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Three Ways to Lead Differently in a Church Breaking the 200 Barrier

There is a sociological shift pastors must navigate as church attendance rises above 200.
Three Ways to Lead Differently in a Church Breaking the 200 Barrier
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Many pastors, church planters, and church leaders often wonder what missteps often prevent churches from successfully breaking the 200 barrier—that is, surpassing 200 attendees in their weekly attendance.

Some churches—in an effort to cross this number successfully—take courses like my Breaking the 200 Barrier or similar classes like my friend Carey Nieuwhof’s class. But in talking about this course and why churches even have such a barrier, I get a lot of questions from people like “Why does 200 matter?” or “What does the Bible say about numbers?”

I’m going to address these questions.

Now of course it’s important to remember that 200 is not some magical number. What it represents is a sociological shift and a cultural challenge. A church has to lead well (and differently) in order to function well once they pass 200 in attendance. The point is not that the number 200 has some sort of scriptural significance but that there really is a substantive change when a church arrives at a congregation that large.

Put simply, the church size changes the nature of the relationship between those who attend. How you lead a church of 75 is, in many important ways, different from how you lead a church of 250.

For churches looking to grow, it’s important to note that without a shift in the way that you do ministry in a church of 100, you can’t properly manage a church of 300; the congregation simply wouldn’t get the appropriate shepherding and pastoral care.

Of course, you could just choose to not grow over 100 and that settles the issue. However, since many churches desire to grow, it is best to do so in discerning ways that provide pastoral care, effective systems, and fruitful ministry as the church does grow larger than 200.

As always, success will require some advanced preparation and careful forethought. Let me share three pieces of advice that come to mind.

First, don’t underestimate interpersonal challenges

The interpersonal challenge here is that when you’re in a long-established church of 100 people or so, everybody knows each other. And more than that, if you’re the pastor, everybody also knows you. You’re like the middle of the wheel where all the spokes attach.

Now, nothing about that is wrong—commonality can be a beautiful thing. Often, people who attend these close-knit smaller churches will say: “Man, I love the relationships we have in our church.”

But here’s the challenge you’re going to have to meet: when your church goes from 100 to 220 attendees, people aren’t going to so easily say “I love the relationships in the church” anymore, unless you have a plan and a system to help them stay connected through smaller groups.

The relationships will be different for both church leaders and congregants as a church grows. I recall the challenges I faced when leading a growing church and when it was no longer possible for people to come to me with every decision, every discussion, and every issue that I used to have my hands in.

Sometimes church growth is hard on congregations and church staff because they feel they’ve lost their close relationship with their leader.

For churches to succeed and make it through these interpersonal challenges, the creation of a baton-like handoff system to keep people connected and delegate tasks is really crucial.

Second, develop leadership skills

It’s going to take a new level of leadership to structure a church of 200+ people, and if you, the pastor, are not developing your skills as a leader, the transition will prove all the more challenging.

Pastors leading growing churches need to ask themselves, “What are some skills that I’ll need to develop?” Well, there are many, but they include delegation, leadership development, knowing how to create systems, and more.

I would say that reading some basic leadership books is always a good place to start. To this, some pastors might comment, “Well, I don’t want to just read some secular leadership book.”

To start, I’d focus on books that explain how to delegate well and how to work on developing new leaders.

Third, don’t underestimate the power of the pulpit

One of the other things that do change between smaller churches and larger churches is that leadership from the pulpit becomes more and more essential. Part of that is excellent preaching— sharing the word of God with clarity and power.

However, your communication at other times from the pulpit can also matter. How you cast vision, explain transitions, and handle misteps are all essential.

Sometimes that will be in a sermon when it is appropriate for the text, but don’t be afraid to, at the beginning of the message or during announcement times, cast a vision for these things as well.

Going Forward

Talking about breaking the 200 barrier seems to trigger some people. Why should we care? What’s wrong with 199? Can’t churches just be small?

Well, in answer to the last question, yes. It’s fine for a church to be small, for the right reasons. It’s also fine for a church to aspire to grow. As Karl Vaters’ title of a recent article aptly explains, “Breaking The 200 Barrier Is Good – Feeling Guilty If You Don’t Break It, Isn’t.”

He’s right.

However, if you feel God calling you to lead your church to grow, and moving through the 200 barrier is part of that, you need to know that it’s not just more growth of the same kind—it’s a different way of leading and a new way of growing.

Know that mistakes will be made along the way; even the best and brightest of leaders struggle getting everything right. Along the journey towards growth, trust in God’s sovereignty and care for your whole congregation—no matter its size.

Ed Stetzer holds the Billy Graham Distinguished Chair of Church, Mission, and Evangelism at Wheaton College, serves as Dean of the School of Mission, Ministry, and Leadership at Wheaton College, is executive director of the Billy Graham Center, and publishes church leadership resources through Mission Group. (Breaking the 200 Barrier is a Mission Group course.)

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