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Breaking the 800 Barrier
By: Lyle E. Schaller

"During the past couple of years, the religious grapevine in our town has carried stories about three congregations that have broken the 800 barrier," commented a layman at First Church. "What is the 800 barrier and how do congregations break it?"

The number refers to the average attendance at weekend worship by a large Protestant congregation in metropolitan America. The choice of that number reflects several variables, but a dozen stand out for this discussion.

How large does a Protestant congregation in a metropolitan area have to be in order to be able to mobilize the resources required to compete with other Protestant churches for the loyalty of younger generations of American churchgoers?

A few decades ago, it was widely assumed that magic number was in the range of 350 to 500 average worship attendance. In recent years, research has expanded the goal to reach, attract, serve, retain, assimilate, nurture, disciple, and equip for ministry the generations born after 1970. That choice of 1970 reflects the trend that the generations of Americans born before 1950 tended to inherit institutional loyalties from their parents. Widely cited examples of inherited "brand loyalty" included religious affiliation, motor vehicles, state of residence, retail stores, and occupation for older Americans.

That pattern began to be eroded back in the 1940s and 1950s. It has largely disappeared for Americans born after 1950. One widely quoted example has been the migration of "Cradle Catholics" to nondenominational Protestant megachurches. WalMart is the No. 1 example of a newcomer to this competition for brand loyalty, while department stores, the Five and Dime Variety store on Main Street, General Motors, and "mainline" Protestant denominations are among the losers.

Studies of the Protestant congregations that have achieved an average worship attendance of 800 or more since 1970 suggest that only one in six continues to grow beyond an average worship attendance of 1,000 while four to five out of those six soon drop back to an average of 800 or fewer. That is one explanation for describing it as "the 800 barrier."

For this discussion, however, we can learn far more from the "winners" in this competition among the Christian churches in America for future constituents than we can learn from the "losers." That introduces the sources for this essay.

Study the Competition!
What are the characteristics of the congregations in American Protestantism that have achieved an average worship attendance of 800 and continued to grow? Here are a dozen that appear repeatedly, but I have yet to find a large church that includes all of these.

1. The No. 1 reference point in the decision-making process is a comprehensive and customized ministry plan for a congregation that averages at least 1,000 at weekend worship. The leaders are convinced that "the road that brought us to 800 is NOT the road that will take us to 1,200." In other words, "a continued increase in our capability to reach, attract, serve, retain, assimilate, nurture, and disciple newcomers will require changes in how we do ministry." Examples include increasing the number of weekend worship experiences, more specialists on the staff, and changes in the real estate.

2. "We staff that ministry plan with teams of specialists." The congregations that break the 800 barrier do NOT focus on filling vacancies with generalists, nor with specialists who prefer not to be held accountable as members of a team!

3. Whenever possible, they recruit newcomers to the paid staff from either (a) lay volunteers who know and affirm the values, priorities, policies, and goals or (b) a national search in which the focus is on specialists currently serving a congregation larger than this one.

They avoid choosing potential future staff members who explain, "While Iíve never served a congregation this large, given my experience in ministry with small churches, I am convinced that with the cooperation of the leaders here I can help reduce it to the size with which I am more comfortable." Instead these congregations seek self-motivated lifelong learners who enjoy the challenge to help create the new.

4. This is a crucial issue when the time arrives to replace the departing senior minister or team leader. One option is to invite the person who has 5 to 12 years of experience as the senior associate minister in a much larger congregation to become the new team leader. An even more effective tactic is the potential successor already is on staff in the person of the senior associate minister or as one of the three or four team leaders.

5. They recognize that real estate often places a ceiling on the future of urban churches. Therefore, if and when the time comes to relocate or to accept a new role as a multisite ministry, they do not ask the members to vote for or against a recommended investment in real estate. They state the issue as a choice between evangelism and a low ceiling on our future. They recognize that 10 acres may have been acceptable in 1980, but, in the 21st century, 20 to 40 acres is more likely to be the minimum size site.

6. They affirm the fact that future constituents begin at their current stage in their personal faith journey. One response is they offer two (or three) categories of membership. (One example is "community" for those who seek an attractive worshipping community and "covenant" for those who accept the obligations of full membership.)

An increasingly common response to the fact that not all Christians are at the same stage of their personal faith journey has been to design and offer three or four different worship experiences every weekend. One model, for example, is the service for "seekers" who have decided that the Christian faith may be the place to look for meaning in life. A different worship design is for "new believers with questions." A third design for worship is for convinced believers ready to move to becoming fully committed disciples of Jesus Christ. A fourth stage challenges and resources disciples to answer Godís call to become volunteers in mission. A fifth design builds on the experiences and concerns of volunteers in mission.

7. One operational assumption is that, in large and numerically growing Protestant congregations in America, the most productive years of a full-time paid member often begin after year five or six or seven on the payroll. Therefore, one operational goal is long tenure for staff.

8. When a new senior minister or team leader comes from outside to fill that vacancy, that often brings (a) a revision of that comprehensive and customized ministry plan, (b) a need to redefine the staff configuration required to implement that new ministry plan, and (c) bringing new people in to help staff that plan. In other words, that new team leader is free to build a new staff team rather than attempt to "teach old dogs new tricks."

One of the most widespread practices is to pay the price of minimizing numerical growth by forcing the new senior minister or team leader to affirm the past by retaining on the payroll all of the inherited paid staff.

9. The changing political scene on tax-supported public education in America already has produced a dramatic increase in the number of charter schools. One useful tactic in a larger strategy to break the 800 barrier has been to offer a package of ministries for families with young children that includes a weekday Christian day school.

Public opinion polls reveal a continuing increase in the proportion of parents who support the concept of a "parental choice." One version of this would give parents a tax-funded voucher that would cover the full tuition costs of all participating elementary and secondary schools. That is one more example of the increasing variety of responses by governments to the rising demand in America for choices in the delivery of healthcare services, transportation, education, legal aid, and retirement living.

The Christian day school has turned out to be the most effective single tactic in the large and predominantly white congregationís strategy to become a multicultural community.

10. Another relatively rare but powerful tactic in that strategy is to accept the role as a teaching church. The old adage of "The best way to master a subject is to teach it" applies here.
When asked why they chose to become a teaching church, one common response has been, "We felt an obligation to help other churches learn how to break the 800 barrier, but one reason we continue to do it is the questions people bring home are to think more critically about our policies, priorities, programs, and practices. That, of course, has made self-improvement one of our continuing priorities."

11. At least once or twice a year bring together for a day or two five to seven of the most visionary and influential leaders (including at least two lay persons who have experience doing this in the secular economy) on a two-point agenda: (a) "What is the lowest ceiling today on our future" and (b) "What do we have to do to raise that ceiling?"

Among the issues this practice brings to the policy-making table are means-to-an-end concerns, such as real estate, finances, schedules, our system of governance, and staffing. Several large congregations have concluded these discussions have been valuable in resisting the pressures to "take better care of our current members" or "how do we perpetuate the past" and focus attention on "the concerns of the unchurched people in this community that we should be addressing."

12. Define the following as one component of your missional outreach: "How do we prepare for export leaders, both paid staff and lay volunteers, who can and will join other congregations to help them break the 800 barrier?"

Lyle E. Schaller is a retired parish pastor and consultant.

Copyright 2010 by Lyle E. Schaller

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