Breaking through the 200 barrier.
Sometimes it feels like that's the only pastoring principle anyone has talked about for the past 30 years.
In case you haven’t heard of it, the 200 barrier is the invisible ceiling a church must break through if it doesn’t want to be a small church any more. Do a Google search of “breaking the 200 barrier” and you’ll see what I mean.
Despite all the books, websites, seminars, classes, podcasts and denominational committees that have been dedicated to pushing churches through this barrier, one truth stubbornly remains:
80% of churches will never break through the 200 barrier.
Why is that? The reasons I’ve heard, include:
- It requires a very different way of doing church
- Small churches don’t want to move forward
- We’re not working hard enough
- We’re not praying hard enough
- We’re not willing to learn new ideas
- We don’t care about the Great Commission
The first point is correct. The rest are garbage. (Feel free to use a stronger term than “garbage” if your theology will allow for it).
Oh sure, there are some small churches that are uncaring and stuck. But there are unhealthy big churches, too.
Why I May Never Pastor a Big Church
To break through the 200 barrier, a church and its leadership must adapt to a different way of doing church. They have to become more systems oriented. Pastors need to do less one-on-one ministry themselves and delegate more of it to staff members and volunteers.
That’s a good thing. As a church gets bigger, those changes will allow more people to do ministry, helping the pastor not to be a stressed-out, overworked bottleneck.
Here’s why my church will probably never break through the 200 barrier. (It’s the one thing none of us wants to admit. But someone needs to say it out loud.)
I stink at it.
I’m not called or gifted to manage systems as my primary method of doing ministry.
Pastoring a big church isn’t just a matter of learning a new set of skills. Although that certainly helps. It starts by being gifted for it and called to it. Without that, all the skill in the world – even all the prayers you can pray – won’t make it work for you.
Believe me, if praying hard and/or learning new skills was all it took to get a church through the 200 barrier, mine would have busted through it years ago. So would most of the small churches I know.
Like many small church pastors, I've done everything I can to help my church grow. I've read dozens of church growth books and hundreds of blogs. I've trained staff, delegated hands-on ministry to others, developed and implemented care systems. All of that has helped my church become very healthy. But none of it has pushed us through that stubborn barrier.
But there were also some unforeseen negative side effects to that push. This is the part no one wants to talk about. My relentless drive for numerical growth nearly killed my spirit and my church when it didn't materialize as promised – a difficult season I take an entire chapter to describe in The Grasshopper Myth.
Small is Not a Sin
I didn't set out for my church to be small. It’s just that my gifts, talents and heart are better suited to leading a small church.
Yes, we serve a God who can do all things. But I’m not him. He’s given gifts to each of us. But no one gets all the gifts.
If spiritual gifts were something we could learn, I'd have learned the big church spiritual gifts by now.
But spiritual gifts can’t be learned or earned. They’re given. The array of gifts that are needed to pastor a big church didn’t come with my tool belt. And there's nothing I can do to put them there.
It took me years to admit that. But once I did? Wow. What a relief. Now I can do what I’m gifted to do without worrying about doing something I’m not gifted to do.
Big and Small – Different Countries with Different Languages
We’ve been taught it’s a bad thing when a church doesn’t get bigger.
I don’t buy it.
Becoming bigger isn’t always forward or upward. Sometimes it’s just bigger.
Being small isn’t backwards or less than. Sometimes it’s just smaller.
Big churches and small churches are different. But it’s not a difference of quality, theology or willingness. It’s not because one is good and the other is bad – or right or wrong, forward or backward.
It’s because we live in different countries.
200 is more of a language barrier than a numerical one.
When I go to a big church, it’s like travelling to an exotic, foreign land. I enjoy the experience. I appreciate the different culture, traditions, sounds and language they use. And I learn something new every time.
But after the trip, it’s always good to come back home again.
I wouldn’t know how to live and thrive spiritually in a big church. It’s not that it can’t be done. Lots of people are doing it. But I can’t do it.
I don’t want to live there permanently because the language and culture of a big church aren’t my language and culture. And I hate to think what would happen if I was put in charge of one.
Pastors of big churches aren’t more holy, prayerful or passionate for souls than pastors of small churches. They’re just better at big church skills like management, systems, marketing and delegation.
Those are good skills. But they're not mine. I’m a good teacher, counselor and peacemaker. And those small church skills are as valuable as the ones needed to lead a big church.
To use Apostle Paul’s analogy in 1 Corinthians 12, the body of Christ needs big churches and small churches to work together and appreciate each other in the same way a human body needs its eyes and hands to cooperate with each other.
Small churches aren’t lower on the body of Christ, with bigger churches near the top. We’re just located in different, yet complementary parts of the body.
I’m good at being an eye, lousy at being a hand. The opposite is true for my big church counterparts.
I’ve learned to be okay with that. Without settling for less. And so has my innovative, outward-reaching, loving, and (yes) growing small church.
Copyright © 2015 by the author or Christianity Today/Leadership Journal.
Click here to read our guidelines concerning reprint permissions.