During my undergraduate years, someone asked me to read an article on the subject of congregational size. The article was based on some research that suggested that a normal congregation seldom grows beyond a ceiling of 150 individuals. The number of 150 seems to be the maximum number of people that a single individual can relate to. Beyond that number, whether it be in a firm, a school or any institution, the sense of being lost in a crowd becomes extremely strong. The author of the paper, David Wasdell, put forward the idea that if a congregation has any chance of growing larger, then the church leaders must ensure that each member must be allowed to be part of a small group. The title of the paper was something like ‘Divide and Grow’ to fit in with this idea. If the small group is the main focus of membership, then the church congregation can in theory break through the 150 barrier.
There are of course churches in Britain which appear to break this limitation of 150 members but they are usually special city centre establishments, catering to groups of people who are in transit. If you attend All Souls, Langham Place in London you will find larger numbers, but the dynamic is quite different from a neighbourhood congregation. There will be students, visitors and overseas residents who come for the preaching. People who sit in large congregations accept the fact that they are one of a large number and they tolerate the fact that they will probably be unnoticed for weeks if not months. They maybe even welcome this anonymity, as the price to pay for good preaching and/or music. In the local parish church you would object if, in a congregation of around 50, no one spoke to you after you had visited the church for four Sundays in a row. It does happen but most congregations have some mechanisms for welcome. The sub-150 congregation can, after all, normally cope with a few new people without any trouble.
Research in the States has looked at this issue of congregational size. It divides the sizes of congregation into four categories. The largest, 350+, is seldom relevant in a British context so we will mention the first three. The smallest group is a congregation which has up to 50 members. This is called a family congregation. Frequently such a congregation is strongly controlled by one or two leading families and such congregations will ‘see off’ any minister who attempts to change the status quo. Some young conservative clergy here in rural Cumbria have become unhappy at the way that their small rural congregations have resisted the changes which the minister wanted to bring in after learning about them during their training. Based on the remarks in the previous post, these ideas will normally be to do with ‘mission’ and outreach. These will not fit easily in with a church firmly rooted in a ministry style of functioning. The change of focus required is frankly too great for such a congregation to take on board, particularly in deeply rural situations. One should not quickly ascribe blame in these situations as it can be found on all sides. But the basic fact remains that, as the American research shows clearly, the dynamic of a small congregation is quite different from that of the large gathering. Not to respect these differences is to court unhappiness and dissonance on all concerned.
If the ‘family’ congregation is resistant to change, the research suggests that there is greater potential for change in a congregation which numbers between 50 and 150 members. This is referred to as a ‘pastoral congregation’. Within such a congregation, there is the expectation that after a period each member will know something about every other member. Equally important, the individual members will expect to be known fairly well by their priest or minister. The priest/minister in such a congregation will have ways of keeping ‘tabs’ on every member of a ‘pastoral’ congregation so that if, for example, sickness occurs, there will be a mechanism for letting him/her know. It does not always work like this but, administratively, it should be possible to know what is going on with a sub-150 member parish. I have worked with two congregations of this ‘pastoral’ size and also I can attest it is possible to know everyone well and make small but steady changes in the ethos and style of the congregation over a period.
The larger congregations of 150+ need to be treated differently. The minister can no longer know well each individual and so, as the Wasdell paper suggested, the congregation needs to have a different structure. In the researchers’ terminology, the larger congregation has to be a ‘programme’ church in order to function. There needs to be extra attention to different sub-groups in the congregation, young parents, the elderly etc. Each group will have leaders who will communicate with the minister. He will support the leaders and make sure that they have the resources needed. The management of ‘programme’ churches does require special skills because internal lines of support and structure can easily go toxic when someone within the group decides to do things their own way. As any Vicar will tell you, there are always problems overseeing volunteers.
Having set out this theory about congregational size, I realise that there is no space left to speak about the place of evangelism and church growth in this particular post. So I shall keep that discussion for my next posting. But the information I have set out, cheerfully lifted from studies made by the Alban Institute in America, was revolutionary for me when I first encountered it some ten years ago. Perhaps the reader will be able to apply this analysis to their own situation and experience of church life. The main point that has been made so far is that congregations of different sizes have quite different dynamics. The priest/minister who ignores this fact does so at the cost of his/her happiness and ability to serve the people in his charge.