To Break Through the 200 Barrier
Kevin Springer interviews C. Peter Wagner
Church growth expert C. Peter Wagner describes some terminal diseases stifling growth for some small churches—and unlimited potential for
those willing to pay the price.
Editor’s note: C. Peter Wagner is professor of church growth at Fuller Theological Seminary, School of World Mission, Pasadena, California. For 16 years he served as a missionary in Bolivia under SIM International. An author of 25 books on church growth and evangelism, Wagner holds advanced degrees from Fuller, Princeton Theological Seminary and the University of Southern California. He was interviewed for Ministries by Kevin Springer.
Q: Much of the church growth literature focuses on how large congregations have been successful at getting even larger. But I haven’t read much about how to help a congregation of 40 or 50 adults grow. What are some of the key elements in getting the congregation of 50 moving?
A: We’re doing a lot more teaching on small churches now than we were in the earlier period of the church growth movement. Experts on small churches usually put a dividing line at about 200 average Sunday attendance. A church that is under 200 is small and the church that is over 200 is medium or large, depending on how much over 200 the congregation is. Eighty percent of, the churches in America are under 200 in worship attendance. So we’re talking about the vast majority of churches when we discuss the small church.
When I talk about small churches one of the first things I say is that it’s OK for some churches to be small, as long as they’re fulfilling the Great Commission in other ways: supporting foreign missions, planting new churches, occasionally being a funnel for new converts into big churches.
Many churches not only are small but are going to remain small. So what do we say to churches of 50 and 60 people? First, decide whether it’s God’s will to become other than a small church. If they do decide it’s God’s will to become larger, then the second task is to decide if it’s possible, that is, whether or not they have one of the terminal illnesses.
Q. What sort of illnesses might afflict a small church?
A. The first “ethnikitis” a disease caused by a changing community. For example, churches establish in neighborhoods which undergo social, economic and racial changes are in a difficult time, because that group of people to whom they originally ministered no longer live nearby. The new groups, in most instances, are not accessible to the old church. This is by far the number one killer of churches in America today.
The second is what I’m now calling “ghost town” disease. That’s the disease found particularly in rural areas where the community is disappearing. Obviously, the growth potential for the church in this sort of area is particularly low. Churches can do very little (except re-locate) about ethnikitis or ghost-town disease.
Other diseases are cause by institutional factors, so they’re curable; churches can do something about them. For example, one of those is “koininitis,” where koinonia, or fellowship has become exaggerated. There’s so much fellowship going on that new people aren’t allowed in. Another on is sociological strangulation, where the physical facilities do not accommodate the people flow in a growing church.
Q: And do they need a willingness to be honest if they have a terminal illness?
A: Yes, they do. That step requires an intelligent diagnosis of the situation. We have plenty of technology available for that kind of diagnosis to be done.
Next, the two things that have to happen is that the pastor must want the church to grow and be willing to pay the price, and the people must want the church to grow and be willing to pay the price.
The prices to be paid by the pastor and the people are different. Often, when it comes right down to it, when they begin to understand what the price is, they find out that it is higher than they are willing to sacrifice. If either pastor or congregation is unwilling to pay the price, the church will usually not grow.
For the people, the major factor, as Carl Dudley in his book Making the Small Church Effective has written, is the unique characteristic of a small church: it is a single cell, where there’s a very high degree of intimacy and where everybody in the church knows or knows about everybody else. This is one element of church life that people in the church of 50 are going to have to give up to become a large church. And it’s the very thing that usually they don’t want to grow. They want to grow without giving up their intimacy. But they can’t do it like that. That’s where the blockage n the congregation is for most small churches.
Q: Where is the blockage most frequently found in the pastor’s life?
A: Here is the rule of thumb: the smaller the church, the less crucial is the role of the senior pastor; the larger the church is, the more crucial is the role of the senior pastor. Pastors of small churches are not used to being very crucial elements in the church. They’re used to being employees of the lay people who really “own” the church.
So in order for the pastor to lead the small church into growth, one of the first things that he or she must do is assume responsibilities of growth they run the risk of failure. Temperamentally and psychologically, many pastors cannot do that- which, incidentally, is part of the personality profile of a small church pastor.
We affirm that God loves small church pastors, and God has called many to be small church pastors and to remain small church pastors. So not every small church pastor is going to assume the responsibility for growth, nor should they.
Q: What are the key characteristics that always seem to be found in growing churches today?
A: Whenever we analyze that, we take into consideration interaction between what we call institutional factors and contextual factors. The institutional factor is the factor that the local church as an institution can control. The contextual factor is a sociological factor that is beyond the control of the local church.
In many cases, the contextual factors are extremely important. For example, growing churches are located in areas that have high growth potential, which in our particular country are usually where people are moving in. These areas have the kind of people who respond to the philosophy of ministry of particular churches. It follows that most of the growing Anglo churches are found I suburban situations; not all, but a great percentage of them.
There are important vital signs in healthy churches. Two are especially crucial, and they are both institutional factors. Time and again in studies, two factors rise to the top in determining church growth. Number one is strong pastoral leadership; the second is mobilization and equipping the lay people for ministry.
Q: Would you expand on what you mean by “strong pastoral leadership” and what you mean by equipping the people of God?
A: We discovered that the growing churches, almost invariably (there are exceptions, of course), turn out to have strong authoritative pastoral leadership. So we began to ask ourselves if this was something we should teach others.
At that time—this was in the 70’s—the model that had been the most popular for church leadership in seminaries and in many pastoral situations was the pastor as an ‘enabler.’ The enabler is a pastor who goes into a church and is rather laid back, who helps the people in the church verbalize what their goals are and then helps them to fulfill those goals. He is a facilitator to the lay people in the church.
This idea of the pastor as an enabler can be traced historically back to World War II, where in reaction to dictators in the war, a strong anti-authoritarian strain came into American social psychology. America went on an anti-authoritarian line that peak in the ‘60s, when the idea of Maslow’s hierarchy of people reaching to the apex of self-actualization was a guiding principle. Everybody did their own thing and was not particularly responsible to anyone else. That model was experimented with in the churches, with much popular literature on church leadership reflecting that thought.
But there were two authors who began to see the weaknesses of the enabler model. First was Lyle Schaller in his book Effective Church Planning. The other was Richard Hutcheson in his book The Wheel Within the Wheel. When I read those two books, what I had been thinking for a long time was reinforced.
So what we have developed now is the model of a church leader not as an enabler but as an equipper. The pastor who is an equipper, who actively sets goals for a congregation according to the will of God, obtains goal ownership for the people, and sees that each church member is properly motivated and equipped to do his or her part in accomplishing the goals. That is the approach to leadership that produces church growth.
Q: How large should a church be?
A: There’s no definite size, because the size of the church depends on its philosophy of ministry. And the secret of success is to find a need and fill it. So the growing churches are churches that know what the needs of the people are and are able to develop a large enough inventory of services to meet those needs. In this sense, as a church grows, it provides more services.
Another vital sign is the fellowship dynamic. I call this getting a balance between celebration, which is the Sunday worship service, and the fellowship groups, which I call congregation middle-size fellowship group) and cell (a small group). Finding a good balance is difficult to do, but when it is found there usually is growth.
Q: How Important is evangelism to growth in small churches?
A: Growing churches have well-developed evangelistic methods that make disciples, that bring people to Christ and into fellowship with the church. Some of these are formal methods, some informal, but most all are always effective.
Growing churches, with very few exceptions, have their biblical priorities in order. In other words, they believe in the person and work of Christ, the centrality of the need for personal salvation, and the importance of being a member of the body of Christ. Regarding the work of Christ in the world, they give priority to the evangelistic mandate, not neglecting the cultural mandate and social responsibility, but they always give the highest priority to evangelism.
Kevin Springer is the editor of Common life and is coauthor with John Wimber of Power Evangelism, which will be released in May. He served as associate editor of Pastoral Renewal.
This article, “Breaking through the 200 Barrier”, interview of C. Peter Wagner, conducted by Kevin Springer, was excerpted from Ministries; Spring 1986.
This article may not be written by an Apostolic author, but it contains many excellent principles and concepts that can be adapted to most churches. As the old saying goes, “Eat the meat. Throw the bones.”