200 barrier tipping point

For many years I’ve known about the 150-200 attendance barrier in churches.  Church growth experts tell us that a variety of conditions must be met in order for churches to grow to the next level.  Large churches are not just bigger versions of small churches.  Growth just doesn’t happen.  Churches and pastors must make a decision to grow, then must intentionally plan for that growth by reshaping who they are.

One of my most interesting observations as a superintendent is how many pastors talk to me about the challenge of breaking the 200 barrier.  Why is it so difficult for a church to grow beyond 200 in attendance?  Here’s what I’ve learned.

  • One preacher and a core of active lay members can move a church to 200 in attendance.  Beyond that the work load becomes saturated.  The pastor can no longer be the only leader and care giver.  More staff members are usually needed to move beyond the 150-200 barrier. 
  • The purpose of additional staff (education, music and worship, youth, evangelism) is not to do all the work but to train, equip and empower lay people to do ministry.
  • In order to move beyond 150-200 in worship, you need a facility that has enough space for programming and small groups to meet.  A typical church facility can only house 200 or less.  You may need to consider 2 worship services.
  • The role of the pastor changes.  The pastor cannot do all the pastoral care, teach all the classes and attend every committee meeting.  The pastor has to learn how to supervise staff, create a leadership team, delegate and share ministry.  You must be a transformational leader.
  • The mindset of the congregation changes.  You are no longer one big happy family but a group of families.  Small groups become critical.  People need more intimate settings in which to connect. 
  • You may need a new organizational structure.  The church council no longer consists of everyone in the church!  You must indentify and train lay leaders to assume leadership, and the congregation has to learn how to trust them to make decisions on its behalf.
  • Evangelism and outreach must become priorities.  Don’t wait for people to come to you.  You must move outside the walls of the church and have a plan for growth as well as mission. 
  • You must have quality programming and worship.  Style of worship is not as important as excellence in worship.

These concepts are not unique to churches.  I recently read Malcolm Caldwell’s bestselling book, The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference.  Caldwell’s thesis is that there is a dramatic time in any movement when major changes in our society happen.  It’s called the tipping point.  It’s that point when movements take off, radical change and progression seem far out of proportion to the cause, and the unexpected suddenly happens.

Caldwell claims that the number 150 is one such tipping point and cites British anthropologist Robin Dunbar, “The figure of 150 seems to represent the maximum number of individuals with whom we can have a genuinely social relationship, the kind of relationship that goes with knowing who they are and how they relate to us.”  What is the average number of people in any village around the world?  150-200, claims Dunbar.  When a village grows beyond 200, a more complicated hierarchy has to be imposed for order to be maintained.   He also cites a rule of thumb used by military planners that fighting units should not include more than 200 soldiers.  Soldiers simply cannot become familiar enough with more than 200 people to work as a unit.

Caldwell uses the high tech company, Gore Associates, creators of the water-resistant Gore-Tex fabric, as an example of how the 150 rule applies to business.  Gore Associates has been highly profitable for 35 years and has thousands of employees.  Part of the reason for their success is that they made a decision to limit their plants to 150 people.  They discovered that increasing plant numbers from 100 to 150 wasn’t a problem but moving from 150 to 200 presented huge barriers.  The leaders of Gore Associates realized that people work better in smaller environments, where employees know each other and the peer pressure of informal personal relationships becomes a primary motivator.  Plants of 150 employees also eliminate layers of middle and upper management.

Interestingly, Malcolm Caldwell refers to Methodism as an example of a religious movement that successfully reached a tipping point by the astute use of group power.  Why did Methodism spread by wildfire in the late 18th and early 19th century, going from 20,000 to 90,000 followers in the United States in the space of 5-6 years in the 1780s?  It was because of the genius of John Wesley’s organization of converts into religious societies and smaller classes, which met weekly to hold each other accountable.  Wesley understood that if you really want to change belief and behavior, you must find a way to create community in the midst of large numbers of people.  It was the incredible power of these small groups to attract and connect people that provided the tipping point.

Of the 416 churches in the West Michigan Conference, 299 are under 200 in membership.   There are even more churches that are over 200 in membership but less than 200 in attendance.  A vast majority of our churches have not been able to break the 200 barrier. 

  • If you are in a church with less than 200 in attendance, are you willing to reshape your ministry and work with church leadership to reach the tipping point in your congregation?
  • If you are in a church with more than 200 in attendance, are you willing to encourage and provide resources for your colleagues to help their congregations make the leap?
  • Are you familiar with the radical change that every church and pastor must experience to move to the next attendance level?  There are lots of excellent resources to help.  One of them is Raising the Roof; Pastoral-To-Program Size Transition by Alice Mann of the Alban Institute.

Little things can make a big difference.

Blessings, Laurie

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