Excerpt from Raising the Roof, Chapter 1: “Changing Size” from the Alban Institute
One widely accepted understanding among those who study congregations is that such groups fall into certain size categories, and that church growth often stalls when a congregation reaches a period of transition from one category to another. Peace Mennonite has an average worship attendance of just under 50 people per week.
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Family-size church (up to 50 adults and children at worship): A small congregation that operates like an extended family. Just as in the famous tavern from the television series Cheers, “everybody knows your name.” This church is organized around one or two anchoring figures called matriarchs and patriarchs by Rothauge to indicate their tacit authority in the system. Such congregations often have part-time pastors, and their clergy tend to adopt a chaplain role—leading worship and giving pastoral care.
Pastoral-size church (51 to 150): A coalition of two or three family and friendship networks unified around the person and role of the pastor. Clergy time is largely taken up maintaining a direct pastoral relationship with each member, coordinating the work of a small leadership circle, personally conducting worship, and leading small-group programs such as Bible study. The governing board usually operates like a committee, arranging much of the day-to-day life of the congregation. Members recognize each other’s faces, know most people’s names, and will notice if someone new is present at worship.
Between sizes, churches that have been growing steadily tend to hit an attendance plateau. Often they notice a mismatch between their flat year-to-year attendance chart and their other measures of growth—the number of visitors, members, or dollars contributed may keep increasing while attendance remains stuck. . . . Sometimes a flat attendance line is caused primarily by physical factors. For example, a worship service will tend to stop growing when 80 percent of the desirable seats are occupied on a regular basis.
In contrast to plateaus created by physical space limitations, the glass-ceiling effect of a size transition will occur even when there are plenty of seats left. Growth in attendance levels off because of a shortage in “sociological space”—the way the congregation arranges its life will simply not support the sustained involvement of more people than it already has.
The movement from family to pastoral size involves a change in the way the system centers its life. The family-size church feels like a tribe or a “committee of the whole.” Not everyone on the committee has equal influence, to be sure, but the single circle of members works things through in its own characteristic way.
When attendance exceeds 50, the congregation encounters a crisis—the unbroken circle of members no longer works well as the defining constellation of the congregation’s life. Members experience distress because they can no longer keep track of all the relationships. According to anthropologist Robin Dunbar, this discomfort has a biological basis in the limited capacity of primate neural networks;13 we humans can only keep track of a certain number of face-to-face relationships in a given social system. In order to grow further, the system must allow the development of two or three different networks of family and fellowship—each of a mentally manageable size—and it must establish a symbolic center around which those networks can orient themselves. Typically, it becomes “pastor-centered.”
It may be that the heightened role of the pastor in relation to the board moves the congregation’s political center from the kitchen table to a more accessible public setting . . . The pastor’s central position as communication switchboard also allows for a great deal of informal consultation and problem solving.