Breaking the 200 Barrier

By John Sweetman

Recently a few QB Regional Consultants and some Malyon College faculty combined to run a half-day conference on Breaking the 200 Barrier. We had a very helpful morning with over 40 pastors and church leaders attending. Let me briefly explain what such a conference is about.

Now I need to note at the outset that I’m not saying that one size church is better than another. Healthy, effective churches can be any size. I’m sure there are tiny cell churches in China that are spiritually stronger than Western megachurches. It’s just that growth in numbers will eventually require changes in structure.

Research on churches over the last 50 years has shown that many churches struggle to grow past 200 people in worship attendance.

Sometimes the problem is leadership, sometimes it’s health, sometimes it’s a shrinking community, and at other times it’s spiritual apathy. But spiritually healthy churches with good leadership in growing communities can still find it difficult to grow past 200. In fact, quite a few of our strong Queensland Baptist churches are sitting around the 200 mark.

One significant challenge is that around 200, a church has to considerably change the way it operates to allow further growth. If these changes are not made, it is likely that new Christians will still be added, but some attenders will eventually leave, keeping the numbers fluctuating around 200.

Let me explain how church structures change above the 200 mark.

Family-size church versus teams-size church

A family-size church (up to 200) is just that: a big family that tends to centre around the pastor.

The pastor knows everyone and everyone knows the pastor. The pastor keeps a fatherly eye on everything, dealing with pastoral issues, solving problems, teaching and preaching, and making sure that it all holds together. There will be lay leaders and maybe some junior staff members (as the church grows towards 200).

It’s not that the pastor does all the work, but the pastor is the one with a finger on the pulse and who knows what is happening. In a family-size church, if you want to find out something, ask the pastor.

The church feels like a family. Newcomers are easily recognised because the church members are familiar with the regular attenders.

First names are used a lot in the church service, e.g. ‘It’s good to have Sam and Michelle back from their overseas trip’ or ‘If you want to know more about the ladies’ camp, see Debbie’. The big decisions are usually made together by the family in a church meeting. It’s important that everyone in the family has the opportunity to have a say.

A healthy church with a good pastor often grows quite naturally towards 200 as God does His work. Newcomers are attracted by the friendliness and family feel, and they find significant love and support.

Growth ImageOn the other hand, a teams-size church (200-500) consists of lots of family groups of different types led by a range of leaders. It’s no longer possible to know everyone in the church.

Members tend to find their support and relationships within their family group(s). The main leader for them may not be the senior pastor, but an associate pastor or lay person who leads their ‘family’ ministry. So the young people will follow the youth pastor, the intercessors will relate to the prayer ministry coordinator, and those in small groups may gain most of their information about the church from their small group leader. When you have a need, you look for your leader/pastor, not the senior pastor.

In a way, senior pastors of teams-size churches fade a little out of sight.

They do less up-front leading of ministries and more behind-the-scenes coordinating and problem-solving, and seeking God. They focus more on leading their team well, keeping them accountable, and making sure they are all pursuing the same vision and operating by the same core values. If the team functions effectively in a way that is pleasing to God, ministries expand and the church can continue to grow as newcomers are attracted by, and find their place in, the range of ministries.

Teams-size churches need strong management. As the church becomes more complex as an organisation and more diverse, it is easy for confusion and conflict to grow. Efficient structures and good communication become vital. You need systems to make sure that things happen.

Moving from family church to teams church

So you can see that family-size and teams-size churches are quite different organisms. Oh, of course they still have a huge amount in common (God and the Bible, theology, and the values and mission of the church don’t change), but there are also some significant differences. It would take an exceptional pastor to lead a 400 attendance church with a family-size structure.

I am going to offer some suggestions on transitioning a church through this 200 barrier. They are purely practical suggestions. There are many prior questions to be asked like, ‘What does God want of our church?’ and ‘How is God calling us to change?’ The important question is, ‘Where is God leading our church?’ Some pastors and churches will operate most effectively at the family size and probably should not attempt transition. Other options for growth include church planting, moving to a cell-based structure, or even sending people to support other local congregations.

But if you feel God is leading your church to move past 200, then here are some changes that need to be considered. I am going to state them strongly, but hold them lightly and test them carefully. Scripture is our authority, not my ideas.

  1. The senior pastor has to release the fatherly role. In a healthy family-size church, the pastor knows the congregation personally, ministers to each family in some way, and is trusted and loved by the church. Pastors in teams-size churches have a somewhat different role. They don’t know everyone personally, they don’t provide pastoral care for the whole church family, and they don’t keep tabs on everything that is happening in the church; nor do they need to. They share the load of pastoring and leading with their staff and other lay leaders, and they act more as managers and mentors and conflict resolvers. In other words, they pastor, support and lead the leaders. To make this transition, a pastor has to be willing to relinquish control of the ministries and the special relationship with each church family member.
  2. The congregation has to release the senior pastor. Equally important, for this transition to occur effectively, the congregation has to be willing to release the pastor. It’s never easy for members to lose close connection with their personal, trusted pastor. If the pastor operates by a teams’ paradigm, but the congregation is not willing to accept the change, then a great deal of pain results. A few steps are essential to this transition. First, the leaders have to really be supportive of the change of role. Their support will help ease the grief of the congregation and partially protect the pastor from criticism. Second, the congregation needs to understand the reasons for the change. This will require constant communication over a considerable period of time. Third, the church needs a few wins with the new paradigm to gain confidence and see that it is not all loss. For example, the new pastoral care system needs to initially provide stronger support than the senior pastor could provide.
  3. The pastor and congregation have to accept diversity. The family-size church often values safety, predictability, and commonality. The pastor can be relied on to steer the ship and avoid the dangers. The congregational members know what is going on and that provides security. But a teams’ paradigm requires the pastor allowing others to lead and pastor, and the congregation trusting people that they don’t even know to lead ministries. Leaders with somewhat differing theologies, cultures and perspectives will influence small groups and ministries. Commonality gives place to diversity in the teams-size church. Everyone gives away some sense of control over the outcome.
  4. Vision and management need to sharpen. A church under 200 can still function well with minimal vision and management because a family grows around relationships, not systems. However, the size and diversity of a teams-size church requires common vision, systems and structures to make it work effectively. This is what Jethro had to explain to Moses, who was trying to lead Israel like the father of a family (Exodus 18:13-20). For example, in a teams-size church you don’t find Joe if you want to go to the men’s conference; you fill out a form at the information table.

These can be big changes for a family-size church. You can see why growing past the 200 barrier can be so challenging for churches, even if they are biblical and healthy and evangelistic. May God lead you.