Why My Church Is Better at 200 than It Was at 400

New growth over old hurtsAbout 200 people attend the church I pastor on a typical Sunday. It used to be 400.

It’s a better church now than it was then.

I know, pastors aren’t supposed to say things like that. We’re not even supposed to admit that things like that are possible.

But it’s true.

I’ve been pastoring my church for 22 years. When I arrived, there were about 35 people attending. They were very discouraged after going through five pastors in ten years and drifting from their high attendance of about 250 at the beginning of that decade. They had debated closing the church entirely.

In my first decade of pastoring the church, we grew to a healthy 200 people or so.

Giddy with my modest success, I decided to kick things into high gear. I was going to implement all the church growth strategies I’d been reading about and break through the 200 barrier.

It worked. Within two years, we had doubled to about 400 people. But we became an unhealthy church in the process.

Before the push, I’d been working with people and within my gifting as a pastor. During the push, my attention shifted. People became numbers. Attendance mattered more than relationships. I became empty. And the church became unhealthy.

Almost none of the growth was from conversions. It was virtually all transfer growth. We weren’t discipling new believers, we were entertaining bored Christians.

Then the church started to shrink. Fast.

I don’t know how small it got down to. Because I stopped counting. But it was probably somewhere in the low 100s. Not only had we lost those we’d gained, we lost a lot of the original folks, too.


People Are Not Numbers

There are a lot of reasons why the church collapsed and nearly folded. But the main one was this. The pursuit of numbers made us sick. And sick things start to die. 

I’m grateful that our sickness was evident in our shrinking numbers. It forced us to deal with the problems. Some churches start dying internally, but keep getting bigger externally, so they don’t see their sickness. No, not all of them. Not even most of them. But some of them. Including mine.

Through that process, I learned several painful lessons. I’m grateful for every one of them.

Here are a few:

  • A healthy small church is better than an unhealthy big church
  • Every number may be a person, but people aren’t numbers
  • All healthy things grow, but not all growth is healthy

Eventually, we corrected the downward slide. We put God’s Word and God’s people first again.

Today, we’re as healthy as any church of any size anywhere. We’re loving, outward-reaching and discipleship-oriented.

We’ve grown to 200. We may get bigger than that. We may not. Either way, we’ll stay healthy and keep growing, learning, discipling and sending.

Yes, a church can be better at 200 than at 400.

Because, bigger isn’t better. Smaller isn’t better. Only better is better.


This article first appeared as a guest post at BrianDodridge.com.

So what do you think? Have you ever experienced numerical growth that wasn’t healthy?

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(New Growth photo from John Liu • Flickr • Creative Commons license)

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5 thoughts on “Why My Church Is Better at 200 than It Was at 400”

  1. I love that last statement! Spot on! I have a “right hand man” who has, shall we say, a STRONG desire to be bigger–the Lord has sent us about 40 on average for the past year or so. I’m going to use that statement. Thanks!

  2. I am an attender and from my view in the pew know you are spot on. The larger the church the less friendly, less into investing in the Great commission, more likely to not have a midweek service, less likely people participate outside of attending a service, expecting transparency is like asking the pastor to cuss in the sermon,and the list goes on. Lack of participation creates “Church “hoppers” that unfortunately translates into some becoming casualties by not getting serious needs met.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Hal. But I want to be clear that I like big churches just as much as small ones. When it comes to church size, everyone has their preference.

      It hasn’t been my experience that big churches are less friendly, less likely to reach people, etc. Some are bad at it, but some Small Churches are bad at it, too. Most big churches do a great job at being friendly and reaching people – that’s how they got big, after all. Like I said at the end of my post, “bigger isn’t better. Smaller isn’t better. Only better is better.”

  3. Pingback: Wednesday Link List | Thinking Out Loud

  4. I often hear church leaders say that the church is not an institution, it is a living organism and all living organisms grow. What they leave out is that all living organisms die in the end also. Yes we should reach out, but growth should not be the end goal, it should be a result of lifting Christ up. For He has said. “If I be lifted up I will draw all people unto myself’. We to often assume that, that means our church, no, it is to Him. Be blessed.

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