure (think the Round Table without Arthur) that is staffed by representatives from every division around the globe for equal representation. A majority vote determines policy. Video conferencing and Skype make all this possible, no need to huddle in the USA. I would also opt for a trans-disciplinary team to obtain balanced input about policy and limit the term of office to 3 years.

Reduce the fundamentals to things that are rock solid eg. the divinity of Christ, the Trinity…and so on. Be honest about some issues (eg. the sanctuary) and state that they are “a work in progress” instead of making them a test of fellowship and allow free discussion.

Nurture local churches and encourage them to focus as churches instead of social clubs with rules that are not based on scriptural authority (eg. dress code is a suit a tie in some churches)

Just a few thoughts. Rene G.


Do we really need large congregations? Is size a good measure of success? If it is, then the Willow Creeks and Saddlebacks are on the right track. Apparently some of our misguided leaders thought so or they wouldn’t have sent some of our ministers to “learn” from these mega churches.

I don’t have the reference handy, but I believe we have counsel against creating very large churches. One church in our conference decided to limit their size, and whenever it reached that point, they would branch out and start a new congregation in a new location, thus extending their influence much farther than would have been the case if they had kept expanding their existing facility. This was a number of years ago, so I’m not sure if they are still doing this, or not.


Loren, all those you gave are good answers. But in many cities when a church has internal discord, a new congregation is formed. In the city of 600K population where I’ve lived for 50 years, there has been no significant growth but there are at least half a dozen congregations if not more.

So, if there was only one congregation, it would have a more significant presence in this area. But that is day-dreaming. As for new converts, with Bohr as pastor of the largest congregation, he is addressing the TV audience and has a very conservative listening group both for TV and his congregation.

The church has always called itself “the remnant” and a little prideful of its special group that comprise those who in the end will be the few who are saved. There is less appeal today than ever for any religious affiliation and least of all to one with such restrictive lifestyles. The numbers have spoken.


Excellent article and good points, Loren! I think you hit all the nails on the head.

I must say though, that I do agree as well with the Sabbath School member and his response to the question that started off your essay. We have become such an exclusionistic denomination, that unless you are willing to give up all those things up front, you aren’t considered one of us and will always be an outsider. If we would be more inclusive of those who want to fellowship with us and let the Holy Spirit do its job, just maybe there would be many more folks attending our churches. But we are so afraid of being “polluted” by the world that we aren’t open for growth (at least not in the northern hemisphere). We pride ourselves on being the remnant, the few, the enlightened… the ones who know all the answers much better than our neighbor denominations. Just look at all the riff raff the mega churches allow in their pews!


These are good points that tend us that way, but I think there is another, perhaps more significant factor. The governance structure and local church culture of local SDA churches are designed to be small. We keep having evangelism and adding willing people, but if our governance structure is designed for small, you can keep adding names to the books, but the attendance remains plateaued. I know first hand that changing the governance structure will allow a church to retain who they baptize. A church tends to be the size it is designed to be. So we must change the design as it grows to continue to retain the attendance. Large churches are not just a bigger version of small churches, they must be an entirely different “animal” to maintain the attendance. Like the difference between a hamster and a cow. Totally different how to care for and help it to thrive.


Excellent article. I agree with all of those points and still don’t think it touches on reasons for church size. Here are a couple of others.

(I’ll note that I am a business person and am evaluating the topic with that point of view. I am approaching bringing in new people to the church as the goal and looking at it as a business looks at customers. I’ll also note that big churches are not necessarily superior to small ones; there are advantages and disadvantages of each, which I won’t cover).

  • Lack of good evangelism at the local level. All to often for evangelism, it’s lets do the same old Daniel and The Revelation series. But hey, we’ve made progress, we’re holding it in the church and not in a tent. Adventist growth is stagnant in the US at best. What’s crazy about that is there is much that modern America can like in Adventism - witness the growth of the health and wellness industry over the last 30 years. BTW, at the same time that has happened, our churches have relaxed from that health message. We don’t eat pork, but we sure eat a lot of fatty, processed foods.

  • Lack of professional leadership at the local level. The reality is that most pastors are not good at various aspects of the job, and are not taught how to deal with those shortcomings. One may be a great preacher, but a poor minister (ministering to their members needs), another may be a poor administrator, and few of them are trained in “the business” of expanding their customer base; in trying various techniques, evaluating them, and adjusting - acknowledging failure and taking responsibility and then fixing the situation. This is hampered (or helped into futility, depending upon your point of view) by a church board who is even less prepared. The board is generally made up of dept. heads (Pathfinder leader, Sabbath School leader, Head Elder, Head Deacon, etc.), who also have no idea in running an organization and have no idea how to be a professional board member (this is one of my biggest pet peeves. Pastors get board members who generally just go along with what the pastor says, so the pastor creates the plans, implements them with little or no assistance or oversight and are generally contemptuous of their board members, often with good reason).

  • Lack of Conference support to help local churches grow. Conferences pay lip service to the idea of growing churches. But they are also not run like professional organizations who have a mission to actually grow the individual churches. There is no accountability and no attempt to modify and adjust processes. Conferences rarely know when there is trouble at a local church until it’s too late. Tithe is a trailing indicator. If tithe goes up, that’s due to increases in participation from 6-24 months earlier and if tithe goes down it’s because of trouble that happened before. Pastors are employees of the conference, but frankly there is very little accountability, especially back to the local churches in my view (I’m sure Loren would disagree, but of my last 7 pastors in two churches (going back to 1990), 4 had affairs, 2 had serious problems with money and power and the other was ineffective and reviled by his church before he left. I’ll also note that after the fact, I learned that often the Conference knew that there were problems and simply moved these individuals from one church where they had a problem to another. The Conference was not proactive in any of these situations but reactive at best and sometimes complicit in covering up the problem).

  • Disorganized churches that don’t have a clear mission and purpose and suffer from disunity so members will often go to other churches or start new ones. Some of this has to do with different views of what Seventh-day Adventism is (in our area we have quite a few local churches. A couple of years ago, a group splintered off and created a new one because those individuals from a couple of churches felt like the existing churches were too liberal and they wanted a more traditional version of Adventism).

Finally, Loren suggests that as a denomination we are invested more in our other institutions including schools and universities. While this may be true at the conference level, I don’t think it’s true at the local level. I also think our schools and universities have the same problems as our churches as evidenced by declining enrollment, or stagnant enrollment at the elementary, high school and collegiate level. How is it that PUC has essentially the same enrollment as it did 30 years ago? Why is Oakwood having to make large cuts in their budget? My academy does not exist (had over 300 students when I was there) and the academy kids attend is 1/4 the size it was 30 years ago. At the same time, other religious schools at these levels have grown. Demographics certainly played a part in that. But a failure to recognize a changing American population and adapt to it was and continues to be an even greater failure.



I could be cynical and suggest that you really should have called this article “Why am I Not a Spiritual Celebrity Superstar!” But I wont do that!

Much of what you say may well be correct!

Adventist church congregations, by and large are small! I happen to live about 20 miles from David Assherick’s local church. My daughter attends there! It is doing well by all reports. However, there are another two congregations of comparable size within a 20 mile radius, as well as a real handful of other smaller but vibrant congregations within that radius as well. Yes, David’s congregation has experienced some transfer growth but it is limited! David is an effective communicator and a real pastor but as far as I have seen his celebrity superstar status in the Adventist world is fuelled by his contributions on Adventist media.

In Australia at least, until recent years, the real celebrity superstars were the old breed of Adventist publicevangelists. Australian Adventists are attempting to revive this activity but our society is much more complex than it used to be and Australian Adventists are still searching for the appropriate formula to join the power of Adventist public evangelism with multiple media platforms that are available now.

Yes! As in the NAD many of our smaller congregations are dying by degrees as the average age of congregatants increases.

The success of our Adventist heathcare, educational and media institutions is in part the product of denominational input. However, much of their financial viability and institutional sophistification is underwritten by government and by philanthropy, which is something local congregations can rarely claim.

To my mind the most effective way to improve the long term viability of our local congregations, both small and large is two fold. First, the only thing that will revive and re-form our congregations and institutions and rebuilt those links between all of these is the work of the Spirit. Second, such reviving and reformation by the Spirit will engender a renewed paradigm of mission to the world that all phases of Adventist ministry share.

In the South Pacific Division there is a new emphasis on Discipleship. To this end, the bulk of the Division departmental leaders are now team members of a new umbrella grouping known as Discipleship Ministries. Thus, whether it is youth ministries,children’s ministries, family ministries, personal ministries or health ministries, all have the one aim of producing, maturing and equiping disciples of our Lord.

Such a new emphasis really requires a new paradigm of ministry through which all of us in our various capacities and with our various gifts all engage together in the mission of God in our world. This mission was really best illustrated to our feeble senses by the ministry of Jesus, whose ministry all Christian disciples are to continue until its completion. The vicar of Christ, the Spirit of God, is to bless and strengthen us as we engage in Christ’s ministry. As we do this we will think global but act local. The ministry of Christ was to the whole person - physical, mental and spiritual.

The kingdom of God is present through the ministry of Christ. Healing ministries as well as educational ministries as well as ministry of the Word seeks to push back on the kingdoms of darkness and restore individuals to the kingdom of light. This work of restoration is best conducted as individual disciples move in tandem with health-care, educational, and preaching institutions. But all must have the same focus and mission.

There is no conspiracy with Adventist circles to move away from such a mission. Yet, if we are just continuing to do business as usual without considering the deeper focus of our activity and ministry we will be defeated.

This kind of change in our ministry paradigm would be greatly assisted were we to adopt a new scheme of appointment to ministry roles within our communion of faith. This would also entail the development and implementation of new rites of appointment to ministry among the flock and in the world.

This is the foundation behind my long-term advocacy of a lateral scheme of appointment to ministry and the associated rites of induction and blessing to these various roles. Yes, there will always be layers of accountability and seniority in our mission and ministry. But this can be very different from a hierarchical system of dictation and worldly authority.

In such a lateral scheme of appointment to serve the flock of God and the world, some individuals will receive appointment as deacons, elders, and pastors of the flock. Others will receive appointment as resourcing specialists and still others will be appointed as administrators, be it institutional settings or as financial roles. Still others will be appointed to be educators, health care workers etc. But all regardless of their gender will be induced into their specific role by a generic rite of appointment and also receive a credential which details their role description etc.Notice that some of these will be in paid employment. Others will not be.

In this way, we would dispense with a global Adventist clergy class. The focus of such an appointments scheme will not be on the preservation of a hierarchy and on the process of clericalization and institutionalization. Rather, the focus will be on the mission and ministry that lies nearest.


I do not subscribe to the fallacy that bigness is good, and small churches are failures. What I mean by “grow” is reaching people with the gospel of Jesus Christ. If you reach them and start new churches, your local church may not expand numerically, but it is most definitely “growing.” If you are located in a town that is losing population and your church manages to stay the same size, you’re probably “growing” (i.e., reaching new people for the Lord). as to why stagnant, ungrowing churches tend to stay that way. I send it forth hoping to plant some seed in the imagination of a pastor or other leader who will be used of the Lord to do great things in a small church.

There are connections to the conference and interference with fundraising from independent ministries to consider when studying why local small sized churches don’t “grow”. Why small churches stay small and probably will never grow. I’ve narrowed the main reasons to three.

  1. Wanting to stay small.
    “We like our church just the way it is now.” While that attitude usually goes unspoken–it might not even be recognized by its carriers–it’s widespread in many churches. The proof of it is seen in how the leaders and congregation reject new ideas and freeze out new people. The process of rejecting newcomers is a subtle one, never as overt as snubbing them. They will be greeted and chatted with and handed a printed bulletin. “Bob’s class is meeting this week over at Tom and Edna’s. Come and bring a covered dish.” “The youth will have a fellowship tonight at Eddie Joe’s. We’re serving pizza and you don’t want to miss it.” Unless you know who Bob, Tom, Edna, and Eddie Joe are and where they live, you’re out of luck. Pastors who want to include newcomers and first-timers in things should use full names from the pulpit. “I’ll ask Bob Evans to come to the pulpit and lead us in prayer.” This allows newcomers to learn who people are. “For those who need directions to Eddie Joe Finham’s house for the youth fellowship, he’s the guy with the crew cut wearing the purple shirt. Raise your hand, Eddie Joe. He has printed directions to give you.” No one can promise that if a church wants to grow it will. However, I can guarantee you that if it doesn’t, it won’t.

  2. A quick turnover of pastors.
    “They didn’t have pastors. They had preachers.”
    It takes at least a couple of years to become the real deal for a church, a pastor in more than name only, one who has earned the right to lead the congregation. With larger churches, the time period is more like six years. Again, no one will promise you that keeping a pastor a long time guarantees the church will grow. But I can assure you that having a succession of short-term pastors will prevent it from growing as surely as you took a vote from the congregation to reject all expansion.

  3. Domination by a few strong members.
    The process by which a man (it’s almost always a man) becomes a church boss is subtle and rarely, if ever, the result of a hostile takeover. That’s how it happens that one of them or possibly all three began to look upon themselves as the church itself. They make important decisions for the body, and everything works out. When the new pastor arrives, they let him know that anything he needs to know, he should call on them. He quickly sees that they have set themselves up as the board of directors, a layer of authority between the hired man (the preacher) and the congregation.
    In almost every instance, such self-appointed church bosses exist to frustrate the pastor’s initiatives, block his bold ventures, and control his tendencies to want the church to act on (gasp!) something he calls faith! Result: the church stays small. No normal church family coming into the community would want to join such a church. The remedy: the congregation must see that key lay positions in the church rotate, that no one stays chairman of the elders for thirty years or church treasurer for a generation. Members of the congregation must stand up in business meetings and ask questions: “Why was this done?” “Who made the decision that our church would do that?” “Why was the congregation not informed on this?” The one thing church bosses cannot stand is the light of day shown on their activities. Even though they convince themselves what they are doing is in the interests of the congregation, they don’t want others to know about it. “They wouldn’t understand.”

Do we want our local churches to reach people and expand and grow? Let’s get our eyes off what others are doing, because it isn’t working, and take responsibility for ourselves and do what Jesus wants us to do. Most of the small churches, to tell the truth, are declining at a rate so fast it can hardly be measured. You do not want to take your cues from them.
Ask the Lord, “What would you have us to do?” Then do it.


Thanks for your observations, Loren. You reveal systemic organizational issues and a philosophy that have mitigated against local church growth…and health, I might add. The siphoning off of funds and allegiances to what are largely para-church ministries and organizations drains the resources and potential impact of congregations upon their local communities.

One additional thought…our message is traditionally geared towards convincing other Christians that they are in the wrong place, on the wrong day. In an age when people were generally more biblically literate and “churched,” there was a target audience for such a message focus…even if it could be regarded as “sheep stealing.” But, in an age where most people can’t tell the difference between an apostle and an epistle, and largely don’t care, our traditional message and methods are horribly out of touch…reaching less and less people in North America and the rest of the developed world.

The traditionalist elements in our churches will say that this is a fulfillment of bible prophecy, that it is self authenticating. I had someone say this to me just this week. It becomes a basis for self satisfaction, that we are in the right place, and that changing this would be compromise. This reaches all the way to our GC leadership deciding to blanket urban areas with abridged versions of the Great Controversy…as if pounding the same drum harder in the same way will change things. We saw the results.

While all Christian churches are dealing with declining growth and reach, we seem particularly hemmed in. We are closed off to trying new methods and changing the emphasis of our message to meet people where they are at by one thing…the fear of compromise. The voices trumpeting this are often quite loud, and, unfortunately, those voices seem to have the greatest sway, from the local level all the way to the GC president.

When fear and a fortress mentality rule, spiritual life, health, and growth remain arrested.




Of all “mega-churches” in the United States (the definition of a mega-church here being those congregations of 5000+ members), 50% of them are non-denominational. Of those with denominational ties, nearly all of them downplay their denominational affiliations by never mentioning the denomination in print or from the pulpit. Many of the parishioners in these churches are not aware of the affiliation until having spent some time as a member of that church. These statistics probably account for the lack of a mega-church phenomenon within the SDA denomination.


But maybe most importantly, none of these congregations claims a prophet who specifically counsels against having large congregations.


I read with interest your post Loren, thanks for being open about your observations. One note of caution I would like to add. The article states
"Major metro areas like Cleveland and Pittsburgh don’t have a big flagship church, because there’s no Adventist hospital or college there."

That is an incorrect statement. for example in Cleveland, one of my best friends Dr Edmunds has a church of over 1,000 that has just purchased a mayor building, is planting another church and is reaching hundreds of people per year. That is in Cleveland. I can think of several others.

I have never bought into the fact that we cant have big churches. People need Jesus. I want to reach as many as I can for him.

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I owe @efcee, @sam and @blc a reply for a point that they made, and made better than I did.

They are absolutely right that there is no particular virtue in largeness. I had a call some years ago after I wrote on the topic of small churches for Christianity Today from a pastor who’d been part of Willow Creek staff, and told me that while he appreciated the experience, and had nothing bad to say against the church for what it was, he had come to have real doubts about what it was. He had come to realize that it wasn’t a realistic model for congregations, and raised people’s expectations for a “show” that wasn’t necessarily what Christianity was about.

I started and ended with that question about large congregations, and that was a mistake. You’ll notice that in between, though, I did use a different word to describe what I think we should see in congregations: strength. Our problem is that we simply don’t have strong congregations in most places, unless there’s an institution supporting them.

I keep wondering why more people aren’t as shocked as I am by that figure that 6 out of 10 Adventists are in 1 out of ten congregations. That’s an amazingly steep graph. Please think about that, and what it means for those 9 out of 10 congregations. Even if you assume that only half of those congregations are very small, that still leaves 4-5 that are on very thin ice.

My point being that we have an enormous number of congregations that are simply too weak to accomplish anything.

At the latest NAD church governance committee report at the October meeting, one of the answers is that we get rid of this problem of spending money on these congregations by withdrawing our support altogether! That’s a way to solve the problem: let them die. This offends me, not because some shouldn’t die, but because it is spoken glibly by a bunch of people who spend all their time in the halls of governance and large, successful churches, and haven’t a clue what’s going on out here. It’s been years since they’ve spent any time in these little churches! What these people don’t understand is that sometimes these congregations are the last bastion of SDAism in hundreds of miles. That would mean much of South Dakota, for example, would be without congregations. Is that really a good answer? I don’t think so.


@pastorvha: Roger, you are correct. I should have noted the regional conference church in Cleveland is quite successful. There is also a black church in Pittsburgh pastored by my friend Christopher Thompson.

But given the intentional racial definition of those congregations, can you call them “flagship” churches for a city? I don’t think so. Anyone going to them would say, “Yes, big church, but clearly a church for black people.” Being in a black church is a black cultural experience, in a way that being in a normal conference church isn’t a white cultural experience. Virtually all of our Ohio Conference churches, for example, are more integrated than any regional conference church I know. We have black and brown pastors in our Ohio Conference churches, but no white pastors in regional conference churches. So while I was in error not to acknowledge Glenville as a large church (at least in membership), it is a church for a minority of people in Cleveland, and I can’t call that a flagship church.

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