This is a day of big churches! A report to the Assembly a few years back noted the trend to more bigger churches, more smaller churches and fewer middle sized. Currently there are about 200 churches in Queensland, 46% have up to 50 members, 25% up to 100, 20% up to 200, and 9% over 200. Actual weekly attendance is estimated to be higher, by an average factor of about 2/3rds.
The churches larger than 200 account for about one third of the total state membership. The average size of church membership is about 90 members.
It is well known that once churches get to about 200 members (or attendees), the personal style of pastoral care and organisation needs to change. This is usually a matter which churches take in their stride, but occasionally there are problems of adjustment, and specialist help is called in to smooth the way.
But history can also teach us a lesson here. Is it possible that a Baptist church loses something when it gets too big, and in at least one important sense, no longer qualifies to be Baptist?
One of the most important and original founding documents of the Baptist movement has something to say about church size and Baptist identity. The “Declaration of Faith of English People remaining at Amsterdam in Holland”, dated 1611, has this interesting clause, Number 16;
That the members of everie Church or Congregation ought to know one another, that so they may performe all the duties off love one towards another both to soule and bodie. Matt 18:15. 1 Thes 5:14. 1 Cor. 12.25 And especiallie the Elders ought to knowe the whole flock, whereof they HOLIE GHOST has made them overseers. Acts 2).28; 1 Pet. 5.2, 3. And therefore a Church ought not to consist off such a multitude as cannot have particular knowledge one off another.
So a big church may not be able to function as a true church. Of course, the question is, how big is the “multitude” that this statement mentions? Perhaps we might want to say that it would be very different now compared with the 17th century – after all, don’t we have much better communications and social media. So if it were, say a 100 then, might it be several hundred now?
But there is surely a limit to the number of people and relationships that can be sustained effectively, whatever the state of communications and population density. Today’s Baptists are mostly urban so they probably do not live very much further away from each other than their counterparts in the towns and villages of Europe 400 years ago. So the dynamics might be similar, and total church size may still an important factor! The ideal might be dozens, rather than hundreds!
Overall, the average size in Queensland has been about 82 members. One hundred years ago, it crept over 100, but in the late 1950s it dropped down to round 60, probably due to vigorous efforts in planting new churches at the time. (see graph) Then came the policy favouring large churches, so it grew again.
Other factors also affected church size and how to handle the numbers of people involved. A few country churches had many outstations or branch churches (some had up to a dozen!). Practice varied whether to count their memberships separately or not. It was not always harmonious – there are many cases on record where disputes arose between the central church and outstations over finances and control of church life, even pastoral calls. Today’s multi-campus churches are simply a variation on the old scheme of churches and outstations. But that pattern is not always suitable, and today we have a trend to quite small churches in certain contexts.
The average for all Australian Baptist churches is lower than Queensland, around 70. There are of course many large churches across the border. But even our large churches are small compared with the giant churches in other countries—there are any number of single churches around the world that are said to have more members and attendees than the whole of Queensland (currently around 18,000 members and 30,000 attendees)! So our numbers need to be kept in perspective.
The global Baptist average is about 280 but there are big variations between different continents—Europe and the Caribbean are the smallest, while Africa and North America are huge.
Bigger churches are obviously able to do more because of their larger budgets and hordes of personnel. But it is important to keep in mind the reason for the early Baptist warning about large numbers. The point of the statement above is that they should not be so large as to lose the personal touch.
Mega-churches (and giga-churches!) churches typically employ extra pastoral staff and divide the church people up into smaller groups for nurture and fellowship.
But this practice just proves the point of our forbears in 1611—a Baptist church is the people in fellowship, making up the body of Christ for worship, pastoral care and especially discernment of the Lord’s leading. So it is necessary to be small enough to relate personally, or else it is simply not a Baptist church—just a religious organisation.
Of course there may be other reasons why a church (whatever its size) might not qualify as Baptist when it fails the test of people and pastors knowing each other personally—but that is another story!