The S-curve (2) – learn to love your plateau


Very rarely does a church grow larger than 150 (plus or minus).  Very many are smaller, and a handful are larger – they tend to be the ones we have heard about, so if we are not careful we assume they are the norm.  But they are not.

The pattern seems to be that a church begins with a lift, grows to around that number and then stabilises.

It’s a classic S-curve.

There are two ways to think ahead with that information.

One is to say that, as a sociological observation, it points to the limits of our relational capacity.  That’s about the number of individuals some-one can know with any responsibility, and if that one person’s the pastor, then that explains the cap.

If most people are comfortable in that relational range, then we need to have a church planting strategy that aims to produce many more churches of around that size.  Rather than blaming ourselves for failing to live up to a fantasy, we can accept the norm, and work towards multiplying such churches.  We also have to make sure that our churches don’t harden at around that size, but remain easy to join, and welcoming.

That takes intentional action.

The other route is to say that, as another sociological observation, those churches which have grown larger, tend have done so by making one of several key decisions.  Often those are to do with staffing, which expands the relational span of the leadership, or developing lay leaders.  Defying the S-curve means knowingly making some key decisions, and we’ll come back to that in the future.

But those are also intentional actions.

So if it is true that growing larger churches is the gift of a small number of unusual church leaders, then we need to multiply the number of churches which can be led by the rest of us.  Intentionally, plant, plant, plant.  And we work at being highly relational churches and leaders, playing to the strengths of our size. We work with the S-curve. We learn to love the advantages of our plateau so much we want many more churches to expierence it.

Both ways of thinking ahead on this are good.


But – if you’re a pastor – are you happy being the cork in the bottle?  If the size of your church is determined by your relational limit, how could you expand that?  I know of one pastor who was determined to bust that statistic, so he set up 5×3 index cards with the photos and details of each of his church members, and revised them each week so that he knew more than 150 by name;  he stopped at around 2000… Yes, he’s one of those unusually gifted pastor, but as so often, it’s not the gift, but the hard work in one direction which makes a difference.

Which might mean there are more of those unusual pastors around, if they knew what to do…

5 comments on “The S-curve (2) – learn to love your plateau”

  1. This seems like a really daft question, but it is rooted in arguing with you absolutely about the need to put in the hard work that you talk about and a conviction about the need to be ruthlessly practical:

    If I ask David Allen’s question about what the next step is, that would highlight, say, making myself a pile of index cards (or virtual cards on Anki) with people’s photos, but then I realise that I don’t have people’s photos.

    So how do I fix that? If, say, a couple come to church who have not been before, it would seem a little odd to take their photo (and might freak them out even more than the fact that the service was led by a man wearing a dress, thus making them less likely to come back).

    So, what to do?

    I am persuaded of the concept, I am just unclear about implementation.

    1. Well, option 1 is to make a part of a newcomers evening, that you have a group photo

      Option 2 is that you have some church family events and have a group photo at the end

      Might work? Some US churches have a family directory with photos but that might be OTT

  2. (sorry, “arguing” in the first sentence there should be “agreeing” – slightly different!)

  3. Our (largish) church has relatively recently had a new vicar. After a few months he asked that all the congregation emailed a photo of themselves and a couple of lines to help him get to know them all. As I recall, the request was probably made through home groups rather than from upfront.

    He’s not been slow in talking to people and building face-to-face relationships as well!

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