Forget the 200 Barrier – Small Churches Need to Break Through the Grasshopper Barrier

Grasshopper Brick WallThe 200 Barrier needs to be retired.

We have to erase it from our church leadership lexicon before it does any more harm to good churches and their pastors.

Yes, there is a difference in the way churches behave administratively under and over 200 (give or take 50). It would be foolish not to acknowledge and teach that reality. But that’s not a barrier. It’s an adjustment.

Calling it the 200 Barrier carries some dangerous implications – starting with the implication that a church over 200 is better than a church under 200.

What evidence is there, either biblical or analytical, that churches over 200 have greater value than churches under 200? Do they automatically have a greater impact on their community because of their size? Are they better at discipleship? Evangelism? Worship? No, no, no and no.

As I’ve outlined in many posts on this site, larger churches do some things better than smaller ones, but Small Churches do other things better than bigger ones.


This was the 5th most-read NewSmallChurch.com post of 2013. Click here for the entire Top 10 list.


What is The Grasshopper Barrier?

The Grasshopper Barrier is the emotional/spiritual wall that causes us to keep believing The Grasshopper Myth.

What is The Grasshopper Myth?

Definition: The false impression that our Small Church ministry is less than what God says it is because we compare ourselves with others.

Origin: The Hebrews at the edge of the Promised Land.

All the people we saw there are of great size. …We seemed like grasshoppers in our own eyes, and we looked the same to them. – Numbers 13:32-33

Symptoms: Lack of vision, faith, courage, effectiveness and freedom.

Prognosis: A lifetime of wandering, whining and placing blame. And yes, it is contagious.

– from the preface of The Grasshopper Myth, by Karl Vaters

 

The Grasshopper Barrier is a toxic mindset that keeps churches and pastors from recognizing The Grasshopper Myth for the lie that it is. 

It holds Small Churches and their pastors hostage to the debilitating poison that they are less than merely because their church is smaller than. And it stops many of them from enjoying and releasing the blessings of being a healthy and healthful Small Church.

 

What’s Wrong With Breaking Through the 200 Barrier?

Of course there’s nothing wrong with a church growing bigger than 200. Or 2,000. Or 20,000. In fact, there’s a whole lot that’s right with it. We should always strive for and celebrate church growth.

But church growth is more than numbers. Many churches contribute to the growth of the church without seeing a corresponding numerical growth in their congregation. Despite what the 200 Barrier implies.

We need to end our obsession with the 200 Barrier because it has damaged a lot of good people.

  • It implies that smaller churches are less valuable than bigger churches
  • It belittles the valuable ministry of Small Church and their pastors
  • It causes unhealthy churches to devote their limited resources to getting bigger instead of getting healthier
  • It encourages pridefulness in pastors whose churches are bigger than 200
  • It promotes a false view of success in ministry
  • It reinforces The Grasshopper Myth

But mostly, the 200 Barrier needs to be retired because of one simple truth:

The 200 Barrier doesn’t exist! It has no biblical basis! We made it up! 

200 is not a barrier. It’s just a number.

The fact that churches above 200 require a different administrative approach doesn’t make 200 a barrier. It doesn’t make churches above 200 better. And if over 200 isn’t better, then moving from under 200 to over 200 isn’t breaking through a barrier, it’s just getting bigger.

 

Why the Grasshopper Barrier Needs to Be Broken

The Grasshopper Barrier, on the other hand, is very real – whatever we choose to call it. Because it does the same damage to churches and their leaders today that it did to the Hebrews on the other side of the Jordan.

  • It keeps Small Churches and their leaders stuck in a cycle of frustration, fear and self-despising
  • It paralyzes more ministers and churches than it inspires
  • It causes many good people in smaller ministries to quit too soon
  • It encourages us to judge ourselves by unbiblical standards
  • It is self-reliant, not God-dependent
  • It induces guilt and shame when churches don’t get bigger
  • It promotes pride when churches do get bigger
  • It’s magnifies our fear, not our faith

Being small is not a problem until we think it is. And nothing makes us think small is a problem more than seeing a grasshopper in our mirror.

It’s possible for a church to break through the 200 Barrier without becoming healthier. But breaking through the Grasshopper Barrier is an essential ingredient to the health of any church – or any person.

 

God’s OK With Small

God is neither limited nor empowered by our size. He knows how small you and your church are. And he wants to use you right now at the size you are right now.

The only problem with smallness is when we think being small is a problem.

God doesn’t think smallness is a problem. And he doesn’t see 200 as a barrier.

But he couldn’t use a nation that saw themselves as grasshoppers. That’s the real barrier. And it needs to be broken.

 

So what do you think? What are your experiences suffering under the lie that 200 is a barrier?

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22 thoughts on “Forget the 200 Barrier – Small Churches Need to Break Through the Grasshopper Barrier”

  1. Agreed. Right on target. 200 is hardly a barrier. It is a self-imposed glass ceiling, easily shattered when we have a Joshua and Caleb to follow. Thanks for a great look at the soul of the church.

  2. Love your comment, “200 is not a barrier, it’s just a number”. Highlights well the constant tension of biblical vision and human achievement.

  3. I wish had some witty way of saying how this is one of the best blogs you have ever written. Every pastor needs to read this. Every church board needs to read this. Every denominational district official needs to read this because EVERY church is important, not just the churches with bigger numbers. I love you honey! Shelley V.

  4. I agree with Shelley and am encouraging small church pastors to follow this blog and read the book! I’m not even a real pastor, but the book lit me up and encouraged me in my work. And I’m not sure I’m comfortable with this, but it seems the proper nomenclature is to close with “I love you honey?”.

  5. I couldn’t agree more Karl, we need to let that so called barrier go and be the church God has called us to be. I’ve been above that barrier, now we’re down below it again. I’m not going to let it hamper my ministry.

    1. You’ve got it right. That’s the key. Too many pastors have been convinced that being under 200 hampers their ministry – and that mindset makes it a self-fulfilling prophecy. Keep ministering faithfully!

  6. It isn’t a simple matter of being above or below 200 in average worship attendance. The literature indicates there are also barriers at 35, 85, 125, 400, etc. 200 gets talked about the most because it is the most difficult barrier to transcend, It is far MORE than an administrative barrier. It is the point at which you need to add pastoral staff, which dramatically changes the pastor-parishioner relationship. It is the point at which a congregation’s nominating committee no longer knows everyone brought to their attention as potential officers – this changes the nature of trust within the body. It is primarily RELATIONAL changes, not administrative. And transcending these relational challenges enables the congregation to do more effective ministry in the name of Christ. Yes, it is a problem when churches experience a diminished sense of self-worth. But it is also problem – and perhaps a larger problem – when churches complacently settle for being less than they could be. Because we have the most important job in the world – leading people in their relationship with Jesus Christ. So the continual question every church of every size must ask is this: are we being the best possible ministry? And often what lies between where we are and where we could be is a size barrier that is more than just administrative.

    1. Hi Richard. Thanks for pitching in. This was a thoughtful comment, so I’ll give you a correspondingly lengthy (and hopefully thoughtful) response.

      You make some great points. You’re right that the 200 barrier isn’t the only one there is. But it is the most widely-known, so that’s why I addressed it. This post could be read by substituting any of the numbers you cited in place of 200.

      I agree that the relationship differences are the biggest change that happens when a church grows beyond 200 people. But those relational differences are either hampered or hindered by the administrative decisions made by the leadership, so that’s what tends to get addressed in books and articles about breaking through the 200 barrier. And that’s why I addressed that here.

      I also agree, profoundly, that there’s no room for complacency in the church, no matter how big or small the church is. We do “have the most important job in the world”, as you say. and “being the best ministry possible” is absolutely THE essential goal of the church. So I understand where some of your concerns about this post may come from and I probably share them. Ignoring the 200 Barrier is not about settling for less. Quite the opposite.

      Where I disagree, I guess, is in in two places:

      First, when you write “transcending these relational challenges enables the congregation to do more effective ministry in the name of Christ” you feed in to the assumption I challenge in this post, that a bigger church is better than a smaller church. As I wrote, church growth is always something to celebrate. But we need to be careful, in celebrating congregations that are getting bigger, that we don’t diminish the value of healthy, growing smaller congregations that are not getting bigger.

      That’s why it’s essential to break the Grasshopper Barrier. Over 1 billion people worship in smaller churches. We need them fully engaged, not sitting and settling. And not spending too much of their limited time and resources pushing to break through a numerical barrier, either.

      Second, in your last sentence you wrote, “…often what lies between where we are and where we could be is a size barrier…”. I’d be OK with that sentence if the word “often” was changed to “sometimes”.

      In my experiences with Small Churches and their leaders, the biggest barrier that lies between where we are and where we could be isn’t a size barrier, it’s a health barrier. And that ill-health is often rooted in feelings of frustration and inferiority that are experienced by too many churches and pastors based on unrealistic expectations about numerical growth.

      My frustration with the 200 barrier isn’t in the administrative and relational changes that are required. By all means, if a church is growing, it needs to make the necessary adjustments. My frustration is that the word “barrier” places undue emphasis on the value of numbers and an unnecessary burden on churches and their leaders that aren’t experiencing substantial numerical growth in their congregation but are, nevertheless, contributing to the growth of THE church.

      I hope this clarifies these issues for you. I look forward to hearing from you again at some time.

      1. Hi! Thanks for your reply. I wanted to clarify one awkward phrase I used. When I say “more effective ministry”, I should have been clearer that for me, “more” is quantitative, not qualitative. Small churches do great ministry. Big churches do great ministry. I want to see more ministry. One of my favorite sayings comes from a megachurch: “Every number is a person, every person has a story, and every story matters to God.”

        As a pastor of a church that has grown from the 100-ish level to now being just over 200 in attendance, I am focused on breaking the 200 barrier because of the incredible stories of redemption and reconciliation that I know are present among my people – most of which I can’t even disclose. But more than half of our new folks are coming from not being churchgoers as opposed to “transfer growth”. There isn’t anything I see as more awesome than a person who discovers their relationship with Jesus Christ, and I want to see more of it. Whatever I have to do administratively to foster that result on the back end – more people proclaiming Christ, more people engaged in mission, more people feeling the love and grace of God – whatever it takes, I’ll do it.

        But I understand that we over-celebrate largeness. I’m the first to argue that a “tall steeple” church is an abject failure if all they are doing is coasting downward from an even loftier perch they once held. I don’t celebrate the size a church is at – I celebrate churches with a positive trajectory. Because I sincerely believe that every number is a person, and there’s no such thing as a person who doesn’t matter. So just as I would expect Habitat for Humanity to celebrate when they build more homes, I celebrate when more people engage in the church.

  7. I appreciate your comments…but. Coming from this as a church Treasurer, the practical reality for many of our churches is that we hold infrastructure that costs more per capita when the congregation is small. That cost hinders our ability to minister effectively and has us focused more on the budget than on the Lord. We were once a 400+ church. On our rocky road to health and through the demographic changes of the past 3 decades, we are now about 125. Today, we are fairly healthy and functioning in our community, but the budget is always an issue.

    We do great ministry together and I know my kids receive more attention from mature adult Christians who genuinely know them and care about them than they would in a mega-church with a Happening Youth Program (what I call The Kid Ghetto). We are actively looking for ways to re-purpose our space and have brought other building users in, a senior continuing education program, for example. At the same time, every year is a budget stretch. Every year is a challenge to figure out how we’ll pay our staff and keep the lights on. It’s wearing and exhausting leadership.

    I don’t think God ever intends us to get up off our knees and say, “Hey, we’re good, we don’t need you any more.” But the challenge of the under 200 church is often just plain finances. The extra 10-15 households would fill out the budget, cut back the drama and help leaders refocus on ministry.

    1. Hi Amy. What you’ve said is absolutely true. Finances are much harder when a church is smaller – and even more so when the church has shrunk but still has to honor commitments they made when they were bigger (like a mortgage).

      This is actually another good reason for churches to think carefully and move slowly into larger facilities, instead of seeing bigger as the answer. The church growth trajectory is seldom straight. There are up seasons and down seasons. When a growing church builds facilities based on anticipated growth, they can actually add a burden that makes it harder to weather the down times.

      I made that mistake a few years ago. We were growing, so I did what all the church growth books told me to do – I hired staff for a larger church with the expectation that this would spur even further growth. It didn’t. Then, when a slight downturn occurred, it was magnified by the financial burden of the extra staff members. If I hadn’t been all fired up to get bigger, I wouldn’t have hired so soon and we would have weathered the financial downturn better.

      I pray your church is able to get stable financially and continue to be a blessing to its members and the community.

  8. Karl, you are frustratingly refreshing Pal! I am in my last year of an M.Div. program, or I’d chime in more on your comments sections. I’m having to do it for credit now on official class forums. But, you are bringing a lot to the table of small church discussion, and SO ARE YOUR READERS! And, by the way, stop making me think so hard! 🙂

  9. Back after the Velvet Revolution, I met a pastor from what was then Czechoslovakia while he visited churches here. I asked him what he found most interesting about American churches. He replied “Your fascination with numbers and size.” He went on to explain: under Communist rule, being a member of a church required great sacrifice. For him to become ordained as a pastor meant that he would work as a bus driver or janitor and his kids would never go to college. He said “We measure success in terms of faithfulness, not numbers.”

    1. John, that’s a great point. I just returned from a trip to Croatia where they have a similar history to the people in Czechoslovakia. The pastors I worked with there said exactly the same thing. They don’t get our numbers obsession.

  10. This is great. I’m so glad I came across this. Thank you for sharing this. As someone who has been involved in helping with a church plant, and hopefully will be blessed to do so again in the future, this is a really great reminder.
    Not only that, it speaks to me on a personal level. So often I think first of the ways I feel inadequate or ill suited to a task rather than focusing on what God can do through me.

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