Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

For Church, Baptists Find, Bigger Isn't Always Better

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

For Church, Baptists Find, Bigger Isn't Always Better

Article excerpt

EARLIER this century, Southern Baptists spread through the South with their ability to start new congregations in rural areas too small for other denominations to bother with. All it took was a few people and a lay preacher to form a church.

But in the past 40 years, the denomination turned deliberately to larger churches. The smaller churches closed or merged, and big churches with seminary-trained pastors became the trend.

According to a new study in the latest issue of the Review of Religious Research, however, bigger is not necessarily better. Increasing the size of congregations has brought lots of mid-size congregations whose members give less in time and money than members of smaller congregations.

Now at the top of the hill of Protestant denominations in terms of size, Southern Baptists have begun to move back to the "house churches" that first gave the Southern Baptist Convention its strength.

"It's really only been in the last generation that we've created these large churches, and our smaller churches became mid-sized churches," says the Rev. David Palmer, associate director of the convention's New Church Extension Division. "We made a fatal connection. We sold the idea that to be a real church, you had to have a full-time preacher."

In the Review of Religious Research, sociologist Roger Finke of Purdue University traces the subtle but dramatic transformation of the Southern Baptist Convention from a group of small, fiercely independent churches to a denomination larger than its Protestant counterparts in average church size and increasingly run by professionally trained clergy.

During the first 75 years of the convention's history, from 1845 to 1920, the average size of a Southern Baptist church increased by only 30 members, from 85 to 115, he says. During the past 70 years, congregation size has more than tripled to nearly 400.

Compared with other Protestant churches, the changes have been particularly striking, Mr. Finke says. For example, up until 1950, Southern Baptists averaged 255 members per church, less than the average of 277 members per church of Protestant denominations with more than 1 million members. …

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