CHURCH SIZE AND REVITALIZATION:
IS YOUR CHURCH A CAT OR A DOG? 
 
by Rev. Dr. Jack L. Daniel
 
In my early years as a pastor, I recall how excited I would get when our church’s Sunday attendance would increase from an average of 70 to an average of 80 or 85 for a few weeks. And how discouraged I became when it shrank back to its normal 70 as some of the newcomers stopped attending and some of our regular members drifted into inactivity. You can imagine my confusion and frustration—it seemed 70 was our default number, and we just couldn’t grow past it. I desperately wanted to see our older, inwardly focused church reach out and be revitalized. I would wonder what was wrong with me as a pastor. I would beseech God with ever more desperate prayers, double down on visitation, and work harder on my preaching. Then God answered my prayer through a recovering alcoholic in my congregation. A casual conversation with this friend helped me understand a profound truth. He said that AA has a definition of insanity: “doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.” At the time, I had never heard that saying. My friend helped me understand that if I wanted a different result, namely for my church to be renewed and grow, I would have to take a whole new approach to ministry. That saying, now widely understood for many situations, is a truism, so obvious or self-evident that it goes without saying. Andy Stanley puts it a bit differently; he says, “Every church is perfectly engineered to get the result it is getting.” My church was functioning exactly as the members had shaped it to function, and as they wanted it to function.
 
The “size culture” of our church was what locked it in at 70 people. The very way we were “doing church” kept my church small and ineffective. It was the strong relational bond among the existing members that effectively excluded newcomers and kept the church at the same size.  My 70-member church was not going to become a healthy 200-member church simply because I prayed harder or worked harder. Clearly, we were going to have to do a new thing.
 
Kevin E. Martin’s book The Myth of The 200 Barrier helped me better understand how the size dynamics of a church can work for or against church revitalization. He proposes that there are essentially three different size churches:
  • The FAMILY size church, the most common, with an average Sunday attendance (ASA) of 3 to 75 people
  • The PASTORAL size church, with an ASA of 76 to 140 
  • The PROGRAM size church, which can further be divided into Small PROGRAM (ASA 200-400), Medium PROGRAM (ASA 400-600) and Large PROGRAM (ASA 600-900)
For practical purposes, let’s confine this discussion to family and pastoral size churches since the vast majority of churches in America that are in need of revitalization fall into these two categories. These two church cultures are so different . . . well, they are different animals altogether.
 
CATS. A family size church (ASA up to 75) is like a pet cat: it is independent, and self-sufficient. A family size church can function without a settled pastor for months and even years because its identity is in relationships, traditions, and shared history, not in its pastor. The members bond to the church and to Christ through their church relationships, not through the pastor or program.
 
On the positive side, healthy family size churches have wonderful strengths. These include a deep sense of belonging, genuine care for one another, “all-hands-on-deck” member participation, and an ability to enfold a limited number of broken people. These churches highly value everyone knowing everyone else, people over program, financial solvency, faithful church attendance, cherished traditions, and maintaining church property. Healthy family size churches may be the purest form of Christian community. And they can frequently grow into larger churches because healthy organisms tend to grow. But, they must do something different to get there.

On the negative side, when family size churches are no longer healthy, they exhibit characteristics that make revitalization harder. First, small, ailing churches are often resistant to pastoral leadership because their pastors have typically had brief stays. They assume that the current pastor will be leaving soon and are reluctant to let him or her introduce changes, fearing they will be stuck with those changes when he or she leaves. Second, family size churches are often controlled by one or two families who resist yielding leadership to newcomers. This ensures that new people will not stay around long. Third, an unhealthy family church focuses on meeting the needs of the existing members, and the calendar and budget reflect this. There is no time, money, or energy left to fulfill the Great Commission in the wider community. And finally, since these churches function like extended families with everyone accepted “as is,” unskilled or poorly trained members are in leadership, and worship services and programs reflect a lack of quality, making them ineffective in reaching outsiders. Like a dysfunctional family, unhealthy family churches will often tolerate bad behavior on the part of some members, becoming even less appealing. In short, the close-knit family bond that holds them together and gives them their identity is what makes it difficult for them to attract and enfold outsiders.

However, if pastors can assure their people that they intend to stay and can patiently build trust by accepting the flock as they are, faithfully preaching the gospel, caring for their spiritual needs, and winning their support for a new approach to ministry, then unhealthy family churches can gain health and growth. It will take time; every good thing does. As one very effective family church pastor I know says, “Preach, Pray, Love, Stay.”

DOGS. If the family size church is like a pet cat, then a pastoral size church (ASA 76 to 140) is like a pet dog. Both the church and the dog are eager to spend time with their leader and are good at following commands, but unfortunately, both are very dependent on their master (pastor) for their care and feeding. The chief characteristic of a pastoral size church is that, unlike a family church, it is too big to lead itself. It must depend on pastoral leadership. In a pastoral size church, high value is placed on everyone knowing the pastor and having direct access to him or her. Also, the pastor is tasked with providing overall leadership and direction. Pastoral churches have a traditional understanding of the pastoral role and expect the pastor to be present at all functions and active in all visitation and care. Unlike family churches, pastoral churches become more anxious when they are without a pastor.
 
On the positive side, pastoral churches are able to support a full-time pastor and are more willing to follow the pastor’s lead, even in initiating change. They are big enough that they can allow newcomers to integrate somewhat easily, even into leadership. Further, they can often provide ministries to children and youth, making them more attractive to families who are seeking a healthy church.

On the negative side, a pastoral size church will rarely grow beyond ASA 150 unless the pastor introduces a new style of leadership. This is because 150 is the approximate number of people that the average pastor can effectively relate to and lead. This number seems to be hard-wired into the psychosocial makeup of human beings. It is observable in other leadership-dependent social systems such as tribes, military units, and corporations.
 
In pastoral size churches, pastors are the gatekeepers, and people are drawn to the church through them because of their personality and friendship. People are also attracted because of their ministry skills, especially preaching. Individual members connect to the church because of and through the pastor. He or she is the glue that holds everyone together. Consequently, as the membership exceeds the pastor’s capacity to relate meaningfully to everyone, some members will start to disengage, feeling that the pastor does not have time for them anymore. A frequent complaint is that the pastor pays too much attention to newcomers. Furthermore, the pastor inadvertently becomes a bureaucratic bottleneck for the development of ministries. Because everyone defers to the pastor for leadership and approval, everything takes longer to happen.

What happens when a pastoral size church reaches its growth ceiling of around 150, and the pastor starts to hear complaints about spending too much time with newcomers (that is, not enough time with us)? The pastor’s natural tendency is to absorb the blame and devote more time to the old guard by visiting, counseling, and other pastoral care duties, which robs time from outreach to the wider community. This response pretty much guarantees that the church will plateau.

A better approach would be to teach the congregation that it is God who is “giving the increase,” that this is His blessing and an opportunity for everyone to discover, develop, and deploy their spiritual gifts. The pastor must shift from being a shepherd to the people and become a shepherd to the shepherds, those volunteers and paid leaders who are providing care to groups within the church. So instead of trying to be all things to all people, the pastor must focus on some people more than others, developing leaders and vesting them with authority so they can help shepherd the flock.

This is a very difficult shift to make, and the pastor-dependent flock will push back against it. In fact, some pastors will not be able to make this change because of their own co-dependency. They simply cannot bear the thought of not being the gatekeeper, all things to all people, and fully in control. However, if a pastor is persevering in teaching this truly biblical understanding of the pastor as the “equipper of the saints for the work of ministry” (Ephesians 4:12), a pastoral size church can be revitalized, become healthy, and grow.
  
Whether you serve a church that acts like a pet cat or a pet dog, God has called you to lead it to greater health.
    
—Excerpted and adapted from Patient Catalyst: Leading Church Revitalization, by Jack L. Daniel, Overseed Press, 2018.

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