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

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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 desires his or her church to grow.

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

The main reasons churches never pass the 200 attendance mark aren't spiritual, they're structural. Click To Tweet

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 dug deeper, reflected more systematically on my only learnings in leading a church from 6 in attendance to over 1200 attendees 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.

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

Do 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 attendees isn’t spiritual; it’s structural.

The main reason churches don't grow past 200 attendees isn't spiritual, it's structural.  Click To Tweet

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.

If you want your church to reach more people, structure bigger to grow bigger.  Click To Tweet

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.

Expecting the pastor to do everything simply doesn't scale. Click To Tweet

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.

Reaching more people doesn't mean you have to work more hours. Click To Tweet

3. The pastor is the primary caregiver

Of all the things that a 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 and 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 small 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.

98% of pastoral care is having someone who cares. It doesn't have to be the pastor.  Click To Tweet

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, but 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.

Most church leaders have enough nice people, they just need more capable people . Click To Tweet

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 church’s mission. 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 that you haven’t led them there yet.

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

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

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.

Leaders lead other people; doers only lead themselves. Click To Tweet

6. The Team is Not Aligned

Another reason 200 is such a big barrier is that 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 on 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 even if it does, it carries within it all the seeds for implosion.

Alignment is the hard work of making what's clear to you clear to your team. Click To Tweet

7. Micro-management

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

Most boards that micromanage do so because that’s where most people simply default. You need a board that 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.

Committees kill vision. Click To Tweet

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.

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

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.

You can make excuses or you can make progress, but you can’t make both. Click To Tweet

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.

The leaders who make the most excuses make the least progress. Click To Tweet

Lead With Confidence and Clarity. Grow Your Church.

As leaders, we tend to see the challenges and roadblocks before other people do.

We've all been there before...

  • You need to refresh your vision for the future but know that change will be an issue for that person.
  • You're overstaffed (or missing a key role) and can't find the right person to fill the role.
  • You aren't reaching enough new people even though you've tried everything that's working for other churches.
  • You can see the issue but aren't confident in what to do about it.

And with another Sunday morning coming up, it'll just have to wait until next week when you have a few minutes to figure it out.

Now ask yourself this:

What would it feel like to have those answers at your fingertips 24/7?

Whether it's reaching new people, improving your preaching, increasing volunteers, refreshing your vision, engaging your staff, or any of the countless challenges we face as church leaders, The Art of Leadership Academy will equip you to lead your church with confidence and clarity.

Between comprehensive church leadership courses, live coaching calls, staff and volunteer training resources, and direct access to an online community of senior-level church leaders, you'll get the exact insights and answers that fuel your church for growth.

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Carey Nieuwhof
Carey Nieuwhof

Carey Nieuwhof is a best-selling leadership author, speaker, podcaster, former attorney, and church planter. He hosts one of today’s most influential leadership podcasts, and his online content is accessed by leaders over 1.5 million times a month. He speaks to leaders around the world about leadership, change, and personal growth.