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Pastoral Resources

How to Break the 200 Barrier

Josh Hunt

Large churches are not just bigger; they are different.

"We grew rapidly from 125 to 225. Now, we just can't seem to move."

I have heard this not one time, but numerous times. Different churches. Different numbers. Same stories.

The 200 hundred barrier is a range. I was in a church recently that was close to 500, but was still dealing with 200 barrier issues. Occasionally, a church will get to the barrier before 200. Large churches are not just bigger versions of smaller ones in the same way that a lion is a fundamentally different animal than a household cat. You can't get to be a skyscraper by adding onto your house. Large churches are different, not just bigger, than smaller churches.

This difference really shows up at around 200. I say around 200 because I want to emphasize that it is a range--a wide range.

For a church hitting a plateau at anything less than 500, you might consider the following three issues.


Question: how many pickles can fit in a 10-pickle jar?

Answer: 10 pickles.

Question: How many pickles can you fit in a 10 pickle jar if you pray about it?

Answer: As many as God wants; normally 10.

Question: How many people can you fit in a building designed to hold 200?

Answer: about 160. Architects calculate on the basis of skinny people who do not frequent church pot-luck dinners.

Question: How many people can you fit in a building designed to fit 200 if you pray about it?

Answer: Any number God wants. Normally, about 160.

Question: How many people can you average in a building designed for 200?

Answer: About 128, because of the 80% rule.

The 80% rule says that it is very difficult to average above 80% of the capacity of the building. When a building is 80% full, it is full.

I will explain why this is true in just a moment, but let me pause here and ask you to think about this. Imagine a church that built a building and the architect told them that it could hold 200 people. They have a little sticker on the back of the building from the department that says they can hold 200 people. They are averaging 125. Are they out of space? Yes, for the reasons described above. Do they think they are out of space?

Why the 80% rule?

I consulted with a Minister of Education about space once and he assured me they had plenty of space at their church. I attended the service that weekend, along with my family and my mother-in-law--6 of us altogether. We had arrived slightly late, as we had a bit of a struggle finding the building. To our surprise, we couldn't find any seats where six people could sit together. We had to split up. To make matters worse, a regular attendee let us know that we had taken their seat. We had to move again to accommodate their wishes. The whole thing was a bit of a stressful morning. The fact was completely invisible to the staff, because, #1, they sat up front, and #2, they always came early.

Sharp Ministers of Education can recite complex formulas as to how much space is needed for Sunday School for preschoolers, children, youth and adults. (It is different for each one.) Not a bad idea to do a space analysis from time to time.

One little caveat, however. You may need to vary the recommended allotment of space, depending on the teaching style that you use. For adults, there is an assumption that you sit in straight rows, as you do in the auditorium. They recommend 10 square foot per person if you use this arrangement. However, if you like your classes to sit in a circle, you will use considerably more space. Let me share with you the Cliff Notes on whether you need space.

Rule of thumb: if every room in the building is occupied with a class, the building is full. It doesn't matter that some rooms are only partially filled. When every room is occupied, the building is full; you will not grow beyond that. Why?

Because of the iron law of Sunday School. The iron law of Sunday School says you double a Sunday School, not by doubling the size of each group, but by doubling the number of groups. The average size stays more or less constant at around 1:10. At Saddleback and Poduck Baptist there is a 1:10 ratio between the number of groups and overall attendance. If you want to double the size of your Sunday School, you do so by doubling the number of groups.

The easiest way to provide more space is by building a building. The least expensive is by using the space more than once. Doubling churches are nearly always in double services and double Sunday Schools .

The first thing we must do to break the 200 barrier is to create more space. There are two more things.

We must become OK with the feeling of worshipping with people we don't know As a church moves through the 200 barrier, there is an increasing pressure to do more and more things that will help us to get to know one another. Middle-aged adults will complain that they do not know many of the young married adults. "We need to do some fellowships together, so we can all get to know one another."

There is even a biblical justification for these requests: unity. The Bible has a lot to say about unity, and it is an important issue. But, what does unity really mean? Does it mean that I know everyone's first and last name, occupation, and kid's names? Can we be unified as a church if we don't all know each other?

I saw a dramatic example of this once when I was on church staff. We had been in multiple services for several years, including a Saturday night service. We had annual deacon elections for deacons who served a three-year, rotating term--three years on, one year off. One year, just after we had elected new deacons we had our first deacon meeting of the year. I watched in amazement as two men walked across the room and introduced themselves to each other. Here were two men, both well-known and respected in the church--that is, their corner of the church. They were both well-known enough to be elected as deacons. Yet, they did not know each other. One attended faithfully on Saturday night. The other, attended faithfully on Sunday morning. They had never met before that night.

Some people are very uncomfortable with this. To break the 200 barrier, the church has to get comfortable with worshipping with people we don't know.

There will be increasing pressure on the church to do more get-to-know-each-other activities. This is the very thing a church that wants to break the 200 barrier should not do . In order to break the 200 barrier, we need to do more things with people who have no friends in the church rather than concentrating our energy on all getting to know one another.

But, can't you do both? No. The evening you spend on a get-to-know-one-another activity you cannot spend on a get-to-know-an-outsider activity.

In order to break the 200 barrier, we need to make sure we provide space. And, we need to get comfortable with the idea that we will be worshipping with people we don't know. One more thing is needed.

The pastor is not the only pastor.

I was in a church recently that was approaching 500 in attendance. Yet, they seemed to be struggling with 200 barrier issues.

The pastor was especially adept at pastoring. When the service was over, he insisted that I join him at the back so we could individually say good-bye to each person as they left. He had, no-doubt, greeted them all individually an hour earlier. When we went to lunch it took him 20 minutes to sit down because there were so many people there--both church members and people in the community--that it took him that long to greet everyone.

It wasn't just about greeting. He knew their stories, their kids, their ailments, their hurts. He pastored them all. Individually and personally, he pastored them all. It was a beautiful thing.

But, our strength and weakness often lie close together.

I contrast this pastor with another pastor whose church was well beyond the 200 barrier. He stood beside me as he voiced the closing prayer. While praying with a cordless lavaliere microphone, he guided me up the stairs, through the choir loft, out into the hallway and into his office. By the time he said, "Amen" we were both standing in his office with the door closed behind us. There, he explained his actions. "I thought you might need some solitude between services before you preach again. I never greet the people until after the last service is over. I find it is too draining." I thought about the times Jesus drew away from the crowds to have some time alone. I thought of the words of Spock: "The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one."

Two different approaches to pastoring. Not a good approach and bad approach, just two approaches. But, one is infinitely more suited to life beyond the 200 barrier.

To get beyond the 200 barrier, the people must let others, besides the Senior pastor be their pastor. It may be their Sunday School teacher, or another member of the staff, or the group acting as the body of Christ to one another. But, if the pastor is the only connecting point and everyone must connect to him, we set a limit on the size of the ministry. That limit is broadly described as the 200 barrier.

You might read this and say, "I just can't do that." That is O.K. It takes all kinds of churches to reach all kinds of people. We need growing, healthy, doubling churches above and below the 200 barrier. I want to affirm the small church pastor who likes being a small church pastor. God made many that way.

You don't have to like being a beyond 200 pastor. There are other options--church planting being the most obvious.

But, if you want to break the 200 barrier, you might consider three things:

  • Space
  • Becoming a church where everyone does not know each other
  • Becoming a church where the pastor does not do all the pastoring


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