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. By 1990, the other denominations had increased their church size to only 297, while the Southern Baptists grew to 396 members per church.
To run these larger churches, congregations became less dependent on local preachers who would have another job in town to support themselves, and increasingly turned to seminary-trained clergy.
Finke said it took nearly a century (until 1950) for Southern Baptist seminaries to furnish their first 10,000 graduates. Since 1950, convention seminaries have produced more than 60,000 graduates.
But while churches have been getting larger, researchers have found what early Southern Baptists knew all along: There is strength in small numbers. In small groups, members are more accountable to one another and are able to maintain a high set of religious standards, Finke says. Supportive social networks, fervent testimonials, and a sense of belonging are but a few of the advantages of small religious groups, he says.
The figures bear out a high level of commitment in small churches. Churches with less than 100 members have the highest rate of Sunday School enrollment, with some 86 percent of the congregation participating in churches with fewer than 50 members. In contrast, less than half the members of mid-sized churches are enrolled in Sunday School.
Finke says members' contributions are also higher in small churches. The average contribution of a member in a small (less than 50) congregation was $374 in 1990. Churches of 200 to 300 members reported an average contribution of $235. The numbers rose again, to $435, for churches of more than 3,000 members, but Finke said that may be due in part to the ability of some ``super churches'' to organize small groups within the larger congregation.
The changes have not gone unnoticed within the 15 million-member denomination. ``We're seeing an infant movement right now to start house churches,'' small churches that meet in homes or public buildings without a full-time pastor, Palmer says.
``There's a sense of really being a family,'' says Jonathan Campbell, a ``church planner strategist'' in Riverside, Calif. ``It's just a true sense of caring for one another.''