10 Reasons Churches Stop Growing at the 200 Barrier

It’s common for churches to hover around 200 in attendance, bouncing slightly below and slightly above that number recurrently, but not moving beyond that level. Here are some reasons that plateau happens:

  1. Pastoral leadership style – Pastors who must be involved in every member’s life and who don’t delegate ministry usually cannot shepherd a congregation larger than 200. Many pastors simply don’t know how to change this leadership style.
  2. Building space – Many churches build first or second buildings that will hold about 200 worshippers. If space is unavailable for future growth, that growth won’t happen.
  3. Church expectations – Some congregations simply don’t want to be larger than about 200. They don’t want so many members they can’t know everybody, so outreach slows as the church approaches the 200 barrier.
  4. Church history – In many cases, a church has a history of hitting 200, bouncing backward for a while, and then growing again up to 200. That’s been their history, so 200 has become the height of “the good old days.” 
  5. Man-sized vision – That is, the church leaders have no vision beyond the 200 barrier. They know they can get to this point, and that becomes their target. Nobody’s thinking about God’s doing something larger than that point.
  6. Poor preparation – Some leaders don’t think about addressing the 200 barrier until the church is at that level – which means they’ve made no preparation to push through the barrier. Their reactive leadership halts the church’s growth. 
  7. Ecclesiological choice – For those pastors who believe they must know every member of their congregation well, maxing attendance at about 200 is intentional. Others are church planting pastors who’ve determined that anything beyond 200 is a call to send out laborers to start another congregation. In the latter case, growth is still occurring—it just looks different.
  8. Burdening bureaucracy – Churches that have numerous meetings, multiple committees, and slow processes often get stuck around 200. They’re not prepared structurally to cross that barrier. 
  9. Pastoral tenure – If pastors don’t stay at their church beyond 3-4 years, it’s hard for the church to move past 200. Pastoral transitions tend to slow down church growth for a while.
  10. Poor discipleship – Moving beyond 200 requires a church to have trained lay leaders to carry on the work of ministry. Churches that don’t intentionally make disciples don’t often have these workers. 

 What obstacles have you seen? Let us hear your thoughts.

Posted on August 26, 2020

Dr. Chuck Lawless is a leading expert in spiritual consultation, discipleship and mentoring. As a former pastor, he understands the challenges ministry presents and works with Church Answers to provide advice and counsel for church leaders.
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  • Chuck,
    Thank you for your article on the “200 Barrier”. The three biggest things I’ve found was an unwillingness to change what the church does in order to grow and to reach the community. Next, they were unwilling to think ‘big’. That is the biggest reason small churches remain small is they think small! Lastly, would be unforgiveness within the ranks. They remember what each other said or did from ten years earlier. They hold grudges. Trust gets eroded. Quiet bitterness governs attitudes. New people pick up on it as the church doesn’t feel life giving. Sometimes, even the sincerest pastors can’t grow a church that doesn’t want to do the things required to grow, even though the people will look the pastor in the eye and say they do want to grow. But what is certain, they will blame the pastor if they don’t grow. Seminary did not prepare us for this!

  • Thom,
    I agree with all of the article I would ask that you address just the opposite for those of us that are beyond 200 and still have meetings like we are 200. What I mean by this is that once a church activates more volunteers, has more employees and more leaders what is a typical schedule for a senior pastor to meet with his leadership team, that team to meet with their teams, etc.? What I’ve seen is that churches that don’t consistently hold meaningful meetings that communicate vision, assignment of roles and responsibilities, and due dates end up scurrying at the last minute with shortsighted vision consequently having average effectiveness without reflection on how the church is working to accomplish its mission. To bring this back, basically I’m curious the meeting schedule might look like for churches around our size (700-1000) and who is at the table? Please allow me to remain anonymous.

  • Tim Hancock says on

    I was called to a “Legacy Church” 2 years ago. When I look at lists like this, it breaks my heart simply because the barrier doesn’t need to be there. It’s there because we allow it.

    Pastoral leadership style – If I don’t get better, nothing will change. I’ve got a sharp, young staff; They won’t stay if I don’t learn to lead better.

    Church expectations – We are already hearing the question, “When will resume Sunday night church?” I told one guy, “I hope never. If we are doing discipleship and community correctly, you’ll be having people in your home on Sunday night.”
    [“normal” was broken. We can’t go back and fix it.]

    Church history – Our history is one of deception – making the people think we were reaching more than we were.

    Man-sized vision – I know God has a bigger plan for us:)

    Poor preparation – We’ve been dealing with it and preparing for it. It’s those other things on the list that are hindering our growth.

    Ecclesiological choice – We are trying to do both. In-house and in community. It does look different and the “nickels and noses” crowd has a hard time understanding growth that doesn’t bring people into the building. (i.e. the internet)

    Pastoral tenure – I’m committed to staying. But I’m not content with the way things were or even the way things are.

    Poor discipleship – Ding, ding, ding! This is the reason for #’s 2,3,4,5 &6.
    Disciples make disciples. If you are making disciples, can you call yourself a disciple?
    Not just the clergy. The people have to grasp the vision.
    Great article. Tim Keller’s white paper on breaking the barriers is outstanding as well.

  • Small churches frequently have a large, ruling family. At 200, their influence wanes based on the laws of mathematics, and they cannot maintain the level of control that they had. Thus, there is, in essence, cap on growth.

  • I have a unique perspective on this. I was part of a church merger. The older congregation running just under 100 (a church established in 1955 with a paid off property) merged with the younger congregation running 275 (church established in 1998 renting property). It is hard to explain everything that happened but here are the three major issues from your list we faced:

    I was part of the younger church. Right away, we (my pastor and I from the younger church) realized that there were significant self-imposed limitations placed on the church (the older church). #1 Pastoral Leadership Style was definitely a hindrance to growth. #8 burdening beaucracy was out of control. #10 Poor Discipleship focused on “discipling” the same 5 guys for 10 years.

    #1 Pastoral Leadership — My pastor was to be the lead pastor after one year (he co-pastored with the other man). Once the year had passed (ending the pastoral leadership style issue), the church began to grow without hindrance. Despite many leaving because they did not like the merger process, God replaced and added more people to the membership. Before COVID-19, we were running consistently just under 400 after merging 2 1/2 years ago. Again, that is after many people left, and God replacing them with many others and more.

    # 8 The burdening beaucracy was overbearing. At one point in the older church’s history, the Library Committee was at the forefront of a church split. There were so many meetings that we were exhausted every week. We worked to cancel meetings. We worked to dissolve committees. It was to the frustration and ire of many, but they left and it made things very easy to adapt afterwards.

    #10 Poor Discipleship — The discipleship program consisted (as previously mentioned) of 5 guys that discipled each other for 10 years. That is no exaggeration. Our pastor decided that change was needed and placed me in charge of the program. All 5 of the guys involved left the church out of anger. In the first year of discipleship, we saw 65 people complete the program (including many of our teenagers). Many of those that completed the program in the early stages went on to teach others.

  • Tyler Hartford says on

    I believe this is another point that has elements of the above. At the 200 level and higher, lay people have to realize there is always some aspect of the church direction they won’t be able to influence or have agreement on – so it takes an institution-wise recognition that the Board and Pastor(s) are to be trusted and allowed to set a vision and course.

  • Thank you for your thoughts

    What do you say to A Pastor who is laboring and does not have 200 members ? What encouragement?
    Noah preached over 100 years. Yet only his family. My thought is as long as the anoting, and Glory of God is present —God will cause the increase. God works in seasons and cycles. Faithful over a little God will make you ruler over much—-Please encourage Pastors were they are. I want to have a large congregation and minister around the world. I am currently being faithful to the ones that are at the Church which are a handful.

  • I think the better questions probably revolve around #7. Maybe instead of pushing to get past 200 we should be emphasizing the kind of leadership that focuses on making disciples and planting churches. Willow Creek has shown us that you can be big and still be doing a poor job of actually making disciples. Most of this comes across as another one of those guilt trip articles where “everything rises and falls on leadership!” Maybe the pastor is being really faithful, doing good ministry in the community and helping people grow closer to Jesus. Maybe Jesus looks at that and says, “Well done, you’ve been faithful with two talents…”

  • I would like more info on how to change my leadership style as a pastor.

    • Chuck Lawless says on

      Good question, Terry. It’s not easy to adjust our primary leadership style. Many of us (including me) have had to learn to equip others and let go of some of our tasks for the good of the church.

  • 6 and 8 could almost be put into a single category called Infrastructure. It can often lead to a Catch-22 where you can’t have growth without the structure to handle it, but you can’t have the structure without the people to lead it.

    • Chuck Lawless says on

      Thanks for the thoughts, Lyn. You correctly recognize the tension.

    • True. it iws good to have the structure —it is preplaning and it is thinking ahead for when the people do come. So structure first and then people will come and they will feel that there is vision. People are looking for vision