Break the Barrier 85% of Churches Never Break. Here's how.

The Top 8 Reasons Most Churches Never Break the 200 Attendance Mark

200 barrier

While social media and even traditional media are still preoccupied with mega churches and multi-site churches, the reality is that most churches in North America are quite small.

The Barna Group pegs the average Protestant church size in America at 89 adults. Only 2% of churches have over 1000 adults attending.

According to Carl George and Warren Bird, fully 85% of all Protestant churches in North America never break the 200 attendance mark.

Please understand, there’s nothing wrong with being a small church. I just know that almost every small church leader I speak to wants his or her church to  grow.

I get that. That’s the mission of the church. Every single day, I want our church to become more effective in reaching one more person with the hope that’s in Christ.

So why is it that most churches never break the 200 attendance mark?

It’s not:

DesireMost leaders I know want their church to reach more people.

A lack of prayerMany small church leaders are incredibly faithful in prayer.

LoveSome of the people in smaller churches love people as authentically as anyone I know.

Facility. Growth can start in the most unlikely places.

Let’s just assume you have a solid mission, theology, and heart to reach people.

Surprisingly, the main reasons churches never pass the 200 attendance mark aren’t spiritual, they’re structural.

I published an earlier version of this post several years ago. It appears to have struck a nerve.

The post has been shared over 40,000 times on social media and read by over a quarter million leaders. You can read the original post here and you’ll see how my thinking started on this issue.

When I saw the response to this post continue over the years, I drilled a little deeper, reflected more systematically on my only learnings in leading a church from 6 in attendance to over 1200 attenders today and did more research.

In addition, I surveyed 1400 small and mid-sized church pastors on what they struggled with as they tried to break the 200 mark. While I think all the points in the original post are still helpful, you’ll also see new factors that emerged from my reflection and research that I outline below.

I turned my findings into a new online course that’s releasing on September 19th, 2017 called Breaking 200 Without Breaking You. You can join the waitlist here to be first in on the release and get some exclusive bonuses. This post is a snapshot of the issues I cover in the course.

Breaking 200 Without Breaking You is designed to take senior pastors, their teams and boards through the top 8 barriers church leaders face when trying to reach their community.

So, here are the top 8 reasons churches who want to grow never end up breaking the 200 barrier.

1. Small churches are structured to stay small

You know why most churches still don’t push past the 200 mark in attendance?

They organize, behave, lead and manage like a small organization.

The main reason churches don’t grow past 200 attenders isn’t spiritual, it’s structural.

Think about it.

There’s a world of difference between how you organize a corner store and how you organize a larger supermarket.

In a corner store, Mom and Pop run everything. Want to talk to the CEO? She’s stocking shelves. Want to see the Director of Marketing? He’s at the cash register.

Mom and Pop do everything, and they organize their business to stay small. Which is fine if you’re Mom and Pop and don’t want to grow.

But you can’t run a supermarket that way. You organize differently. You govern differently. There’s a produce manager, and people who only stock shelves. There’s a floor manager, shift manager, general manager and so much more.

A bigger vision requires a bigger structure. A bigger church requires a bigger structure. Simply put, you need to structure bigger to grow bigger.

2. The Pastor Does Everything

In any small church, the idea that the pastor does everything probably sounds familiar. The expectations on the pastor are significant.

He or she is supposed to prepare a message, lead the Bible study, show up early to set up chairs, organize the next event, make hospital visits, recruit volunteers, AND make sure to care for themselves well enough that they don’t burn out.

The list of activities is as comprehensive as anything and everything the church does.

Whether you’re in a mainline denomination or in a church plant that meets in a school, there is a predominant bias in small churches toward the pastor doing everything.

There are so many problems with this approach, but let’s start with two.

First, it doesn’t scale. If everything that gets done depends on one person, your church won’t grow beyond the ability of a single person. For most of us, that means 200 is the upper limit.

Second, if the pastor does everything, it’s a complete denial of how God designed the church to work. It’s just insanely backward from the church’s God-given design.

God gifts his people, not just the pastor, for works of ministry. The church should organize like it.

Finally, this is why breaking the 200 barrier breaks so many leaders. They just can’t get it all done. Many pastors are already maxed out, and think “If reaching more people means working more hours, I just can’t.”

Fortunately, it doesn’t.

3. The pastor is the primary caregiver

Of all the things that pastor does, pastoral care is often the one congregations most love and expect. And it’s killing churches.

In this post, I outline more about how pastoral care stunts the growth of so many churches.

Honestly, if you just push past this one issue, you will have made a ton of progress. When the pastor has to visit every sick person, do every wedding, funeral and make regular house calls, he or she becomes incapable of doing other things. That model just doesn’t scale.

If you’re good at pastoral care, you’ll grow the church to 200 people and then disappoint people when you can’t get to every event anymore. Or you’ll just burn out. It creates false expectations and so many people get hurt in the process.

The best book I know on the subject has just been re-released with a new, updated edition. The answer, by the way, is to teach people to care for each other in groups.

98% of pastoral care is having someone who cares. It doesn’t have to be the pastor. In this course, I show you how to make that transition in a way that helps your church care for each other while the senior pastor gets freed up to lead and teach.

4. You Don’t Have the Right People

In my survey of 1400 pastors, finding and developing the right leaders emerged as the key problem leaders felt.

Not only are pastors exhausted trying to do it all, so are the handful of volunteers that have stepped up. To make matters worse, many pastors don’t think they have the right volunteers. Most church leaders have enough nice people, they just need more capable people.

So how do you get the right people?

The truth is, great people don’t randomly assemble. They are attracted by clear and compelling missions like the mission of the church. They are challenged, nurtured, and inspired by skillful, humble, passionate leaders who have devoted their lives to a cause greater than themselves.

The reason your people aren’t like the people of the churches you admire is because you haven’t led them there yet.

Growing churches don’t buy great leaders, they build them.

5. Too Many Doers, Not Enough Leaders

A second problem the 1400 pastors I surveyed identified is that as their church grows, they end up with teams of doers, not teams of leaders.

That’s a huge barrier.

Leaders lead other people; doers only lead themselves.

Leaders don’t mind having a team of people to manage. Doers would rather worry about themselves and their specific assignment.

If you only have teams of doers, your church will struggle to grow.

6. The Team is Not Aligned

Another reason 200 is such a big barrier is because once you get hundreds of people in an organization, you end up with chaos unless you have a great plan.

When our church was between 200 and 400 in attendance, I found myself waking up at night wondering, “How do I keep all these well-intentioned people from accidentally running the mission of the church off course? How do I convey what is so clear in my head — the mission, vision, strategy, and values of our church—to everyone else in a way that’s clear to them?”

Those questions (and the fear associated with them) are focused around one key leadership issue: alignment. Alignment is getting a team of people committed to a common mission, vision, and set of values. It’s the hard work of making what’s clear to you clear to your team.

Alignment is so critical because if you don’t do it, it’s like releasing the stallions from the barn. They’ll run wild and in every direction. That’s why some leaders fear empowering leaders: they fear those leaders will run the church in various directions.

An unaligned church will struggle to grow, and if even if it does, it carries within it all the seeds for implosion.

7. Micro-management

If you need permission every time you need to buy paper towels or repaint an office, you have a governance issue.

Most boards who micromanage do so because that’s where most people simply default. You need a board who guards the mission and vision and empowers the team to accomplish it and then gets out of the way.

Most small churches are led by congregations who want a say in everything or a board that does.

Here’s what’s true: committees kill vision.

Individuals are almost always more courageous than groups. And the more people you seek to please up front, the less inspiring your idea will become.

When everyone wants to have a say, very little gets done.

Governance is a silent killer for most churches trying to grow.

8. The Leaders Make Too Many Excuses

All too often when I’m interacting with church leaders, I hear the same excuses over and over—reasons that something won’t work or that another idea can’t be done.

Leaders complain that their building is too small or too big, their location isn’t ideal, they don’t have the right team, they haven’t got enough money, or that their context is different.

Here’s what’s true: you can make excuses or you can make progress, but you can’t make both.

In fact, the leaders who make the most progress make the fewest excuses. And the leaders who make the most excuses make the least progress.

Let’s Solve This Together

Breaking 200

I address all eight issues directly in the Breaking 200 Without Breaking You Course and provide strategies on how to tackle each of them as a leader and as a leadership team.

My heart behind the course is to help every church work through the changes you need to make to experience sustained growth well beyond the 200 attendance mark.

So whether your church is 50, 150 or 250 in attendance, the principles will help you gain the insight you need to break the barrier more than 85% of churches can’t break.

Click here to get instant access.

What Have You Seen?

In the meantime, what have you seen that helps churches push past attendance barriers? Scroll down and leave a comment!

13 Comments

  1. Uggghhhh.... on October 9, 2017 at 7:20 pm

    “Surprisingly, the main reasons churches never pass the 200 attendance mark aren’t spiritual, they’re structural.”

    Please don’t forget, they are also often demographical.

    The reality is:
    -Churches in upper-class, predominantly white suburbs grow faster than those in the inner-city or rural areas.
    -Churches with more money succeed far more than those with less.
    -Churches in growing suburbs have more opportunity to grow than churches in dying neighborhoods.

    The opposite of all these is also true. Churches in the rural towns are likely going to grow far slower. Churches in the inner-city will struggle more than those in more affluent neighborhoods and suburbs.

    I don’t know your demographics, and by no means am I suggesting that the only reason churches succeed is because of their demographics. But if we ignore them, we run the risk of sounding arrogant.

    A church in a town of 2000 people, in a farming community, will likely never have 200 people going. That’s 10% of the community. You’d have to ask a church in Chicago to have 500,000 people to match that. It’s hugely absurd. That’s not a structural issue. It’s an issue of opportunity.

  2. Sandy on September 19, 2017 at 6:04 am

    this is good article

  3. Leigh Broomhead on September 18, 2017 at 9:36 am

    First and foremost God Bless you for caring .
    Can I humbly say though that in all the points made it sounded like a business proposal or a agenda to grow numbers only .
    No mention of leaning on the Power of the Holy Spirit or teaching
    Grace not legalism in the majority of churches , we are putting the cart before the horse , I was raised in an Anglican Church , attended an Alpha Course put on by Faith Baptist 21 years ago , became a Born-Again Christian 21 years ago , I have never looked back . My love and understanding of Gods pure gift of Grace , the finished work of the Cross and the resurrection that promises all followers of Jesus eternal life but as important it starts the moment you receive the Gift of Grace .
    Churches still operating under the old covenant ( works) is a very deep problem as the Apostle Paul points out in his teachings . I don’t claim to have a degree in theology , but I have 61 years of living , loving , burying parents , siblings , friends and God has brought me so far in understanding pure Grace . No program or agenda or attendance goals will ever compare to a person walking and loving and serving out of the pure love they have for Christ and others .

    Christ is the Vine ! If we are not one of the branches we will not produce fruit .

    So in closing I respectfully ask why I think the churches are not growing today would be because we are not believing Christ when He said it is finished ! It is all about Jesus ! And what He has done ! It has nothing to do with what we do ! I don’t deserve Grace but Jesus gives it to me freely , no strings attached .

    It is out of Love people do things , a changed heart not works, rules and to do lists exhausting not only congregations but pastors too .

    • robert on September 18, 2017 at 10:37 am

      Leigh,
      I love what you have to say. If I understand you correctly, I think the answer would be that Carey is talking much more about the organization of the local church growing – which in my opinion SHOULD be tied closely with spiritual growth.

      When I think of Jesus’s ministry, he did certain things that drew great crowds (such as feeding people, performing miracles, teaching in a way that the common person understood, presenting truth, etc.). However, it seemed that while Jesus’s goal was to make followers (and not just “fans” as Kyle Idleman would say), he used the platform that he had with thousands of people to develop a disciple-making organization called the Church. He sent his 11+1 apostles out to gather or begin congregations, appoint elders, take care of widows and orphans, teach and raise up younger men and women, etc. This all involved not just preaching and Spirit-work, but structures and systems. As a matter of fact, the book of Acts and Paul’s letters are full of those types of organizational instructions (1 Corinthians 12-14 and Ephesians 4 especially).

  4. Terry on September 15, 2017 at 3:17 pm

    Great stuff Carey. Question; How does this apply to MultiSite campus growth? We have a sending campus of 3000 and a second campus 1 year old of around 200. The structure is there and it’s healthy. The second campus isn’t neglected in any way. But the 200 barrier is there. There is growth but could be a lot more. Anyone have anything to share on that? Grace and Peace to you all.

  5. Robert on September 14, 2017 at 8:43 am

    Does anyone have any thoughts on how SOON a new church should hit the 200 mark… or the 500, etc.? I’m sure that growing TOO fast is possible?

    • Dr J. on September 23, 2017 at 7:44 pm

      Rick Warren used to say that a church should hit 200 by year 2 or it never will (something like that)…that being said some of the largest churches in our New England area started small and stayed relatively small for 3 to 5 years and then blew up. I think it depends on a number of thibgs amount of support (budget- lets be honest alot of issues come back to this issue), your team (or lack thereof); launch team, full time vs part time, where do you and oiur community live, do you have a “building” (this one depends on communuty but don’t get it twisted it really CAN make a difference- we nearly doubled in size within 6 months of when we “moved into building”), polity,etc. I found going to 2 services is a great way to boost growth relatively quickly but only if its done the right way and you have to have healthy rotations and resources/leaders so you dont burn volunteers out. As a church we are up against the 200 barrier (we have reached it on special days and one time almost hit 300 and then the next week we had our lowest attendance all year -hahaha i want to write a book titled “bipolar church planting”) and we are about 2 years into it. Now I am no big shot, church planting expert but i dont think theres a one size fit all requirement… that being said you cant stop a healthy thing from growing and as someone famous once said “you will know them by their fruit…if i abide in them and they in me they will produce much fruit.” Anyways that is one church planters take on this for whateber its worth…

      • Dr. J. on September 24, 2017 at 1:57 pm

        I apologize for the horrendous grammatical issues and type-o’s I posted this on my IPhone last night…

      • Robert on September 25, 2017 at 12:53 pm

        I love what you have to say man, Dr. J.!

  6. Gail Goodwin on September 6, 2017 at 8:26 pm

    We used to have 500 people and programs for every age and every interest. We now have less than 100. Why? People got older and died off. This included most of the leaders. The younger people were not willing to take on the torch. They are burnt out from the responsibilities of raising a family, work sports ,schools, parenting in general. They have all the responsibility they can tolerate. For those without children there’s travel, skiing, summer homes etc. At one time the community revolved around the church and the school. No more. People realize a church does not a christian make. Look inside the church and figure it out for yourself. It’s often just a power struggle. It has nothing to do with the size of the church in my humble opinion. It has to do with the people inside and the passion and feeling of necessity is no longer there. Wake up and smell the roses. No one knows for sure . Many people in big churches go to church to be entertained. As my husband has said to me, “When does the show start”. Thats not worship. Many who claim to be followers of Christ are just plain fake. I attend church every Sunday , on line, live, where I don’t have to worry about critics, saying the wrong thing or making a casserole when I don’t have time. I attended church every Sunday for 50 years and experienced more stress from that than any other organization I ever belonged to. In every organization I have found that 30% of the members do all the woek. Church is no different. I love the Lord but not the man-made church.

    • John Finochio on September 9, 2017 at 1:17 pm

      Gail I hear your heart and it sounds like you’ve been through one church conflict too many. I’ve been in the local church for well over 40 years and have seen the good, bad and the ugly and in the last 2 years in particular went through a spell of just plain nastiness. But I’ve also raised a family and I think the same could be said for it too! The most stressful times happen within families and the best times happen within families but I would never give up on mine. So I guess that is how I feel about the church. Until Jesus says that He is no longer building His church I’m in warts and all. Withdrawing your physical presence from the community of the church is never the answer to the issues you have mentioned but perhaps God uses all this to perfect us, grow in grace and develop long-suffering. Blessings to you and I hope your heart heals up and the Lord restores your vision for a glorious church!

    • Robert on September 14, 2017 at 8:42 am

      I get it that leaving the corporate gathering may be less stressful for YOU, but have you thought about the younger believers that you are now not able to influence and mentor because you’re not there? I would be careful not to remove yourself from the local church – the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12-14).

  7. Todd McKeever on September 4, 2017 at 4:34 pm

    Let me know if you are doing a new one for passing the 500 barriers. Love what you do.

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