rural church

America’s Largest Congregations and A Thriving Rural Church

on February 14, 2020

Ever wonder what America’s largest congregations are? You probably guessed that they’re all megachurches. Most do fit the typical megachurch description: multi-site campuses, satellite sermons broadcasted on jumbotrons, and located on the outskirts of metropolitan areas. They draw thousands of visitors each Sunday, some drawing over 30,000 attendees on average each week. Each week.

America’s largest congregations are also the fastest-growing congregations. Take Life.Church, in Edmond, Oklahoma, led by Pastor Craig Groeschel. Life.Church draws an average 85,000 weekly visitors to more than 30 campuses spread across several states. Pastor Joel Osteen’s Lakewood Church in Houston, Texas, gathers an average 43,500 in weekly attendance. Pastor Andy Stanley’s North Point Community Church in Alpharetta, Georgia, draws about 30,629 weekly worshipers.

There is success in the megachurch approach — in numbers, anyway. But critics of the megachurch model warn of fluffy sermons and loose doctrines. Forty percent of megachurches in North America are non-denominational, according to the Hartford Institute for Religion Research.

We continue to ask what attracts seekers to these massive congregations. According to a 2015 survey conducted by the Leadership Network and Hartford Institute, megachurch worship services rank highest at being inspirational (54%), and 46% responded that megachurch worship services both nurture people’s faith and are joyful.

While one may hope their local church could share the Gospel with thousands each week, I hesitate to hold America’s largest congregations as the standard-bearers for a healthy church.

My church in rural Appalachia bears little resemblance to the make-up of America’s largest congregations. Located in one of Virginia’s poorest counties, at least an hour away from the nearest cosmopolitan area, and yet, my local Southern Baptist Church has a vibrant presence and thriving congregation. But unlike America’s largest congregations, my local church has only one campus and draws an average 350 in weekly attendance (granted, a large congregation, by traditional standards).

Over at Christianity Today, Ed Stetzer, the Dean of Wheaton College’s School of Mission, Ministry, and Leadership and Executive Director of the Billy Graham Center, offers a fascinating series on church revitalization and spiritual health. In Part II of his series, Stetzer identifies evangelism, a “renewed focus on reaching people,” as the critical component of a healthy church and revitalization. While the size of a congregation is less central, Stetzer says that “a healthy church, like a healthy fruit tree, will produce fruit like it.”

My senior pastor agrees with Stetzer here. When discussing the make-up of a healthy church, including our rural Appalachian congregation, my pastor believes the answer is to avoid being inwardly focused and strive to send people, not get them to stay.

“A healthy church is always sending people out, not keeping them in,” said my senior pastor Wendell Horton this past Sunday, referencing J.D. Greear’s book Gaining by Losing: Why the Future Belongs to Churches That Send.

My rural church might not have a megachurch attendance, but we do have a massive ministry footprint in our community.

Seven days a week, my church hosts community-focused ministries and outreach programs. Our prison ministry shares the Gospel with inmates at a nearby state correctional facility. On Thursday mornings, a quilting ministry gathers to stitch blankets for a nearby pregnancy resource center and local women’s shelter. We have a food pantry that provides groceries to anyone who needs them, no questions asked. My favorite ministry, a ministry to young mothers, offers support to women who feel isolated and lonely in this particular season of life. Our church preschool, backpack ministry, Wednesday night youth programs, Sunday morning Sunday school, and Saturday Upward basketball programs ensure that kids who do not come from church backgrounds are nurtured, disciples, and loved. (I’ll stop the list here, but it does go on.)

My local church is blessed to be debt-free, which my pastor says allows our finances to have far-reaching effect. In his view, it also places a greater responsibility on our church to be generous with our funds and resources. It’s not how much you bring in, but what you do with that you get that matters, he said. Our rural congregation in a poor county is consistently among Virginia’s top-giving churches to the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering, a Southern Baptist international missions offering.

Our ministries are nearly all volunteer-driven, and our number of paid staff members is minuscule. So much of the work by ministry volunteers is unknown and unseen, but they do their jobs with joy. “God knows,” my pastor reminded us.

“Our church is known throughout the community,” Pastor Wendell continued, “Even if you don’t know who you are assisting, so many of you are helping others avoid disaster.”

The lesson here is don’t underestimate America’s rural churches based on their congregation size.

Dr. Martin Geise, the President of Oak Hills Christian College, wrote a 2017 article for the National Association of Evangelicals, emphasizing the often overlooked effectiveness of the rural Church. Geise wrote:

Rural churches have a successful track record of producing and exporting leaders for the work of the kingdom. The rhythms of rural life allow for times of spiritual reflection. The demands of rural life reward a strong work ethic. The unpredictability of rural life is an incentive for people to look to God for security.


Rural ministry leaders are in need of affirmation, encouragement and equipping for greater effectiveness. The American church has consistently celebrated the success of innovative ministries in large population centers while often overlooking or even denigrating innovative, successful ministries in smaller places.

If you can’t tell, I’m proud of my local church. Even though my church will never be among America’s largest congregations, we have “mega impact” in our area. We do so without compromising traditional Christian teaching.

If these past six years at the Institute on Religion and Democracy have taught me anything, it is that church health and doctrinal orthodoxy go hand in hand.

The Institute on Religion and Democracy reports, nearly weekly, on churches and church officials striving to win cultural approval by liberalizing and politicizing Christian teaching. These avoid proselytizing converts in order to appear tolerant and affirming. Most are representative of America’s fastest declining denominations.

As I’ve considered America’s largest churches and my local, rural church, it seems both church models can be successful, so long as they share one crucial mission: Outreach.

  1. Comment by Jason Foster on February 15, 2020 at 7:54 am

    This is an excellent and encouraging article on the often-forgotten smaller churches that are committed to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Praise God that he uses us where we are to minister and be ministered to.

  2. Comment by Presbyterian regugee on February 15, 2020 at 8:06 am

    In Midwest small towns, population less than 7,000, many independent Christian churches are thriving and growing. All it takes is a handful of business minded, determined, devoted Christians to start worship at the local school gymnasium or wherever. Emphasis on children’s worship, etc. seems to accelerate growth.

  3. Comment by Bill Lang on February 15, 2020 at 12:07 pm

    The true nature of the Church is to be outpouring. In Revelation the center of worship is where God has come to dwell, the believer from whom the river of life flows out into the world.
    I agree that most of the largest churches often preach a Gospel that is diluted and often doctrinally obscure.
    The smaller churches are often the source of care and concern for the community in which they reside. They can embody the great commission that as we are living our lives we are to make disciples by sharing the love of God.
    This being said, too often a small remains small because it is ingrown and seeks to insulate itself contrary to the commands of God. The larger churches often protect their members by providing a comfortable place to “worship” once or twice a week without the demands of the Cross.

  4. Comment by Presbyterian refugee on February 16, 2020 at 7:04 am

    As a native of the rural Midwest, one problem I’ve seen with smaller churches is their lack of resources to provide more than just a Sunday sermon and perhaps a Wednesday Bible study. These smaller churches sometimes join, or cooperate, with other small churches to provide Sunday school, Bible study, vacation Bible school, community outreach, 12 step support services, etc.

  5. Comment by John on February 17, 2020 at 5:42 pm

    I know the church you alluded to in your column. In February 2018 I was on one of many disaster relief teams sent to Arecibo, Puerto Rico by our Baptist state convention to assist in recovering from the devastation by Hurricane Maria. Pastor Wendell, his wife, and 10 others from your church were on our team. Fine folks all.

The work of IRD is made possible by your generous contributions.

Receive expert analysis in your inbox.