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

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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  • Chuck Dotson says on

    What fascinates me about this article is the apparent assumption that churches should naturally want to grow beyond 350 people. While you acknowledge that not all churches do, nevertheless you assume that the desire to do so is the rule.

    I’m wondering what it would look like if, instead of trying to grow churches bigger, the norm was to grow them outward, i.e., plant more churches? Instead of pastors hiring more staff and scaling up budgets as they try to cross this threshold, what if they developed a core group of lay leaders out of that 350 to begin the process of starting another church?

    • Thom Rainer says on

      Chuck: Your point is well made. Many churches today are expanding by planting new churches and starting new campuses.

  • Michael Stainbrook says on

    Hi Thom,
    A former senior pastor of ours Warren Crank has written a book called The Resolute Leader. Its been circulated widely in Queensland Australia and we have found it helpful in developing Jethro principles, and a team building culture. We also loved Simple Church as well and used it widely.

    I’m happy to send a copy of Resolute Leader, its been recommended by Ed Stezer and others. Could you provide a mail address. No commission for me by the way just found it very helpful.
    God Bless

  • My church is at 350. The issue for me is the role of the pastor as spiritual leader: preacher, teacher, mentor, prayer versus his role as administrator: manager of ministries, organizer, marketer. The former requires quality time if the gospel is to have any depth. The latter requires a different skill set. How to do both well is the challenge in organizational development.

  • Thank you for these provocative, biblically based thoughts. This is why small groups are vital. I would add that they need to be intergenerational as Jethro suggested to
    1) mentor new leaders
    2) comfort in suffering
    3) accountable for actions (age related patterns of sin)
    4) less cliquish and likely to promote divisive own agenda
    5) stable

  • i see a lot written for the 200 and even 500 barrier… As a pastor of a church of 750 for years now, I wish someone would speak into that barrier, I realize there are fewer of us, but please address this in the future… We really want to keep growing!
    How do we get passed 750?

  • Mark Lindsay says on

    Hi Thom,

    I look forward to your blog on this. In my opinion, complex systems offer a tremendous opportunity for the local church today to break out of the status quo by applying complex systems leadership principles. It’s a whole new ballgame that we need to be teaching our seminarians today. This approach to leadership also solves many of the issues of engagement of millennials.

    I look forward to this discussion.

    Mark Lindsay

  • This is very true. It seems to get especially tricky when a church has shrunk from more complex to less over a long period of time. When one tries to change old methods, citing an attempt at growth, folks balk because, “This is what we did when this placed was packed to the gills!” It becomes difficult to adjust to 1. the current size and 2. the current culture in order to facilitate growth. Then, you’re stuck with outdated methods suited to a much larger church in a much different cultural climate.

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