For hundreds of years the most important question people asked when choosing a church had to do with denomination. That can still be a major factor (even today very few people move effortlessly from Lutheran to Baptist to Episcopal services), though the rise of non-denominational churches has diminished it somewhat. The new "big question" that has emerged only in recent years concerns something quite different: size. People searching for a church have a wide range of options, from cell groups to house churches to churches that meet in coffee shops and bars. But the most common choice is between a small church or a mega-church. Both have advantages and both have drawbacks, all of which must be considered.
In some ways, choosing between a small church and a mega-church requires the same analysis of advantages and disadvantages that one would apply to the question of whether to live in a small town or a large city. In saying this I am not discounting the leading of the Holy Spirit in choosing a church or diminishing the importance of a congregation's doctrinal beliefs, but rather acknowledging the realities of life in America today.
Before looking at the strengths and weaknesses of the two types, some definitions are needed. For the purposes of this article, a mega-church is any congregation with over 2,000 people attending regularly. A small church is one with fewer than 250 regular attendees. Obviously there are a great number of churches whose congregations fall between these two numbers, but this is a look at small vs. mega, not medium vs. fairly large.
The New Testament has examples of both types of congregations. The first chapters of the Book of Acts tell of very rapid growth in the church that occurred as people were hearing the Gospel for the very first time. You can see similar explosive growth anytime the Gospel was proclaimed in areas where it had not been heard before, such as Korea after the Japanese occupation and Eastern Europe after fifty years of communist rule. In Romans 16:3-5, Paul acknowledges a much smaller church, sending greetings to Priscilla and Aquila and the "church that meets at their house." The house church movement in China mirrors this type of congregation. Jesus himself gave us the minimum size for a congregation: two or three. In Matthew 18:20 He said: "For where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them."
Small churches offer one thing that mega-churches can't match: a real sense of family. There is something comforting about being somewhere where everyone knows you, especially as we become more and more disconnected from each other as a society. People in small churches also have much greater direct access to their pastor; this diminishes as the congregation grows larger and the demands on the pastor's time increase. The mixing of age groups in smaller churches also helps by intermingling the excitement and energy of younger or new believers with the wisdom and experience of senior adults. Singles get to hear the problems discussed by married couples in their classes, and thus aren't as surprised when they encounter these same problems after they get married.
The strength of that interaction of age groups has a downside, however. The singles often have greater interaction with married couples precisely because there are so few other singles. This lack of others at their same stage of life can be discouraging (although even large churches do a poor job of caring for singles). Smaller congregations also are more likely to suffer from a dearth of programs and ministries due to lack of funds and lack of people to lead them. Sometimes simply providing a decent living for the pastor can be a financial strain on a very small church.
Mega-churches have to be concerned about finances as well, but for very different reasons. Most have a large number of programs and ministries, and need to bring in huge amounts of money to finance these programs. There is little access to the pastor, who may only be seen by most on Sunday mornings. Mega-churches offset this by having very large ministerial staffs, with ministers for married adults, singles, children, missions, etc. I know of at least one mega-church in North Dallas that has over forty full-time ministers on staff for a congregation of 28,000.
One of the single biggest advantages of mega-churches is the quality of their children's programs. Given the fact that many couples either return to church or start going for the first time when they have children, the size and quality of a children's ministry has a huge impact on the growth of a church. An outgrowth of this is also an increase in Bible study classes for married couples, with more choices than you will find in a small church.
As I said above, singles (particularly those who are divorced) are often treated as second-class citizens in churches regardless of size, but they have more opportunities in mega-churches simply by virtue of their larger numbers. Mega-churches also tend to do multiple mission trips during the course of a year, so those with a heart for missions have far more options than are available in a smaller congregation.
Mega-churches have drawbacks, of course. Many attend simply because of the status some of these churches have, hoping to cut business deals or move up socially as a result of their membership. Mega-churches also have a tendency to become small cities unto themselves, with activities every night of the week, coffee bars, bookstores, full workout facilities, even bowling alleys and movie theaters. You can essentially live there, which totally goes against Jesus' command that we go into the world and be salt and light.
In the end, you may have to visit both types of churches before finding the one you are most comfortable with and where you can best serve. Neither type of church is good or bad based solely on its size; we need to keep in mind that growth is a not always sign of God's favor and blessing, as well as the fact that smaller doesn't necessarily mean less worldly. A church cannot be judged by its size, but by the heart of its members and their impact on the world.