David vs. Goliath: Lawrence churchgoers weigh in on study about congregation size

Mike Yoder/Journal-World Photo Church members exit the St. Luke African Methodist Episcopal Church, 900 New York, after Sunday services recently. The historic East Lawrence church is in need of maintenance to save the century-old building.

Large churches

• Adults at Protestant megachurches were more likely to be registered Republican than adults at churches of fewer than 100 people.

• Attendees of large churches were more likely than others to give an “orthodox biblical response,” such as the Bible is totally accurate in all the principles it teaches, Satan is not merely symbolic but exists, Jesus led a sinless life, God is the all-knowing, all-powerful creator of the world who still rules the universe, etc.”

• Larger churches are more likely to have college graduates, affluent attendees and children under the age of 18 living at home.

• Ninety percent of people attending churches of 1,000 or more people say their religious faith is very important in their lives.

— Source: www.barna.org

Small churches

• Only 9 percent of people in churches of fewer than 100 people could be described as evangelical.

• Only 30 percent of people in churches of fewer than 100 people believe the devil is a real being.

• Eighty-one percent of people who attend churches of fewer than 200 people believe God is omnipotent.

• Less than half of people who attend churches of under 100 people believe Jesus Christ did not commit sins on earth.

• Attendees of congregations of fewer than 50 adults were more likely to agree with congregants at churches of 50 to 100 attendees.

• Of people attending churches of less than 100 people, 33 percent believe a good person cannot earn a place in heaven.

— Source: www.barna.org

Head south on Kasold Drive, and contrasting pictures of church life rush past as the road curves east to become 31st Street.

On one side sits the Lawrence Baptist Temple, a congregation led by the Rev. Gary Myer, whose membership is around 150. Across the street rises the towering steeple of the Lawrence Free Methodist Church, which boasts a congregation of between 750 and 800 attendees, led by the Rev. Bill Bump.

On Sundays, cars file into the parking lots as each congregation celebrates its faith.

But does that faith vary as much as the square footage of each building? That’s the question posed by The Barna Group, a research company that examines the intersection of faith and culture.

In a recent study, Barna asked 3,000 Protestant adults from variously sized churches about their faith. Among the findings: People who attend churches large and small do diverge on several aspects of faith. Some examples:

• Adults at churches larger than 1,000 attendees per week are more likely to feel a personal responsibility to tell others about their faith than members of churches with 100 or fewer weekly attendees.

• Young adults are more likely to affiliate with megachurches than churches of any other size. Meanwhile, adults in their 60s or older were less likely to attend churches of more than 500 attendees than smaller churches.

But is there really a difference in the land of faith between churches large and small? Myer, whose church is at 3201 W. 31st St., thinks so.

“I always illustrate it this way: When people say, ‘Oh, you’re that large church,’ I say, ‘No, we’re across the street.’ And I say, ‘We’re the David, they’re the Goliath,'” Myer says. “Remember who won the battle.”


So what makes a person pick a David or a Goliath or someplace in-between?

For Joyce McCray Pearson, it was familiarity that won out, even though that meant a change in size.

When she arrived in Lawrence in the 1990s, Pearson was looking for something particular: The scent of home.

A member of St. Paul African Methodist Episcopal Church in Wichita, a congregation of about 400 members, she went “church shopping” upon her arrival in Lawrence, looking at various congregations and denominations before sticking with the AME church and finding St. Luke AME Church, 900 N.Y., where she has been a member for 15 years.

“It just all seemed so … familiar and what I was used to, what I was used to from home,” she says of the church, which averages about 50 people each Sunday. “It was the exact the same thing, but smaller. There was just no transition.”

That’s not to say that a larger church didn’t have its immediate merits for the busy associate professor of law at Kansas University. She says that through her work as a church steward, choir member and piano player, the last thing Sunday is a day of rest.

“It’s not. Sometimes when I go, my husband doesn’t go, and I’m going out the door, he says, ‘Have fun at work!’ and laughs,” she says.

The Rev. Tom Brady can understand that attitude, even though he’s currently pastor at First United Methodist Church. With two campuses (946 Vt. and 867 Highway 40), four services and 1,500 members, the church is one of the largest in Lawrence. But he’s been the pastor of a church with fewer than 200 members, so he knows what Pearson is talking about.

“I think that there’s an attitude in a larger church that ‘if I don’t do it, somebody else will because there’s so many people.’ In a smaller church, the attitude is ‘if I don’t do it, it won’t get done,'” Brady says. “It’s not that they’re less committed in a larger church, because there’s equally committed people. There’s just a little bit different attitude, I think.”


When John Wilson was looking for a church as a student at KU, he also was looking for a place to call home, but in a much different context than Pearson.

Disenchanted with his previous experience at a Southern Baptist church in his native Oklahoma, Wilson sought out a church with a different mindset. He eventually settled on Plymouth Congregational Church, 925 Vt., which has one of Lawrence’s largest membership rolls: 1,146 people.

“I chose it because it’s kind of an intergenerational community of people who all come from different faith backgrounds, who all come from different life experiences, yet we’re united in an effort to kind of be as Christ-like as possible,” he says. “And by Christ-like, I mean, first and foremost to love everybody.”

Wilson says that though it’s a large congregation, he feels it is possible to get to know much of the church family through the multitude of activities and chances for involvement a large church can make available.

“There’s a role for everybody,” Wilson says. “Yes, we certainly have pastors and church staff, but the intention is really to have the members make decisions and help sustain the programs. It’s hard to get lost when you have responsibility within the church.”

A place for everyone

Somewhere in the middle is the Rev. Nate Rovenstine, pastor at Lawrence Wesleyan Church, 3705 Clinton Parkway. He was part of a church “restart” where Lawrence Wesleyan’s numbers dwindled to about 20 in the late 1980s. Now, the church has 300 to 350 congregants — putting it squarely in the middle of the church size spectrum in Lawrence. He sees pros and cons to churches of all sizes.

“My personal opinion is that I don’t think the size of the church has as much to do as what are your priorities, what is your mission and what you are concerned about,” Rovenstine says. “But, having said that, I do think that if you’re doing those things right and your church is healthy in that regard, your church will tend to grow.”

And single church size might not be the only indicator of that healthy growth, either, says the Rev. Rob Martin, pastor at Vineyard Church, a church of about 25 congregants that meets at the South Park Recreation Center, 1141 Mass.

“When we moved here, it wasn’t like I set out (and I said) I want to be Lawrence’s largest church,” he says. “But, on the other hand, to say that you don’t want to keep growing, in my mind, it’s like saying, ‘Well, you know what, we’re big enough and just everyone else can go to hell,’ it’s almost like you’re saying that, you know? So I don’t ever want to stop growing, but I think we would never probably get that big because I do have a high value for church planting.”

Tim Miller, KU professor of religious studies, says “healthy” also depends on each church’s definition — size, no matter how it’s measured, might not be the correct indicator of health nor a large reason why people chose the church they do or a marker of faith.

“Protestantism is a really free-market economy,” Miller says. “People go church shopping and they choose churches, and I think if you were to interview 100 different people, you would have a 100 different reasons why they ended up in the church where they did.”

Mission and purpose

Bump, the pastor at Lawrence Free Methodist, 3001 Lawrence Ave., says that though his church is one of Lawrence’s largest, he started his career at a church that had 50 to 100 people. He says that despite the study’s findings, he thinks faith is determined by the people who show up on Sunday, not the size of the church.

“I think people in small churches and large, there are people who have great, deep faith and are very active in their faith,” Bump says. “I think it has more to do sometimes with not issues of how great their faith is but more of what their mission is, what their purpose is.”

Brady, of First United Methodist, says big or small and anything in between, there is no “best” except what’s best for each individual congregant.

“I think each church has its own identity of some sort, and people are OK with that. I don’t think one is better than another. And they know that people will go to their church for different reasons than they would come here,” Brady says. “So I don’t think it’s a competition or any kind of resentment, I think each church is unique and special based on its size partly and what kind of ministries they are involved in.”