Thursday, February 21, 2013

The challenge facing churches of 100-200 in attendance

Recently, I met with a pastor search committee of a church that averages 125.  One of the members told the group that a judicatory leader of another denomination told him that their church was at a dangerous point.  He wanted to know what that leader meant by that.  I responded that his friend was probably referring to the size of the congregation.  I explained that they were at one of the attendance ceilings that are hard to break through.

This is a healthy church in many respects, but they are going to face some significant challenges in the next few years.  The 125 people who attend services there each week make up well over 80 percent of the sanctuary's capacity.  Their parking lot is filled with many parking on the streets around the church.  They are landlocked and unable to build new additions to their building.  A previous pastor encouraged them to try two services a few years ago, and that experiment did not work well leaving a bad taste in the mouths of many.  They are at the size that is the practical limit of most solo pastors to manage.  As we see so often, even if a church does grow beyond 125-150 they are often not able to hold to that growth because it overwhelms the abilities of the solo pastor.  While this church provides a good compensation package for their pastor, most people in leadership in this church doubt they can bring on another staff person.  Without doing so it is unlikely they would experience much growth and even more unlikely they would sustain any growth that might happen.  Unable to grow there is only one other option which is to begin to decrease in size.  That, I explained, is why this person's friend said they were at a dangerous point.

I am frequently asked my view about the fate of small churches.  My response to that question is that small churches will be around forever.  They have learned to survive on little, and the relationships that exist in smaller churches can sustain them for a long, long time.  The megachurches and other larger churches are able to provide programming and ministries that will appeal to many people assuring their survival.  My sense is that most of our largest churches will also be around for a long time.  The churches that are going to face challenges in the future will be the medium size churches.  Unable to offer the programming of the larger churches and the sense of community the smaller churches provide, these medium size churches are going to be squeezed on both sides in coming years.  Many of them are already on the declining side of their life cycle, and if they are unable to make some significant changes in their structure and ministries they may find that decline begin to speed up.

The committee I met with was not comfortable when I told them they may find themselves seeking a bivocational pastor in the near future.  The church does offer a good financial package, but it does not include health insurance.  They are hopeful the pastor's spouse's employment will provide insurance for the family.  That is only one step away from having a bivocational pastor.

Like many churches this size, this is a church that needs to begin rethinking ministry.  I explained that just because two services didn't work well before doesn't mean it might not work now.  Perhaps they had gotten ahead of God's timing for two services.  I also told them that they are limiting their thinking to how many people can fit in their sanctuary.  Could they offer services at an additional site or start another church near their community that could minister to more people?  They also need to review how their ministries are structured.  To grow they need to staff for growth, not maintenance, and a solo pastor in this size church is staffing for maintenance.  If they truly cannot afford another staff person, even bivocationally, (which I don't believe) they need to look at how they are using their lay leadership.  Volunteers can accomplish great ministry if they are trained and freed from maintenance tasks so they can actually be involved in ministry.

There are significant challenges facing churches averaging 100-200 people, but there are also solutions to these challenges.  These churches need to begin to discern God's vision for their future ministry and determine the steps that will help them achieve that.

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