The Surprising Reason 80% of Churches Will Never Break the 200 Barrier

ExclamationBreaking through the 200 barrier.

Sometimes it feels like the only pastoring principle anyone has talked about for the past 30 years.

In case you haven’t heard of it, the 200 barrier is the invisible ceiling a church must break through if it doesn’t want to be a Small Church any more. Do a Google search of “breaking the 200 barrier” and you’ll see what I mean.

Despite all the books, websites, seminars, classes, DVDs and denominational committees that have been dedicated to pushing churches through this barrier, one truth stubbornly remains.

80% of churches will never break through the 200 barrier.

Why is that? The reasons I’ve heard, include:

The first point is correct. The rest are garbage. (Feel free to use a stronger term than “garbage” if your theology will allow for it).

Oh sure, there are some Small Churches that are uncaring and stuck. But there are unhealthy big churches, too.

 

Why I’ll Never Pastor a Big Church

To break through the 200 barrier, a church and its leadership have to adapt to a different way of doing church. They have to become more systems oriented. Pastors have to do less one-on-one ministry themselves and delegate more of it to staff members and volunteers.

That’s a good thing. As a church gets bigger, those changes will allow more people to do ministry, helping the pastor not to be a stressed-out, overworked bottleneck.

Here’s why my church will never break through the 200 barrier.

It’s the one thing none of us wants to admit. But someone needs to say it out loud.

I stink at it.

I’m not gifted, skilled or fulfilled at managing systems as my primary method of doing ministry.

Why haven’t I adapted those methods to help my church break the 200 barrier? Believe me, I tried. And I’m usually good at learning new concepts.

For several years I did what the church growth books told me. I trained staff, I delegated hands-on ministry to others, I developed and implemented care systems…

And I nearly killed my spirit and my church in the process.

 

Small is Not a Sin

The reason my church is small is not that I’m against big churches. It’s because my gifts, talents and heart are better suited to leading a small one. I don’t pastor a big church for the same reason I don’t sing lead vocals in a rock band. I love them both, I’m just lousy at them.

I wasn’t unwilling. I was unable.

I admit it. And I challenge anyone to convince me that’s a bad thing.

But we’ve been taught it’s a bad thing when our church doesn’t get bigger. Just think of the words we use when we talk about numerical growth.

200 is a “barrier” and a “ceiling” that needs to be “broken” to get to the “next level”.

I don’t buy it.

My church hasn’t hit a numerical ceiling. A ceiling assumes that becoming bigger is always upwards motion. And we don’t have a “next” level of attendance to reach. The implication being that becoming bigger is forward motion.

Becoming bigger isn’t forward or upward. It’s just bigger.

Being small isn’t backwards or “less than”. It’s just smaller.

 

Big and Small – Different Countries with Different Languages

Big churches and Small Churches are different. But it’s not a difference of accomplishment, morality, or innovation. It’s not because one is good and the other is bad – or right or wrong, forward or backward.

It’s because we live in different countries. 200 is more of a language barrier than a numerical one.

When I go to a big church, it’s like travelling to an exotic, foreign land. I enjoy the experience. I appreciate the different culture, traditions, sounds and language they use. And I learn something new every time.

But after the trip, it’s always good to come back home again.

I wouldn’t know how to live and thrive spiritually in a big church. It’s not that it can’t be done. Lots of people are doing it. But I can’t do it. I don’t want to live there permanently because the language and culture of a big church aren’t my language and culture. And I hate to think what would happen if I was put in charge of one.

Pastors of big churches aren’t more holy, prayerful or passionate for souls than pastors of Small Churches. They’re just better at management, systems, marketing and delegation.

Those are good skills. Skills I don’t excel at. My skills and my heart are more suited to pastoring a Small Church. I’m a good teacher, counselor and peacemaker. And those Small Church skills are as valuable as the skills needed to lead a big church.

To use the Apostle Paul’s language, the body of Christ needs big churches and Small Churches to work together and appreciate each other in the same way a human body needs its eyes and hands to cooperate with each other.

Small Churches aren’t lower on the body of Christ, with bigger churches near the top. We’re just located in different, yet complementary parts of the body.

I’m good at being an eye, lousy at being a hand. The opposite is true for my big church counterparts.

I’m OK with that. And so is my growing, innovative and loving Small Church.

 

So what do you think? Have you tried to push through the 200 barrier? Have you been made to feel “less than” for not succeeding?

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(Exclamation photo by StockMonkeys.com • Flickr • Creative Commons license)

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21 thoughts on “The Surprising Reason 80% of Churches Will Never Break the 200 Barrier”

  1. More good stuff Karl, keep it up!

    It has been frustrating for me at times of why things don’t seem to work or ‘grow’.

    This article has been one of those gentle ‘ah-ha’ moments of remembering my abilities God has given me!
    Will be praying to keep focused and within those gifts!

    1. Dude! I love the new profile pic!

      I’ll be putting together the Nametag Wall in another week or so, and yours will be the first photo on it.

      Wear that title with joy and grace.

  2. Great article. You put words to my suspicions – I am not a good administrator for God to entrust 200+ souls to. I think it is rather unique that 80% of churches are 200 souls. In line with that is the fact that mega churches focus strongly on small groups which are nothing but little churches all meeting under the umbrella of the big church. So thanks for being used by the lord to help me.

    Paul

  3. Great article. You put words to my suspicions – I am not a good administrator for God to entrust 200+ souls to. I think it is rather unique that 80% of churches are 200 souls. In line with that is the fact that mega churches focus strongly on small groups which are nothing but little churches all meeting under the umbrella of the big church. So thanks for being used by the lord to help me.

    Paul

  4. I’m so glad it helped you. Sometimes we need to hear (or read) someone put our feelings into words before we even know what we’re feeling. Until then, they are just what you said – suspicions.

    You’re exactly right about megachurches and their use of small groups. I’m grateful for those megachurch pastors who understand they need to keep growing small, even while they’re growing big.

    By the way, I checked out your church website. It looks like a great church. Keep up the good work.

  5. I’m so glad it helped you. Sometimes we need to hear (or read) someone put our feelings into words before we even know what we’re feeling. Until then, they are just what you said – suspicions.

    You’re exactly right about megachurches and their use of small groups. I’m grateful for those megachurch pastors who understand they need to keep growing small, even while they’re growing big.

    By the way, I checked out your church website. It looks like a great church. Keep up the good work.

  6. Something I think we forget too (which goes along with this topic) is that many followed Jesus, but when it came time to know who his true followers (congregation) was, there were only 120 according to the beginning of Acts…the principle is that we can best shepherd 100 and disciple 12 alone…beyond that we have to start managing leadership below us…

  7. Something I think we forget too (which goes along with this topic) is that many followed Jesus, but when it came time to know who his true followers (congregation) was, there were only 120 according to the beginning of Acts…the principle is that we can best shepherd 100 and disciple 12 alone…beyond that we have to start managing leadership below us…

  8. I’m a one talent guy. So, my desire is to thank God for the talent and be a good steward of it. No burying. No jealous glances at the 5 and 10 guys. Just gonna hand Jesus my two talents when he returns.

    Eric

  9. I’m a one talent guy. So, my desire is to thank God for the talent and be a good steward of it. No burying. No jealous glances at the 5 and 10 guys. Just gonna hand Jesus my two talents when he returns.

    Eric

  10. I’m in the 8th year of pastoring a church in the rural mid-west that is growing. I struggle with the whole gift-mix thing knowing that my strengths lie exactly where Karl’s do. I am not a gifted administrator. Many of the points in the article resonate with me. I fear that I will eventually be a hindrance to the healthy growth of my church. I have thought perhaps I will need to get out of the way – if I can’t lead this church to a different paradigm, I need to let someone else do it for the sake of the church and the glory of God. I am all about pastoring, teaching, and growing disciples. But Karl, if our style of leadership and our gift mix are no longer good for the long-term growth of our congregations, when do we step down? Take an associate role? Am I off base here? On a monthly basis, our church sees about 160 different people attending worship. I am not throwing stones here – this is my struggle – the last line of your article said you are a growing, innovative, loving small church. Is it fair to put a cap on that growth just because guys like you and me can’t handle it? I’m searching hard here….

    1. Jim, I feel your pain. And that’s not a cliche.

      I’ve spent a considerable amount of time feeling just what you’ve described. I tell my story in the first two chapters of The Grasshopper Myth, but the short version here is that I had to figure out how to redefine success – for me and my church. The way that happened was to figure out what I was gifted at, then do that.

      My, and my church’s strengths (and from what you’ve written, they may be similar to your strengths) are twofold:

      1. We re-church the de-churched. We don’t have as many first-time conversions as we have people who left their former church out of hurt, pain and/or a feeling of irrelevance (usually in their college years). They come to us for healing and restoration. That takes more time and energy than first-time conversions, so our incoming growth is slow. That’s not by choice – it’s just the way God uses us.

      2. We’re good at training people and sending them out. We have a lot of students from a nearby bible college who get hands-on training with us, then leave when they graduate. We have an internship program where students come in from all over the world for 10 months, then they go back home. We also have a higher-than-usual percentage of adults who get called into ministry after spending time with us, so they leave for the mission field, pastoral ministry, etc.

      That doesn’t result in a lot of butts-in-the-seats growth in my local congregation, but it does result in Kingdom growth. I’m playing my part in that, and that’s what matters.

      My suggestion to you would be to do the same. Figure out what part God has called you and your church to play in the growth of the Kingdom of God, then do it with all your heart. It may not lead to the numerical growth of your local congregation, but you will be playing your part in growing God’s Church. And that’s what really matters.

      I hope this helps.

      1. I realize this response is months later and may be thoroughly irrelevant to Jim’s original questions/concerns, but could the solution be in remaining a small (growing) church and using that attraction and growth to plant another church or churches in the area? If you are pretty convinced God has called you there and has gifted you for a particular type of ministry, but the church is attracting numbers and growth beyond what you are gifted for, you could send some of those people out to start a new church and multiply the ministry. We are ultimately called to multiplication anyway!

  11. I’m in the 8th year of pastoring a church in the rural mid-west that is growing. I struggle with the whole gift-mix thing knowing that my strengths lie exactly where Karl’s do. I am not a gifted administrator. Many of the points in the article resonate with me. I fear that I will eventually be a hindrance to the healthy growth of my church. I have thought perhaps I will need to get out of the way – if I can’t lead this church to a different paradigm, I need to let someone else do it for the sake of the church and the glory of God. I am all about pastoring, teaching, and growing disciples. But Karl, if our style of leadership and our gift mix are no longer good for the long-term growth of our congregations, when do we step down? Take an associate role? Am I off base here? On a monthly basis, our church sees about 160 different people attending worship. I am not throwing stones here – this is my struggle – the last line of your article said you are a growing, innovative, loving small church. Is it fair to put a cap on that growth just because guys like you and me can’t handle it? I’m searching hard here….

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