A friend recently asked this question on Twitter.
Now, these kinds of polls are great at getting a quick reaction but often the answers need some detail and nuance. Often, we find ourselves responding with “it depends”. So, they work best when they generate further conversation and discussion. This, to my mind is one such poll.
My preferred answer is probably that I would not set an artificial limit. This isn’t because I think that churches should necessarily grow as large as possible. However, I do think that those larger churches can play their part if they use their size and resources generously and wisely. There’s also something to be said for the big celebration, gathering lots of believers together and we may want to consider how we give that opportunity to members of smaller churches, especially when they intentionally stay small as part of a multiplication strategy.
I would answer that way because I think that size and planting timing depends so much on context. There are some factors at play meaning that this is most likely to be around the 150-200 mark and so, this, without putting a hard rule on it is when I expect churches to naturally hit the limits of normal growth. So, if you are concerned about seeing kingdom growth, not just the growth of your own church then there’s a strong case for planting before you plateau.
The 150-200 mark seems to be when members of churches tend to find that they struggle to know everyone well and have meaningful fellowship. So, this means that if you don’t plant, you need to seriously consider the possibility that no-one can really know everyone well. So, churches that reach that point often will multiply small groups. You may also choose to move to multiple congregations in order to meet building capacity. The challenge of course is that increasingly it will feel less like one church and more like a collection of churches that work and come together (personally I have no major issues with that assumption but others might and you need to be clear about what the direction of travel is).
Even with multiple small groups and multiple congregations you may still find that 150-200 feels like a ceiling and it is difficult/rare to grow beyond that. We also need to consider the ability of the leaders to care well for a church larger than their ability to know and shepherd everyone personally. This brings me back to that earlier point that larger churches and mega churches are in reality collections of smaller churches linked together. Your senior teaching pastor doesn’t really pastor the whole church in terms of individual care and discipleship. His role has changed somewhat.
Planting and multiplying when you are smaller than 150 is hard work, anyone who has done it at between 80-120 will confirm this. You are likely to find it exhausting. The church will have just reached the stage where people are able to breath a little who have been run ragged trying to keep ministries going and now find themselves parts of teams, only for the team to break up. Suddenly you are back doing kids work every Sunday whilst also being responsible for set up and helping with the music group. At that kind of size, both the sent and the sending in effect feel like fragile plants.
So, if you are going for what is the conventional approach to planting and your assuming a conventional pattern of church life for the new plant, then I would be cautious about planting before there are more than 150 in the church.
However, regular readers will know that I’m passionate about other approaches to planting. A pioneer house church model for example allows you to multiply into communities quickly. You’ll be constrained by the size of the host’s living room (so probably at about 15 maximum). However, because the feel is meant to be small and homely, because there’s an expectation of greater participation and interaction and because you aren’t burdened with ministries to run and critical mass for certain things, then the pressure is off. You can grow to 15 and then multiply into two groups of 6 or 7, then 4 groups and so on.
So, the answer really does depend on context and what you are trying to do.