Breaking the 200 Barrier

By: C. Peter Wagner

By all odds the church you pastor or attend is under 200. What are the odds? Eight chances out of 10! Only two churches of every 10 in the United States have broken the 200 barrier.

We live in a whole world of small churches. Most churches in Paraguay, for example, or in India or in the Philippines are small. Even in Europe where large church buildings are found scattered everywhere, the real churches-the congregations-are small. The average Lutheran parish in Germany has over 3,000 members but Sunday attendance funs well below 200.

The desire to lead their churches through the 200 barrier is a top agenda item for most pastors who study church growth. They feel that expansion growth is a part of their job description-either implicitly or explicitly.

At the same time, I am well aware that many small-church pastors are not particularly interested in church growth–nor are the people in their congregations. Their focus is on maintenance. The status quo has been a comfortable situation for years and they see little need to change it.

This article, however, is for those who desire that their small church becomes larger. It might not necessarily become a super church, but perhaps a goal of 500 or so would be something that would please God. So Let’s analyze the 200 barrier itself and list some of the important steps to take in breaking it.

The 200 Barrier

Several researchers have explored a dozen or so apparent numerical ceilings to growth. The one number which has the broadest consensus as a predictable barrier to growth has been 200. Lyle Schaller calls this the “awkward size” for a church. The history of numerous churches has seen vigorous growth to about 200 and then an indefinite plateau. What is meant by the 200?

I have found that the best way to say it is 200 active adults in your fellowship. I don’t use the word “members” because that term is understood in many different ways today. In fact some of the most vigorously growing churches will tell you they have no members at all. So let’s think of 200 adults who consider you to be their pastor and whom you regard as part of your flock.

Furthermore, the number 200 is only an approximation. In fact it represents the midpoint of a range from 150 to 250. Some churches hit the barrier with 150 active adults, but others experience different growth dynamics and do not hit it until they have about 250.

In light of this, if your 200 barrier is toward the low end of the scale, you might be looking at a Sunday attendance of 100, give or take 20, and be right up against the barrier.

Why Is the Barrier There?

Some churches remain under the 200 barrier because of what are known as contextual factors. These are sociological influences which are beyond the control of the local church. Contextual factors cause two terminal illnesses which have killed many a church. The first is ethnikitis, which is usually an urban disease caused by a changing community. The second is ghost-town disease (formerly “old age”), which is usually a rural disease caused by a disintegrating community. I will not elaborate here except to make reference to my book Your Church Can Be Healthy (Abingdon) where these diseases and others are explained.

Other churches probably stay under the 200 barrier because of institutional factors which the local church can and does control. Five chief institutional factors–none of which is per se bad or sinful–tend to keep a church small:

The desire to preserve social intimacy. The fact that every member knows everyone else takes priority over growth which could spoil the intimacy.

The desire to maintain control. Many, if not most, small churches are controlled by a power center which perceives new members as a threat.

The desire to conserve memories. Frequently anything which might suggest the need for a new building is avoided because of memories attached to the present site.

The desire to protect turf. New people are seen as alien invaders of “what we have worked so hard to obtain.”

The desire to remain comfortable. Change is a menace to the status quo and growth is rejected because it produces change.

The Right Size

Carl Dudley, an expert on the small church, tells us that small churches are already the right size. The right size for what? The right size for everyone in the church to know or at least know about everyone else.

Studies in group dynamics have shown that the ideal size for a group to experience social fellowship is 40. The number can be stretched to 80, but not far beyond. This is why over 50 percent of U.S. churches are, in fact, under 80.

But churches which stretch themselves to between 80 and 200 are oversized and like a saturated solution. Strong social mechanisms operate to keep it from growing larger. In other words the whole church is one fellowship group and that group is already too large to be effective.

Breaking the Barrier

When I train my church planters, I urge them not to stop at the 200 barrier. I give them six components of planning which, if applied successfully, should assure them of passing through the barrier. For pastors of existing churches which have plateaued under 200 these principles help highlight areas of church programming which need to be examined.

Staffing. A new church should start with two program staff members. Since this is impossible in many cases, the alternative is to add the second staff member before the church reaches 100 active adults, the third before it reaches 200, and so on until it reaches 500.

That seems like a very high number of staff to most who hear it the first time. This is because most churches are staffed for maintenance, not growth. The above are sound figures for growth.

Fellowship groups. The new church should start with multiple options for adult fellowship groups. These can take any number of forms such as adult Sunday school classes, home cell groups, ministry teams, special activity groups or what have you.

Whatever form they take, the function is to keep the church from ever becoming just one fellowship group where the size factor alone will keep the church under 200. Existing churches need to work on this area right away if they are going to break the barrier.

Leadership mode. The pastor needs to function as a rancher rather than a shepherd in order to break the 200 barrier. Up to 200 one pastor can provide pastoral care for virtually the whole congregation. But in order to go over 200, pastoral care must be delegated to others.

The basic question is not whether the sheep get cared for, but who cares for the sheep. Pastors unwilling to let others do the home visits, the hospital calls and the counseling will probably remain small church pastors.

Pastoral function. The pastor must be a leader, not a mere employee. The larger the church the more crucial is the role of the senior pastor. Small churches which look at their pastor as a sort of chaplain must change their attitude if they are to break the 200 barrier.

A chief pastoral function is that of equipping the saints to do the work of the ministry (see Eph. 4:12). Pastors who attempt to do all the ministry themselves cannot lead their church through the barrier.

Facilities. Many churches have locked; themselves under the 200 barrier by purchasing property and building too soon. I advise new church planters to use leased or rented facilities at least until theyare well beyond the 200 barrier.

In fact many existing churches would do well to sell their present building which is poorly located, unattractive and too small-and use a school, hotel conference room, or whatever if they are serious about crossing the barrier.

By-laws. If possible, it is best for church planters to postpone writing detailed bylaws until they reach 500. Most existing models for bylaws tend to siphon off the authority of the pastor and thus build in slow growth potential.

Admittedly, it is easier for a new church never to stop at the 200 barrier than for a plateaued church to regain growth momentum.However, it is being done. If both the pastor and the people have a desire for growth and a commitment to do whatever is necessary to make it happen, breaking the 200 barrier is an attainable goal for most.

(The above material appeared in the Sept/Oct 1988 issue of Ministries Today.)

Christian Information Network