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Church Typologies and Crucial Shifts

The great church leadership, administration and church growth guru of the late 20th century for mainline Protestantism was Dr. Lyle Schaller.  Among the many insightful concepts he popularized was the notion of church typologies.  Church typology is a way of understanding churches and common behavior found in similar-sized churches.  The Alban Institute, a highly respected think-tank for mainline Protestants, also offered valuable insight in why open country rural churches worshipping between 50 and 70 on an average Sunday would act much the same and why large downtown “First” churches confront similar challenges.  Both championed the notion that worship attendance was a key (if not “The key”) variable for helping congregations understand their internal dynamics. I often use my own short-hand version of their deeper insights.  A simple way of thinking about churches based on size is through worship attendance.  (I hasten to add that there are many other factors such as urban, rural, county seat, suburban, etc.!)
Average Worship Attendance Typology
Less than 70 Family chapel
70 to 150 Small
150 to 300 Medium
300 to 750 Large
750 to 1800 Regional
1800+ Mega
There are interesting variations in this shorthand (and admittedly overly simplistic) way of viewing congregations.  For instance, a downtown first church will often have a regional characteristic even if its worship attendance is not around 750.  So too with the perceived leader in an urban ethnic community.  A county seat church will often be a large church even if its worship attendance puts it in the medium category. There are two size subsets that are important to note:  Less than about 25 or 30 in average worship is a much more distinctive family chapel.  On the other end of the spectrum, at around 500 in average worship a large church starts to act and feel more like it is semi-regional. There are some common touch points for United Methodist Churches worth noting:
  1. Most churches operate as one size smaller than they really are.  Thus, they tend to shrink to a smaller size just to fit the way they are operating!
  2. We (the UMC) have tended to staff for one size smaller then we are.  Over the last 10 years this has changed, and I see many churches staff bigger than they actually are!  This can hurt the importance of a shared lay ministry.  It is tricky and important to staff for growth without over-staffing.
  3. As church growth breaks into the next size category is much like going through the sound barrier.  Moving to a bigger size means engaging in church operations differently.  People unconsciously often resist such change.  It is not uncommon to see a pattern over a 20 or 30 year time period of a church that approaches a size and then falls back to the smaller size (especially among larger churches).  This is because it is difficult to change the way we consciously operate!  Changing to a larger size is a category shift and requires “doing church” differently.  A lot of congregational fights are really over system issues that have to do with size.
  4. Context - that is the ministry area, mission field, and congregational history - affect the way our “typology” interacts with our ministry, but no church is exempt from wrestling with the issues presented by a category shift!
I am headed out for three days in Nashville.  Two will be spent in the annual meeting of the United Methodist Publishing House Board, which it is my privilege to serve on (along with Dr. Eric McKinney from the Central Texas Conference).  The third day will be participating in and giving an address to a gathering of evangelism professors at various seminaries and a group of new church development pastors.  I’ll fly back in Thursday night and leave Friday for 8 days at the Fall Council of Bishops meeting held this session in Oklahoma City.  (The Council itself only meets for 5 days, but I am on the Executive Committee which adds a pre-meeting meeting, plus I am a part of a panel interview of those who co-authored the book Finding Our Way.)  I ask for your prayers for the Council of Bishops meeting.