One Key Reason Most Churches Do Not Exceed 350 in Average Attendance

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Nine out of ten.

That’s a lot.

Nine out of ten churches in America have an average worship attendance of less than 350. And that percentage has not changed significantly for many years. Yet the unchurched pool of persons is increasing in most communities. There are people yet to be reached.

But most churches will never exceed 350 in attendance. Why?

A Few Caveats

Allow me to preface my analysis. First, big is not necessarily better. A church with more people in attendance is not necessarily more faithful than a smaller church. Second, some churches are in very sparsely populated areas. There may not be 350 people in a five-mile radius (though every community still has people who need to be reached).

My third caveat is key. I believe leadership is indeed a biblical and theological issue. It’s really a matter of healthy stewardship. I offer this third caveat because I will be addressing the issue of leadership in this post.

Attendance Levels of Churches in America

We are a nation and continent of smaller churches. And though we have far more small churches than large churches, there is a big migration of people from smaller to larger churches. In other words, many of the smaller churches are getting smaller, and many of the larger churches are getting larger.

Here is a simple depiction of the number of churches at three different levels:

  • 50% of all churches in America average less than 100 in worship attendance.
  • 40% of all churches in America average between 100 and 350 in attendance.
  • 10% of all churches in America average more than 350 in attendance.

Keep in mind that the upper 10% tend to include more of the growing churches, while the lower 90% tend to include more of the declining churches.

One of the Key Reasons

There is no single reason to explain the apparent ceiling of 350 in attendance of most churches. I do believe, however, that there is a major reason for this barrier. Such is the thesis of this post:

One of the key reasons most churches do not move beyond 350 in average worship attendance is they do not have sufficient leadership and structures in place.

Many smart people have provided analyses of what is commonly known as the 200 barrier. I believe that the 200 barrier is highly elastic. In other words, the barrier is really somewhere between 150 and 350, depending on a number of circumstances. Again, I believe that the key reason stated above is among the greatest inhibitors of growth.

Increasing Organizational Complexity

Moses was an unintended victim of organizational complexity. He was trying the Lone Ranger approach to the leadership of Israel. The nation would implode and he would lose his leadership authority if he kept doing what he was doing.

His father-in-law, Jethro, saw the flaws of his leadership and said:

“What you’re doing is not good . . . You will certainly wear out both yourself and these people who are with you, because the task is too heavy for you. You can’t do it alone” (Exodus 18:17-18, HCSB).

So, following Jethro’s advice and wisdom, Moses became a different kind of leader with a different kind of organization.

Here are the five major levels of organizational complexity in churches according to average worship attendance:

  1. Under 100: Family and friends
  2. 100 to 250: Basic
  3. 251 to 350: Challenging
  4. 351 to 750: Complex
  5. Above 750: Highly complex

Most churches cannot or are not willing to make the types of changes that are necessary in complex organizations. In future resources, I will share what many leaders and churches are doing to move beyond the 100, 250, and 350 ceilings. In the meantime, let me hear from you.

Posted on March 25, 2015


With nearly 40 years of ministry experience, Thom Rainer has spent a lifetime committed to the growth and health of local churches across North America.
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128 Comments

  • As a Pastor who has seen our church go from that 350 range to 850 in the past 18 months I would say I agree totally. We have been staying awake at night trying to figure out how our structure can keep pace with our growth so that the growth would be sustainable. The result has been hiring new staff, expanding congregational care networks, adding new bible groups and dealing with space and parking issues. Needless to say we have a lot of balls in the air.

    I would just add one thing to your post is in order for the church to grow the Lead Pastor will have to trust staff and lay leaders more. He will most likely need to feel like he is less in control of everything. He will most likley have to do less and be more focused or else he will become a bottle neck restricting future growth.

  • I’m in a replanting situation and we have grown from 35 to 55 people in just under a year. I’d love to know how to lead through the Friends/Family orbit into the next leadership dynamic rung (at least). I believe that we will do that, and once we do we can continue that trajectory and keep growing as a church and gospel influence in our community. But so far the struggle has been to just galvanize any real momentum in any direction. Any further insights you guys could share would be great! Thanks. – cg

    • Thom Rainer says on

      Chris –

      I hate to put you guys on hold, but I have a lot of information to share on these issues. I hope to have it available soon.

  • After growing from 300 to 900 we birthed a new congregation in the adjacent city with 100 of our people and our very gifted associate pastor as the preacher/leader. All 100 are going as missionaries to the city with the hope of seeing the gospel impact their friends, co-workers, family, etc. Close to 80% of the city is not active in faith according to the last census (about 150,000+). As we are working through the leadership structures, we were told that church plants that don’t break 200 in their first two years rarely do. Have you found that to be accurate? We are being somewhat mindful of this and aggressive in our structuring for the purpose of mission.

  • I have experienced the church of over 700 members and found it to be lacking in a “family” philosophy.
    A church is to be a family. I now pastor a church of under 100 and this is more like a family.
    When I arrived, unfortunately, there were too many members who were related, either by marriage, of biology.
    This has become less of an issue because many have left as a result of my leadership style that has developed a high level of accountability and responsibility to biblical standards.

    You are right on. Bigger is not batter. I believe that the idea that we need churches over 100 creates a competitiveness that is not conducive to spiritual growth.

    Blessings. <

    • Thom Rainer says on

      I hear you, Rich. But do we tell people in the under 100 churches to stop fulfilling the Great Commission?

      • I think that the advice that you gave above would apply in this information as well. You advised that you should always be equipping leaders within the congregation. If you are intent on staying small while still reaching the lost, you can do that by equipping leaders that don’t necessarily have to serve under the same roof as the original congregation.

        I don’t know where he has led with this, but Francis Chan put out a video about this a couple years ago. It was based around home churches primarily, and keeping the groups to around twenty with a plan to create a new group when it outgrew that. It was specifically addressing those two issues in union.

      • @Dallas. It is not necessarily MY plan for the church to stay small.
        Sure, I would love to reach the 75 to 100 mark but that has not happened.
        My goals are to be faithful to my call.
        Equip the saints for ministry…
        Every facet of ministry God has for this congregation.

      • If you reach people, you grow. If you go out and “witness” and they “accept Jesus” but never join the church, you’ve not reached them. If you’re not baptizing and teaching those new converts, you’re not fulfilling the Great Commission.

        Just a few things to keep in mind.

      • This seems to be addressing me, but I’m not quite sure what it is addressing. If anything I would think that many small groups would better serve to teach and train up than one large one, as the ground level interaction is able to stay more personal.

        I agree with what you are saying, no cheap grace evangelism. I just don’t see how what I said goes against that.

      • Never! My wife tells me that the recurring theme in my sermons are “preach the gospel”!

  • We are experiencing the strains of moving from the “complex” to “very complex” in size. It’s required us to completely restructure some aspects of our leadership. Do you have any suggestions? How do we build a good structure to “hold up the roof” while not having so much structure that it gets in the way of ministry?

    • Thom Rainer says on

      Jeremy –

      Please allow me to address these types issued with future posts and resources. My brief comments would not be sufficient.

      Thanks.

  • Todd Burus says on

    I am working in a revitalization for a church that is on the cusp of moving from the under 100 category to the 100-250 category. The current organization is very informal. Could you provide a key point or two on what sort of structure should be put in place to help us facilitate/anticipate this jump, or at least point me to a resource that speaks on this topic?

    • Thom Rainer says on

      Todd –

      The structural change you will need to make is to make certain, whatever is in place, the church is equipping new leaders. The size of the church will be too wieldy for one or a few people to have ministry responsibility. Also, make certain your church does not have any inherent barriers in place that would slow this equipping and empowering process.

      • Todd Burus says on

        Thom,
        Thanks. As a follow up, where do you think the most important place is for us to be developing new leaders? Sunday school teachers? Volunteers for worship service? Administrative? Etc. I know that ideally we would have people stepping up in all the areas that the church is doing ministry, but practically we have limited people to fill roles and want to make sure we maximize the effectiveness of the first string of new leaders trained.

        -Todd

      • Thom Rainer says on

        They are all important Todd, but if I had to choose one, I would start with small group or Sunday school leaders. Those leaders are shepherds of the members in their groups.

      • May I suggest putting out a survey of skills and asking for volunteers. You never know who has experience.

  • Thank you for being so in target and blunt. Most of us can’t stand to face our realities! Keep challenging us.

  • We just broke rank by abolishing the “nominating committee filling job slots” and replaced it with choosing “team leaders” to develop crucial teams that impact the purpose of the church. These team leaders have no “limited terms” and as God uses them they will begin to function as high-capacity volunteer staff.

    The pastor’s new responsibility is not to focus on every person in the church but to work with, develop and vision cast with these team leaders. It has united the vision for children’s Sunday school, children’s ministry, VBS and other ministry to children under one team rather than three or four different individuals. For the first time we have an outreach team rather than just a missions budget. And so on . . .

    Once the concept is sold to the leadership and the nominating committee it became a priority to immediately begin working with and encouraging the team leaders and teaching them that they were selected to be leaders not doers. (A concept that many pastors need to wrestle with.)

    So far, so good. This is a change in direction that may take an entire season to become a vital part of a body of believers working together to accomplish the purpose of the church. Sort of like . . . “Their responsibility is to equip God’s people to do his work and build up the church, the body of Christ.” Ephesians 4:12 (speaking of pastors)

    Club member contentment and comfort may be reason number two for slow or no church growth. Ministry is messy . . . re-read the book of Acts.

    Thank you for continuing the dialog that is helping we leaders to lead more effectively.

    • Thom Rainer says on

      Thank you, Jim. That is a great story.

    • Thank you for sharing this Jim. I love this sentence: “Once the concept is sold to the leadership and the nominating committee it became a priority to immediately begin working with and encouraging the team leaders and teaching them that they were selected to be leaders not doers.”

    • Cristian says on

      Good afternoon , my name is Cristian and I am pastor of a church of 100 members.
      I thought of the idea to form teams to help in the growth of the church.
      Could you give me some tips to start with this in my church ?
      A big hug and God bless you.

  • Thom,

    I serve a church across the street from the CABC in Louisville who interimed at some years ago. We are in the family and friends level of complexity and struggling to move above it. At one time (1960s) this church was running about 350. From all appearances, they ran things the same way, much with the family type of organizational leadership. Do you think churches like this began to shrink in part because of this? AND, how were the general dynamics different that they were able to grow larger without changing structures at that time?

    • Thom Rainer says on

      I definitely think many churches have declined for these very reasons. In the 60s it was normative in culture to go to church. Growth came easier. That is not the case today.

  • Matt Lawrence says on

    Our culture is changing much faster than it used to and much faster than churches want to. Unreached people who visit a larger and more diverse congregation are more likely to feel they fit in somewhere. When a visitor enters a church and most people look the same and not like them, that’s a negative. Diversity and size are positives.

  • I’ve been the pastor at my church for 2 years, and we’ve grown from about 80 to 220 in attendance in that time… And stalled a bit. “Division of labor” is our greatest obstacle, it seems. When I arrived, everything we did was all hands on deck. We’re beyond our capacity to do that now, so there are lots of cracks for things to fall through. My goal has been to raise the value of service in the area of gifting and letting others do the same. It’s a long slow change because it involves changing people’s mind and having to tell them no. But it’s worth it! Even the small victories make a big impact on the psyche of the people, and the rapid growth makes it an easier sell. Can’t wait for the next installments!

    • “My goal has been to raise the value of service in the area of gifting and letting others do the same. ”

      I’m not sure that I am reading this right, do you mean that you are trying to let people know that they can substitute money for active service? Does that mean that the congregation is “too” eager to offer their time to work in service projects? If that’s the case, I am sure there are a lot on here that would really covet that problem.

      • What he is saying is not necessarily that he is increasing the monetary value of his staff, but following a theory similar to the one used in my church. We postulate that it would be better to invest in ten people for a year who could do a job well thereafter than to have 25 people who are all willing, yet unqualified. It is one of the hallmarks of most larger churches: Professionalization of work. Not necessarily by paying people to do work, but by having people do their work well.

      • Thank you… I completely misread that. Part of the danger of using the same words to refer to different things I guess. I literally thought he was talking about gifting as it refers to say offering… kind of the way that we view missionary support. We aren’t called to necessarily serve in some far away land but our gifts (offerings) can be used to in that ministry.

        That confusion out of the way, I comepletely agree with what he has to say, so thanks again.

      • Chris Brewer says on

        LOL, I’m sorry for the laughter, I but i think you got it right the 1st time. He’s is talking about money, just take a good look at his language. He is talking about changing people minds, and programing them. It is obvious what kind of congregation he has, because you look at his goals. Because true believers, God has to be the one who gives them a new mind with new goals.

        So in saying, since numbers are you goal you will accomplish that. You will have great programs, good children programs, and pretty cathedrals. But you will have a church full of non-christians, and the real christians have left the house. This is ,what is happening now all across the world and these people who have left the house are winning people to Christ, and many don’t even know this is happening. It is so sad today that people worship the church building and programs, and refuse to worship God. …………”these people honors me with their words and mouths but their heart is far from me”

        It is so sad, it is just food for thought.

      • Sherry Hanson says on

        Chris
        ” But you will have a church full of non-christians, and the real christians have left the house.”

        Real Christians should be out of the house telling others about God & Jesus, Sunday services are for the non- believer & new believers to learn more about God. If you are not getting what you need from your church – start a connect group of like minded people from your church that will fill your needs, then share your talents in the church to help others. God is about the numbers too… He wants all to hear and will go after even one that has not.
        Rant over. 🙂

    • Thom Rainer says on

      You are definitely on the right track, Jason. I thank God for your faithfulness.

  • Jonathan says on

    Looking forward to the upcoming posts. I pastor a church that has plateaued at the 200 mark. I love reading for posts they have been very helpful to me being a young pastor. Thank you for what you do.

    • Thom Rainer says on

      Thank you for taking the time to read them, Jonathan.

      • Hey Dr. Rainer you aught to talk to dad about this subject as he is one of the few pastors who has lead a church through all of these barriers and organizational structures. He might have some insights for guys dealing with the difficulties of the change process and what to do and what not to do.

      • Thom Rainer says on

        Sounds good. Who is your dad?

      • Why Pastor Perry of course. 😉

      • My initial thought in reading this, is why does a church need to grow in number per say? Is church grow correlated to sinners saved?

    • Appreciate all this insight. Our church is exactly where this discussion is aimed. In fact, our pastors have read “Simple Church” and are on board with its principles. Is there a “Simple Church” designed for lay leaders or regular church members that they could read and get on board with this vision as well?

    • Hey Jonathan, I’d be interested in speaking with you if you still are in the plateau.
      [email protected] thanks

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