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Why is getting past 150 so difficult?

Why is getting past 150 so difficult?

Let’s take a break from missional choices.  I want to share some facts, a question and some possible answers regarding why so many congregations have less than 150 people in average worship attendance.

First three facts:

·         Half of all United Methodist congregations have an average worship of 49.

·         30% of UM congregations have between 50 and 119.

·         77% of all UM congregations have fewer than 120 people in worship each weekend. 


Now the question:

·         Why does 150 seem to be a natural growth barrier for worship size? 

One answer:

·         According to Kevin Martin, author of The Myth of the 200 Barrier: How to Lead Through Transitional Growth (Abingdon Press, 2005), the answer is that natural dividing line between small and large congregations is 150. 

Congregations with an average worship between 70 and 149 “do church” differently than congregations with an average worship between of 225 and 400.  Martin calls the first group pastoral congregations (because almost everything revolves around the pastor) and he calls the second group program congregations.  Those congregations between 150 and 225, he says are in the awkward and anxious in-between-stage of learning how to act like program congregations while still holding on to many of the pastoral congregational ways – so he calls these transitional congregations.

Program congregations are not just pastoral congregations that get bigger.  Program congregations are systemically different in how they do church.  He mentions six key differences, of which I’ll mention 3.  (1) Program congregations have at least one ministry that focuses on the needs of people in the community in which the church is located and that builds bridges from the congregation to the community.  (2) Program congregations have become multiple cell congregations with program staff who are often relationally closer to the people in their ministry group than is the pastor.  (3) Program congregations view what they do from the perspective of the outsider and with a commitment to excellence. 

But all this begs the question: “Why?  Why does 150 seem to be such a natural dividing line between the two different ways of doing church?”   And for this, Martin turns to a theory proposed by anthropologist Robin Dunbar who, after studying over twenty indigenous tribes, determined that when a group approaches 150 the social complexity becomes overwhelming.  In short, Dunbar proposes that there is something hardwired in our brains that makes us more comfortable in groups with less than 150 people.  If you want to read more about Dunbar’s Number try one of these links:>'s_number>

Now whether Dunbar is exactly right on the number or not, the point seems to be that in order to grow a group of people beyond about 150 the group needs to become a group of groups, a congregation of congregations, not just one big happy family.  Sometimes when a congregation has a very energetic and relationally gifted pastor, it can temporarily grow beyond 150, according to Martin, without changing relational styles, but when this pastor leaves, the congregation will usually shrink back into the more natural pastoral size between 70 and 149.   

Martin is quick to point out that there is nothing inherently “better” about a pastoral sized congregation or a program sized congregation.  There are missionally healthy and not-so-healthy congregations in both organizational styles.  But he does point out that in our country currently, less and less people are choosing to worship in smaller congregations, while more people seem to be choosing to worship in large congregations.

Among United Methodists, for example, between 1980 and 2006, congregations worshiping less than 200 declined from 61.7% to 53.2% -- a decrease of 8.5%.  During the same period, congregations over 400 grew from 14.5% to 25.8% of our total attendance – an increase of 11.3%.

As congregational leaders committed to the mission of “making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world,” what does all this suggest about your congregation? 

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Dr. Jeff Stiggins

The Center for Congregational Excellence