If the factors I mentioned are at play, it is easy to see why churches remain small. To refresh, there appears to be an inherent limit to the number of relationships we can actively “manage” in our heads, and that number is somewhere around 150. Many more than that, and evidence shows that people naturally begin to break into smaller groups. This built-in limit, I suggested, is the reason why churches often seem to hit a wall around the 150-200 size and cannot easily grow larger than that.
Back in the 1970s, some smart men began to study the idea of church growth, and their studies realized about the same thing: without (apparently) applying the sociology and psychology that I mentioned in the last post on this topic, they nevertheless arrived at 200 as a cap for what they called “small churches.”
[An aside: why 200, instead of the sociologically-proven number of 150? Here’s my reasoning: in a church with 200 members, it’s easy to imagine that 50 or so are not actually a part of the regular social and relational life of the congregation. There will always be home-bound and shut-in folks who are elderly, sick, or otherwise unable to regularly attend worship and other activities. There will inevitably be a few households where part of the family-- maybe the wife and children, but not the husband-- are more active than the rest. And there will be others who are considered members of the congregation-- and even consider themselves as members-- but are either in the process of switching to a different congregation or their commitment to participation in church has ebbed. So a congregation with a membership of 200 probably has 150 or less people in active participation.]
This study eventually became known as the Church Growth Movement, led by Dr. Donald McGavran. Now, this movement has its fair share of critics, and in many cases the critics make important points. Let me be clear about this: I’m not promoting the Church Growth Movement, or suggesting that I accept and promote all of the theories, principles, or methods of that movement. I do believe, however, that there is much to learn about the life of the church from them.
One of the men who has written more recently as a part of that movement is Gary McIntosh, a professor at Talbot School of Theology, which is the seminary of Biola University in California. McIntosh is a prolific writer, but the work of his that I want to focus on here is called One Size Doesn’t Fit All, and details the differences between the different-sized churches.
McIntosh breaks all churches down into three categories by size:
- Small churches-- 15-200 worshipers
- Medium churches-- 200-400 worshipers
- Large churches-- more than 400 worshipers
Now, it’s worth mentioning here that 80% of all churches in the U.S. are smaller than 100 in membership (which means they are even fewer than that in worship attendance), while more than 90% of the churches in the U.S. are 200 or less. So the second and third categories that McIntosh describes represent less than 10% of all churches in the U.S.
Still, these are helpful categories because of what McIntosh goes on to develop in terms of how each category differs in how it must be led. For example, McIntosh says that the structure of a small church is as a “single cell” while a large church is a “multiple cell” structure. The leadership in a small church resides essentially in key families, while in medium churches it resides in committees, and in large churches it resides in select leaders. Decisions in a large church are made by staff and leaders and are driven by vision, whereas in a medium church they are made by committees and driven by changing needs, and in a small church they are made by the whole congregation and driven by history.
I won’t get into details about any of these; I won’t even try to present the whole paradigm to you about how the sizes differ. But I want to draw out a key, crucial point about this that McIntosh develops: the “medium church” size is almost always a transitional stage. In other words, small churches that are growing and reach that size will typically either continue to grow and eventually hit “large church” size, or they will reach the struggles of the “medium church” for a season and that will push them back to a small size.
What are the struggles of the “medium church” that either force continued growth or natural reduction? Here are some of the things that McIntosh points out: since decisions are driven by changing needs, things always seem to be changing which brings a sense of instability. The obstacles to growth for a medium church are inadequate facilities, inadequate staff, inadequate finances, poor administration, and increasing complexity-- all of which demand a change in status quo. Consequently, the strategies for growth in a medium church are: develop a distinct identity, add additional staff, use facilities multiple times or expand facilities, offer multiple worship services, write a long-range plan, and improve the quality of ministry.
You can see how implementing these growth strategies could result in the congregation soon becoming a “large church”. On the other hand, failure to address the growth obstacles and other difficulties that a “medium church” faces will bring a natural reduction in their numbers-- which, by returning them to “small church” size will bring the stability that the members and leadership craved during the struggles of medium church status.
This is why, historically, churches are usually big or small. However, some churches and other ministries have tried to find another way-- and I’ll discuss that in a future post.