The Disappearing Middle
What the growing gap in our culture means for churches, leaders, and volunteers.

Leaders should be concerned about the disappearing middle, according to Chad Hall. That bulge in the middle of a bell-shaped curve that represents the great mass of consumers and citizens and churchgoers and volunteers is getting squeezed. The result is the shrinking of the middle and the swelling of the ends, and it's this growth of the extremes in all aspects of our society that has church planter and leader coach Hall intrigued. Here he offers some thoughts on its effects on money and manpower, faith and ministry.

A while back I heard Len Sweet say that our society is moving away from the "bell curve" and toward something called the "well curve." His comment got me doing some research on the topic and thinking about what all of this means for church leaders. Who knew that bells and wells were such important topics for church leaders to consider?

Since high school we've known all about the bell curve: that fundamental law of natural science and statistics that defines normal distribution as being massed near the middle while being low on the extremities. Represented on a graph, the distribution looks like a bell-shaped curve. The bell curve implies that most people gravitate toward the middle or average and avoid the extremes. For example, most people are of average height, have moderately sized families, and earn a "C" in statistics; few people are really tall or really short, few have very large or very small families, and few earn A's or F's.

But within the turbulent days we live, a new phenomenon is being recognized. The distribution for some of our choices is an inverted bell curve, or a well curve. In these cases, the population gravitates toward the ends or extremes and is lowest in the middle. The well curve describes many economic and social phenomena. For instance, television screens are simultaneously getting both larger (60" plasma!) and tinier (watch the latest episode of 24 on your i-pod!); stores are getting larger (Wal-Mart) and smaller (specialty boutique stores); people are eating more healthful foods (organic) and more fast foods (McDonald's).

Perhaps more significant than the rise in the extremes is the decline of the middle: consider the disappearance of the middle-class, the demise of mid-sized companies, the loss of status for anything considered average and the polarization of politics in America. Our tastes and choices are shifting away from the middle and toward the extremes. The well curve helps describe a number of interesting church trends going on these days...

July 13, 2007

Displaying 1–10 of 19 comments


August 01, 2007  8:11pm

Per j_sherman's post... Not sure if this is the case with you and your congregation, but many smaller congregations suffer from volunteer limitations in part because of trying to do too much ministry for the number of people available. It's tough – you want to have the children's stuff and worship leadership and all the rest, but the people just are not available to staff it all. My advice (for what it's worth) is to focus on a few simple ministries that match a three-fold alignment: first, are your people excited to DO the ministry (not just HAVE the ministry)?; second, can you offer the ministry with excellence (even if limited, can the ministry be scaled down to a factor where you can do it very well)?; third, does the ministry directly match a cause that is vital to the vision you have for the church? As you do a few ministries really well, people sense the momentum being built and you can increase the size/scope of ministry as the church grows to need and offer more. My hunch is that you'd be surprised how few programs are really needed once you focus on ministries that God's equipped your church to offer the world. The book Simple Church might also have some insights that'd be helpful. Prayers for you!!

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July 23, 2007  12:04am

we definitely see this trend at the small church where i serve as worship leader. it's challenging enough at a mid-sized or larger church, but for a small, relatively new church of about 40 or so people, it's downright crippling at times, particularly in the areas of children's ministry and nursery. part of our issue is cultural as well...for most people here (in southeastern kentucky), church attendance/involvement is either a legalistic "must-do" or else sort of an optional "i'll go when i can" kind of thing. we're trying very hard to communicate the vision God has given us in a way that makes it contagious and makes people excited about the prospect of being part of what's happening, but it's proving more difficult than i or any of the other leaders imagined. prayers are appreciated, and advice is welcome – my address is

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July 20, 2007  2:16pm

In this dialogue, it appears to me that being in the middle somehow seems to be associated with "lukewarm", weak discipleship. One end is defined as "hard workers, available to everyone, high volunteer etc", and we all know the other end is the pew warmer, sponge, etc. I am very uncomfortable with this whole train of thought and believe the very basic assumptions are wrong. I also believe the leaders in these trains are so out of touch with the reality of their congregation's lives that they do not even know the condition of their flock anymore. Sharp had it right. The mentality of today, even in the church, is "over the top", "cutting edge", "leading the curve", etc. Meanwhile, the vast majority of believers are left to fend for themselves in their growth, their lives, and their communities. Attended a church in Chicago where the senior pastor was always declaring he was watching out for the young leaders-the pastors focused all their time on the young leaders. The families and middle aged were out cold. He publicly declared that if these "prime timers" wanted pastoral oversight and help, they would have to save up the money to hire a pastor just for them. I guess senior pastor meant senior pastor of the special-not the ordinary. The majority of followers of Jesus were not the "11" nor were they the "1" traitor. They were ordinary people who worked hard at supporting their families and become strong in their faith where they were, witnessing within their villages, their families, their communities and sending out the ones who were called to the ends of the earth. The vast majority of the church is starving for leadership that teaches and preaches how be a follower of Jesus in the middle curve.

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July 19, 2007  7:06pm

An economic middle squeeze is frightening. It seems like in government everybody wants to elect people who look out for the top 2% and bash people at the bottom end of the scale. Without the economic middle being prosperous, businesses or any other organization counting on revenue to do what they need to do will suffer.

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C Brooks

July 19, 2007  10:15am

Interesting article. We have the opposite problem(s) at River City Community Church in urban Chicago - all we have is the middle! Everyone is 23-40; Elders are nowhere to be found. There is a steady increase in Children's Ministry, but overall we are a "Young Adult Church." I wonder how we fit into the stats.?

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July 19, 2007  8:38am

The Disappearing Middle is an interesting concept and one that I am now noticing to be true at the church I pastor. To use a well-curve term, I pastor a micro-sized church - where we average around 70 each week. WE are located in a rural community about one hour south of Orlando and actually have people that come (and stay) because of the small size. Out of this, they attend regularly, and, a lot of them are getting involved regularly as well. We have been emphasizing Spiritual Formation this year (more than in years past) and are noticing a difference here as well. The well-curve is showing that people are moving from the middle of the well to the edge - either the edge where they grow spiritually or the one where they don't. After reading this article on the Well-curve, it reminded me of something Jesus said: "I wish you were hot or cold...but you are lukewarm". What is encouraging to me about the well-curve is that some are joining in and volunteering (which helps prevent burnout). And even though I would love to see the number of volunteers growing (what pastor wouldn't?), I am enthused about the people that have. It seems to me that Jesus started with just a few men who ended up doing His work pretty well. Oh, and don't forget those on the opposite side of the field - the ones that crucified Him. The well-curve has made me think about ministry in a new way. I especially liked the one statement about moving from asking people to give 10% and instead asking them to start small of give big. This has opened my eyes a bit to something I will pay more attention to in the future.

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July 19, 2007  8:22am

I wonder how much of this is a normal shift in society that just goes back and forth like a pendulum from extremes to average and back again. I have seen it, even in me, in my 10 years as a pastor. It's in the Gospels with those who were reacting to Jesus. Perhaps as the waves of culture go up and down we should seek less to go back to the harbor to reinvent the ship, and more to work at keeping the ship strong, trudging ahead. I am not saying to be ignorant of society's shifts. Perhaps we can stay focused on Christ, leading people from where they are to becoming all that Jesus intends. I am thankful to those who can point out the shifts because it is useful in addressing who and where we are now. Then we can clearly define how to get to where Christ wants us to be.

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Bill H.

July 18, 2007  9:57am

I have to think that the "inverted" bell curve, or "well curve" would evolve into a bell curve. Are we not talking about developing a new "average?" I need to think about this further, but I thought I would throw this thought out in case anyone would have further insight on this concept. I guess I was taught in statistics class that the Bell Curve was like an axiom, or a universal truth.

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July 18, 2007  8:31am

As a lay leader, I have trouble embracing this model of service. Unlike DK's experience, I see the lack of volunteers causing plenty of stress and burnout. I think it is poor leadership to write off 80-90 percent of the church and reinforce their "mooching," as it were. It is unhealthy for the personal lives of volunteers who spend four or five days a week at the church. And it causes a deficit in experience when the overtaxed and exhausted finally throw in the towel. Beyond that, I believe the well curve is partially a product of our celebrity-centric society. Every child wants to be a movie star or a professional athlete. Very few want to be a teacher, firefighter, auto mechanic, or a nurse - and they somehow feel like losers when they "settle" for those vital occupations that were the dream jobs of children only 50 year ago. This is how we find people seeing worship and drama team as the only "cool" paths to service in church. Either they fail to make those teams or assume they have no talent for them and take a pass on volunteering altogether.

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July 18, 2007  12:46am

i'm not sure, but i tend to agree with this observation. although there are lots of disadvantages in the squeezing out of the middle, i feel that at least in the faith context, it is the choice of being hot or cold and not lukewarm that is encouraging. however, it has also led to an emergence of young people who either have to achieve or cease achieving in order to not be 'average' which is seen as uncool... sometimes i wonder if this is a sign of the end times where there is a significant shift in mindsets, 'either you are here or there, there is no sitting on the fence'. Philip. =P

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