Ten Rules of Thumb for Healthy Churches in America


Using rules of thumb to gauge church health is problematic because they are, well, rules of thumb. There will always be exceptions, extenuating circumstances, and even disagreements on the right metrics.

I thus realize I am taking a risk when I publish these broad guidelines. There is the greater risk that someone will take these numbers as infallible and perfectly suited for his or her congregation. Please let wisdom prevail. So many factors, such as demographics, multiple sites, and history will always provide better insights than mere numbers.

Nevertheless, I provide you these ten rules of thumb as a starting point. You can then wisely discern how well and specifically they apply to your situation.

  1. Number of acres needed for church site: one acre for every 125 in attendance. This ratio is based on useable acres. That number is affected by zoning requirements, water retention requirements, and property shape, to name a few.
  2. Parking Spaces: one space for every 2 people in attendance.
  3. Parking Area: 100 spaces for every acre used for parking.
  4. Evangelistic effectiveness: 12 conversions per year for every 100 in average attendance. Different congregations used different terminology: conversions, baptisms, professions of faith, salvations, etc. In this metric, the number refers to those in the past year who became Christians and became active in that specific congregation.
  5. Seating space per attendee: 27 inches. That number was 20 inches at one time. It has changed due to larger posteriors and greater cultural space desires.
  6. Maximum capacity of a facility: 80% full. This old tried and true ratio is still good. When a facility is 80% full architecturally, it feels 100% full.
  7. Retention effectiveness: For every 10 new members added per year, average worship attendance should increase by 7.
  8. Effective giving; For every person in average attendance, including children and preschool, $26.00 in budget receipts. For example, a church with an average worship attendance of 100 should average at least $2,600 in weekly budget giving. This ratio is obviously greatly impacted by demographics.
  9. Maximum debt payment budgeted: 33 percent of annual income for most churches. Up to 40 percent for fast-growing churches.
  10. Maximum debt owed: 2.5 times the annual income of the church for the previous year.

So how do you evaluate these rules of thumb? How is your church doing? What would you recommend I change or add?

Posted on March 4, 2013

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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  • So, is #5 (27 inches per attender) the capacity? Are we to take the total from #5 and apply the principles of #6, or do they speak to the same capacity number?

  • I could use some advice on the worship space and the 80% rule. Our sanctuary seats 196. Our current worship average is 145. We had been at two services in the past. Attendance at the services usually ran 80 in the first and 60 in the second. Overtime the attendance dipped into the 120’s. Last year we moved to one service and our attendance rebounded. We are now 80% full but if we go back to two services we will be less than 40% full in one of our services. We are looking to expand. Any advice on the two or one service format?

    • Thom Rainer says on

      Lee –

      Is it possible to have a separate children’s worship? That would at least take some pressure off the capacity without reverting to two services.

      • Thanks! We have thought of that option. We might run into a volunteer issue and we are concerned with splitting the family in worship. Also, it might only equal about 10-15 kids going into the children’s worship service. Thanks for the help!

  • I hate to be a contrarian, but I’ve been in churches that met all of these that I would not consider healthy at all. This says nothing of body life or discipleship. A rock star preacher and a great worship band can draw a big crowd but that does not automatically equate to a healthy church.

    This may be the rules of thumb for the ability of a market driven American church to grow, but to me it says nothing about church health.

  • Isn’t the conversion rate often dependent upon context. Aren’t there some communities that are harder to reach? Hard ground so to speak, or am I off?

    • Thom Rainer says on

      Wes –

      Absolutely. In fact, all of the metrics must be contextualized. That is why I shared the cautionary prefatory comments.

  • Thom Rainer says on

    Pete, Todd, and Josh –

    I understand your perspective if I defined church health from the perspective of this one article. This article deals with simple metrics that have been used for years. If you read my works to any degree, you will note that I do not view these issues to be paramount to true church health. For example, I wrote two blogs in January 2012 that dealt with the main issues of church health. Here is what I noted:
    1.The churches have a high view of Scripture. A number of research projects over the past four decades point to this trend. Healthy churches have leaders and members who believe the totality of the Bible, often expressed as a view called inerrancy.
    2. A large number of church members read the Bible daily. The simplicity of this trend often surprises church leaders. But we can no longer assume that all of the congregants read their Bibles every day. That is a practice that must be encouraged and monitored. In our research on spiritual health of Christian, we found that the highest correlative factor in practicing other healthy spiritual discipline was reading the Bible every day.
    3. The churches have a priority and focus on the nations. This priority is manifest in short-term mission trips, in care and adoption of the orphaned, in giving to mission causes, and in the number of congregants who commit their lives to reaching the nations with the gospel.
    4. The churches have a missional community presence. The leadership and members do not look at their community as a pool for prospects. Rather, they love their community. They serve their community. The live in their community. They have deep relationships in their community.
    5. The congregations have membership that matters. These healthy churches are high expectation churches. Membership is much more than completing a card or walking an aisle. These churches have entry point classes that set the expectations of membership. Church members are expected to serve, to give, to be in small groups, and to be accountable to others. Church discipline is practiced in most of these congregations. Because membership is meaningful, the assimilation rate in these churches is very high.
    6. The members are evangelistically intentional. The gospel is central in these healthy churches. As a consequence, the sharing of the good news is natural and consequential. But leaders in these churches do not simply assume that evangelism is taking place. There are constant reminders of the priority of evangelism. There is inherent in many of these churches some type of accountability for ongoing evangelism in a number of contexts.
    7. These healthy churches have pastors who love the members.
    That love is obvious in their words, their actions, and their pastoral concern. It does not mean that a pastor is present for every need of a member of a church member; that is physically impossible. It does mean that the church has a ministry in place that cares for all the members. Above all, though, you can sense intuitively when you walk into these churches that the pastor deeply loves the members, even those who may often oppose him.
    8. The churches allow their pastors to spend time in sermon preparation.
    Our research has confirmed over the years that pastors in healthier churches spend more time in sermon preparation than those in other churches. For that to take place, the congregation must understand the primacy of preaching, and they must be willing for their pastor to forego some areas of activity and ministry so he can spend many hours in the Word.
    9. There is clarity of the process of disciple making.
    Such was the theme of the book, Simple Church, written by Eric Geiger and me. For the healthy churches, the ministries and activities are not just busy work; instead they have a clear purpose toward moving the members to greater levels of commitment toward Christ.
    10. These churches do less better.
    They realize that they can’t be all things to all people; and they shouldn’t have such a flurry of activities that they hurt rather than help families. So the leaders of these congregations focus on doing fewer ministries, but doing those few better than they could with an overabundance of activities.
    11. The process of discipleship moves members into ongoing small groups.
    A member is almost guaranteed to leave the church or become inactive in the church if he or she does not get involved in an ongoing small group. These groups have a variety of names: Sunday school; small groups; home groups; life groups; cell groups; and others. The name is not the issue. The issue is getting members connected to ongoing groups.
    12. Corporate prayer is intentional and prioritized.
    Prayer is not incidental in these churches. The leadership regularly emphasizes the importance and priority of prayer. The congregation is led regularly in times of corporate prayer.

    I realize I could do a better job of clarifying some of my blogs. Sometimes it’s difficult in the course of a daily blog to offer a larger context. As a result, a single blog may seem to have misplaced priorities.
    The good news is that I feel confident that each of you three men love the Lord and want what’s best for His Church. Thanks for commenting and thanks for reminding us what really matters.

    • Pete Barker says on

      Thank you for taking the time to tie this post together with previous work with grace. What attracted me to the post in the first place was the title. Interestingly I clicked “church health” on your menu and only this current post popped up. I happy to know that this current top ten list is not the sum total. Thank you again.

    • Thom,
      Thanks for your kind response. I greatly appreciate it. I’m very familiar with metrics and the analysis that goes into mapping them into forecasts and business plans in the corporate world. It’s incumbent upon business leaders to measure results and take an honest look at their organization to see if what they’re doing is successful. It’s a very common problem, though, for corporate leadership to get so caught up data that they cannot see anything else. The organization may be falling apart around them, but as long as the data reflect solid growth they think all is well. I call it “spreadsheet leadership” and the result is a disconnect between a leader’s perception and the reality within the organization. MBA schools teach students to manage organizations this way, but the good leaders realize that metrics are limited and their interpretation of the metrics can be off. That’s life in the corporate world.

      Sadly, this form of leadership has crept into our churches as we’ve developed this “Pastor as CEO” philosophy. We’ve taught our Pastors that they must have a certain “List of Ingredients” in a church in order to achieve success so they go off and pursue the latest fads in church growth. Over time, the pastors find themselves pressured to add certain ingredients that are in vogue so they can capture more “market share” amongst a dwindling customer base.

      What’s missing is the biblical notion that Pastors are undershepherds, serving Christ as HE builds HIS church. Churches are expecting unbiblical things from their pastors and we’ve taken them away from their main task of shepherding people. Our “List of Ingredients” often quenches the operation of the Holy Spirit in our churches as we look to the Pastor instead of Christ. May God save us from this cancer in our churches.

      Thom, I’m not directing these comments at you. I don’t know you at all. I see some of the titles of your books and it seems that you really do love the Lord and you want what’s best for God’s people. Please just take these comments as a word from the pew as many of us laymen are jaded right now. As you talk to these Pastors, tell them to stop chasing fads and business models for “success”. Christians crave a church family where the Holy Spirit is present and working in the hearts of God’s people. Whether it’s in a nice building with fancy toilet paper holders in the bathroom or if it’s in a small hut in Myanmar, Christ is enough. He’s all we need.

      With Kind Regards,

  • Wow, you must have a completely different Bible than me. I’m sorry, but I don’t think it matters what country you put in the title of this – this is a recipe for a successful business, not a Church. I’m really saddened by this.

  • Todd C. says on

    I share Pete’s sentiments… I do not believe these “10 Rules of Thumb” really are a measure of the spiritual health of a church. I’ve been in churches that more than measure up to these standards, but the people were spiritually anemic because the preaching/teaching solely on “standards” and “evangelism”. The result was a lot of infighting as people fought over differences in personal standards. A healthy church is one where the gospel is preached by pastors who are servant-leaders who regard themselves as members of the flock, not set apart from the congregation or higher up on some sort of spiritual ladder. I’m really grieved over this.

  • Pete Barker says on

    It breaks my heart to read the content and comments here. You chose a title that included “church health.” I am an architect by day and so you might think I would love this. I was predestiined to be in an SBC church from before birth. For some reason I still am. Roots even in Tennessee. My dad pastored in Arizona for 25 years. When I read stuff like this I really wonder why I stay (the real reason is that I love my church and pastor). Couldn’t at least one out of ten have been about something spiritual?

    • Hey Pete, Thom has written many books and articles about church health which include spiritual factors. The “Transformational Church” is a great one (reading it right now). Of course number 4, evangelistic effectiveness, is spiritual. I’m a pastor and I believe we can be misunderstood when we mention the importance of certain “practical” things regarding church life and ministry. We are very, very interested in the spiritual life of the church – it’s why I’m in the ministry. But we also have to think about the nuts and bolts of the ministry also. Someone has to have a place to park and a place to sit. It takes money to build a building. When the auditorium gets too full, someone has to think about what’s next. Each month the electric company sends us a bill that needs paid. These are practical, real-life facts that pastors and church boards deal with. It’s not that we aren’t concerned with the spiritual health of the congregation – it’s that we have to see the entire picture which includes things some people see as non-spiritual.

      • Thom Rainer says on

        Thanks so much Shawn. You said it much better than I did.

      • Pete Barker says on


        Thanks for the book suggestion. I will read that with interest. I understand what you are saying. I am a business owner and have to think of many of the same types of issues, but I never equate them with the health of the organization. In my work I advise clients (very few are church clients) on many of these same types of issues for their facilities. My reaction was to the content coupled with the idea of church health. Thom commented on that a day or so ago too. I love the Church, and I love my church and pastor. I spend my day job thinking about facilities, but with all my other time I learn all I can and seve as able in building up the living stones that Peter talked about. That is my passion and I only say it to help you understand why I reacted as I did. My earlier response to Thom addressed how I now have a better understanding of the greater context of Thom’s writing.

  • Interesting to see the new 27 inches per person rule of thumb — glad to see that in print!
    The 80% rule leads us to the 125% rule — that is, when building a room for 100 people, you have to build it to seat 125 (or in building for 1000, you build for a capacity of 1250)… since 80 is 80% of 100, 125% of 80 is 100.
    I have never seen a rule of thumb for the minimum percentage of a room needs to be filled without hurting the group dynamic. A major component is the size of crowd relative to the capacity of the worship center. Gene Bartow led UAB to build their own basketball arena since their perfectly decent crowds were being swallowed up the Birmingham-Jefferson Civic Center. Imagine a football game being played in Jordan-Hare or Bryant-Jordan with only 35,000 in attendance—and the let-down feeling that would produce (of course, that doesn’t happen even in the spring game in Tuscaloosa). I would add that, in a small town, that the percentage in the “room full factor” needs to be higher. There people all know each other and having two services can be more difficult. It’s simply a cultural difference; they value being together and doing everything together in a way city folk do not.

    • Thom Rainer says on

      Good points Derek. I need to work on “minimum capacity” guidelines.

      • I would be very interested to know that figure, as we have a 250 seater room in Paris with an average size of 100 or so people. We actually take out loads of chairs and widen the space between the rows so we have more leg space and create a welcoming area at the back to avoid the cavern feel.

        I feel there are very few things worse for a new person to see as he walks into a church then seeing it look empty or close to empty. So we put out either 112 or 126 chairs depending on the Sunday. It sometimes still feels empty and echoey at the beginning but 15 minutes after we start (and all the late people have shuffled in) it’s filled out nicely and it works.

        But having some real figures based on research would help.

    • Chuck Lawless says on

      Derek, I don’t recall where I first heard this stat (I believe it was from a reputable Church Architecture firm), but their figure was a minimum attendance of 40% capacity to avoid a “cavern” feel.

  • Will herndon says on

    Awesome blog! Very insightful. I pulled out a measuring stick and measured my posterior to see if I fit in your 27 inches….check! :p

  • Justin Jordan says on

    On #8 – are you including the total attendance with kids or are you only counting adults in service?

    • Thom Rainer says on

      Total attendance with kids.

      • I don’t understand why we ever count attendance “without kids”… If (worldly) impressiveness or financial clout or potential people to serve or take on leadership responsibility is what you’re looking at, then fine, exclude them from the head count.

        But if you’re looking to know how many people are being touched by your ministry week-in and week-out, or how big your church family is, then I don’t see how to justify not counting them…

        I would understand if you were counting conscious, committed members as your count of how big your church is, but other then that I don’t get it 🙂

  • John S. says on

    Bummed by #5, our chairs are only 23 inches across. 🙂

    • Thom Rainer says on

      Let me encourage you John. It’s not just the width of the chairs; it’s the space between them as well. You are fine even with an abundance of portly posteriors.