CHURCH SIZE DYNAMICS, SIZE TRANSITIONS
Part of the ministry resources on Church Leadership, Church Health and Renewal.
- First Reads on Church Size Transitions Generally
- First Reads on Church Size Transitions for the Small Church
- Other Ministry Resources on Church Size Transitions Generally
- Focus on Large Congregations
- Transitioning Downward, Navigating Healthy Church Closures
- Related Ministry Resources
Churches of different sizes possess distinct congregational cultures. Intentional shifts from one size to the next require deliberate attention to dynamics such as church orientation, congregational structure, who sets the direction, the role of ministry staff, how decisions are made, how change takes place, etc. This is one of the most basic realities of congregational life.
Most who write and read in this field are of a church growth orientation which says churches, numerically speaking, either grow, plateau, or decline, and that faithful churches should choose to grow, i.e. in number. Certainly one may make the missional choice to remain smaller, and there is nothing inherently better about larger churches. But if the choice to ignore size transitions arises out of an unwillingness to intentionally advance the kingdom of God, to evangelize and do good work, or to steward the increase God may bring as a result of honest ministry, this raises questions about missional faithfulness. It seems that regardless of one’s orientation, whether traditional, pragmatic/church growth, or missional, it is important to pay attention to size dynamics.
Size Typologies for Churches
There are several ways of classifying church types according to size. The classic categorization came from Arlin Rothauge, Sizing Up a Congregation for New Member Ministry.
- Family (up to 50)
- Pastoral (51-150)
- Program (151-350)
- Corporate (351+)
- Fellowship/cat (35 or less)
- Small church/collie (35-100)
- Middle-sized/garden (100-175)
- Awkward size/house (175-225)
- Large/mansion (225-450)
- Huge/ranch (450-700)
- Mini-denomination/nation (750+)
- Very large (751-1,800)
- Megachurch (1,801-plus)
One of the more recent is Gary McIntosh, Taking Your Church to the Next Level, who lists five:
- The Relational Church: 15-200 worshippers
- The Managerial Church: 200-400 worshippers
- The Organizational Church: 400-800 worshippers
- The Centralized Church: 800-1,500 worshippers
- The Decentralized Church: 1,500-plus worshippers
Another recent text by Susan Beamont, Inside the Large Congregation, focuses on large congregations, and suggests a three-fold typology:
- Professional church (400-800 in worship attendance)
- Strategic church (800-1,200)
- Matrix church (1,200-2,000)
A post-COVID study by Lifeway Research (November, 2022) revealed even more startling statistics about church size among Protestant churches in the US:
- Smaller churches – Under 50 in attendance: 31% of all churches
- Mid-size churches – 51–99: 37%
- Large churches – 100–249: 24%
- Larger churches – 250 and above: 8%
There are others, but the lists above demonstrate the common perspective that each church size embodies certain characteristics, and that as churches pass from one size to the next, they must adjust.
Another area of concern that is not based on the assumption of transitioning upward but downward, even to the point of congregational closure. This is an important concern, especially as congregations may end creatively as a catalyst to new life. A whole section below is devoted to the subject of “ending well.”
The following resources address the full range of church size issues. Each is listed in alphabetical order unless indicated otherwise. Remember to see the bottom of the page for a list of related Ministry Resource Guides.
First Reads on Size-Transitions Overall (in suggested order)
- Gary McIntosh, Taking Your Church to the Next Level: What Got You Here Won’t Get You There — An expansion on earlier volume, One Size Doesn’t Fit All. The newer standard on the subject of size transitions overall, especially in explaining the theory.
- Tim Keller, Leadership and Church Size Dynamics (available here)- This is a well-written and accessible white paper prepared for Redeemer City to City church planting network. It is not as comprehensive as Gary McIntosh’s work, but it is an excellent starter to put into the hands of church leaders (though not as a substitute for McIntosh).
- Michael Fletcher, Overcoming Barriers to Church Growth: Proven Strategies for Taking Your Church to the Next Level – The best one source available describing three different leadership structure shifts that churches must make in order to grow. Elder-led churches will benefit especially.
- Beth Ann Gaede, Editor, Size Transitions in Congregations – The best thought among mainline denominations relative to size transitions in general. Good application of the earlier research of Arlin Routhage. Includes one of the best sociologies of congregations based on size.
First Reads on Size Transitions for Smaller Churches (in suggested order)
- Kevin E. Martin, The Myth of the 200 Barrier: How to Lead Through Transitional Growth – The best resource on addressing the transitional dynamics of congregations with average Sunday attendance (ASA) somewhere between 150-225.
- Bill Sullivan, New Perspectives on Breaking the 200 Barrier — Builds on research that helps to identify the decisions that have stalled or prevented growth and change toward a “Choice Point Growth Strategy.”
- Alice Mann, The In-Between Church: Navigating Size Transitions – Describes the numerical and behavioral clues that indicate if a congregation is bumping its head on the glass ceiling of size plateau, and guides congregations through the transitional issues. Especially good for smaller church transitions.
- Alice Mann, Raising the Roof: The Pastoral-to-Program Size Transition — Designed for congregations where the average year-round Sunday attendance has hit a plateau somewhere between 150-250, based on research from 12 congregations that had reached this plateau.
Other Helpful Resources on Size Transitions
- Peter Bush, In Dying We Are Born: The Challenge and Hope for Congregations— Deals with the issue of churches that are on the brink of becoming extinct, and what can/should be done to revive them. Ties his suggestions to the theological metaphor of death and resurrection.
- Carl F. George and Warren Bird, How to Break Growth Barriers: Capturing Overlooked Opportunities for Church Growth — A long-recognized classic on the subject of church growth in general, and size transitions in particular, popularizing widely used terminology such as “shepherd vs. rancher,” and “caregiver or maker of caregivers.” Great in explaining the changes that must occur in the ministerial role in large church transitions.
- Gary McIntosh, One Size Doesn’t Fit All: Bringing Out the Best in Any Size Church — The original volume, now updated in Taking Your Church to the Next Level. Includes McIntosh’s “Typology of Church Sizes,” a thorough comparison of the dynamics of three church types based on size: smaller (15-200), midsized (201-400), and large (401+).
- Elmer Towns, C. Peter Wagner, and Thom S. Rainer, The Everychurch Guide to Growth: How Any Plateaued Church Can Grow — Discusses concepts and strategies for breaking the 200 barrier (Wagner), 400 barrier (Rainer), and 1,000 barrier (Towns). One of the few resources on the 1,000 barrier.
- Susan Beaumont, Inside the Large Congregation — An insightful text based on the author’s research and consultations on the major systems at work in large congregations.
- William Easum and Bill Cornelius, Go Big: Lead Your Church to Explosive Growth — A highly pragmatic and hard-hitting challenge to the tough decisions and tenacity required to achieve explosive growth. Conveys a deeply attractional/church growth philosophy.
- Lyle E. Schaller, The Very Large Church: New Rules for Leaders — The best growth-oriented source for understanding Very Large congregations (751-1,800) and Megachurches (1,801-plus).
Transitioning Downward, Navigating Healthy Church Closures
- Beth Ann Gaede, Ending with Hope: A Resource for Closing Congregations – A collection of articles from scholar-practitioners who insist closing a congregation does not have to be about failure but can be about redirecting resources for new ministry.
- Steven Gray and Franklin Dumond, Legacy Churches – Equips churches that are closing to direct their resources to new church plants.
- Linda M. Hilliard and Gretchen J. Switzer, Finishing With Grace: A Guide to Selling, Merging, or Closing Your Church – Helps congregations choose and engage closure options as well as deal with the existential issues in members during the closure period.
Related Ministry Resources
See Other Resources on Church Leadership and Renewal:
- Church Leadership, Church Health and Renewal, Index
- Church Leadership, Church Health and Renewal – Theological Foundations, Ecclesiology
- Church Leadership, Church Health and Renewal – Philosophical Foundations – e.g. Church Growth, Missional, Emergent, and Other Missionally Responsive Trajectories
- Church Leadership, Church Health and Renewal – Practical Foundations, Church Dynamics and Research
- Church Leadership, Church Health and Renewal – Practical Foundations, Congregational Culture, Church Identity
- Church Leadership, Church Health and Renewal – Practical Foundations, Church Size, Size Transitions
- Church Leadership, Church Health and Renewal – Practical Foundations, Research and Case Studies on Effective Churches
- Church Leadership, Church Health and Renewal – Special Situations, Small Church Development
- Church Leadership, Church Health and Renewal – Strategies for Renewal
Ministry Resources on Related Areas
- Church Administration
- Transition and Change in Church
- Conflict in Church
- Elders, Church Governance
- Church Giving, Tithing, and Financial Stewardship
- Involvement, Using Spiritual Gifts for Ministry in Church
- Christian Leadership
- Managing Volunteers in Christian Ministry
- Church Staff, Ministry Teams
- Ministry Transitions, Interim Ministry
- Missional Perspectives, Intro
- Missional Strategies for Christian Ministry
- Pastoral Theology
- Social Ministry, Social Justice
- Spiritual Formation for Christian Ministry
- Theology of Mission and Ministry
See Resources on Over 100 Areas of Christian Ministry: