The 200 Growth Barrier in Churches Revisited: 9 Observations

I was greatly influenced by, and indeed I was a part of, the church growth movement with its emphasis on numerical growth in congregations. Today, the influence of church growth writers has waned. My son, Jess Rainer, was recently reading an older book in this genre. His interest encouraged me to review some of the contributions of this era.

It was a fascinating journey to read again works from the 1970s and 1980s by Bill Sullivan, C. Peter Wagner, Elmer Towns, Bill Easum, John Maxwell (pre-leadership guru days), Carl George, George Hunter, and others. I was particularly interested in those works dealing with the 200 attendance barrier in churches. So I took a day to review those specific works. Allow me to share with you some observations.

  1. The interest waned in materials on attendance barriers and was replaced by deeper biblical and theological works. This corrective action was sorely needed. Though the authors of these works did not intend it to be so, many of those who read and followed these teachings, including my own, focused on numbers as an end instead of using them as just one good measurement for the health of the church.
  2. It is unfortunate that the interest has waned so significantly though. These teachings can be very helpful. The aversion to and criticism of church growth teachings has, in many cases, caused us to “throw the baby out with the bath water.” The 200 barrier books, for example, dealt with churches struggling to move past a barrier in the 150- to 350-attendance range. Many church leaders would benefit greatly by looking over these principles.
  3. The numerical emphasis is not as important as Great Commission obedience. But if a church is Great Commission obedient, it will have to deal with numbers. The early Jerusalem church, for example, discovered that reality: “And every day the Lord added to them those who were being saved” (Acts 2:47, HCSB).
  4. Many of the issues related to the 200 barrier dealt with church members being willing to get out of their comfort zone for the sake of the gospel. That issue has not changed. C. Peter Wagner noted five reasons church members often resist the change needed for growth: the desire to preserve social intimacy; the desire to maintain control; the desire to conserve memories; the desire to protect turf; and the desire to remain comfortable.
  5. One of the most important messages of the 200 barrier works was the imperative for leaders to let go. They can’t be control freaks. They can’t be micromanagers. They can’t always be second-guessing and reviewing what others have done. They must be biblical leaders who equip the saints to do the work of ministry (Ephesians 4:12).
  6. These works showed us the importance of goal setting. It’s not just a numbers game; it’s a statement and step of faith. And it exemplifies good stewardship because it causes you to think ahead about the resources that will be needed.
  7. These works showed us that the attitude of the congregation is critical to breaking the 200-barrier. I have written about this issue in many other articles. Read 1 Corinthians 13 in its original context. Paul wrote to the church at Corinth to tell them what type of attitude they should have as church members. It’s not about them, their preferences, and their needs. It’s about putting others first.
  8. Evangelism must be a priority. I hear little emphasis on evangelism in local congregations today. The 200 barrier books reminded us of the priority of evangelism and the Great Commission. Those are critical reminders for us today.
  9. These works helped leaders become more effective change agents. Change is inevitable. How we deal with change in our churches will determine much of the direction we go. This leadership skill is sorely lacking in many of our church leaders.

Church revitalization is critical in as many as 300,000 Protestant churches, perhaps even more. I am so grateful for the theological recovery and emphasis that has taken place across many congregations. If we wed that emphasis with practical Great Commission obedience, we might just see a wave of churches renewed for years to come.


  1. says

    Great post Thom,

    As a leader of a startup parachurch I can definitely have trouble with the control freak part. Fortunately God is the ultimate Teacher and is in the continual process of taking me to school.

    I also serve at a church seemingly stuck at that 200 mark. I love my church but it seems we spend more time casting our vision instead of sharing the gospel. It’s like when we get to some magic number we can just focus on Jesus.

    You are spot on in getting back to the roots. As a layman I read way to much contemporary leadership and visioncasting books and conferences. They are good but most all the fruit that we have seen has come out of studying and applying words from guys like Andrew Murray, chambers. Etc

    I pray Eph 3:16-20 for all the church leaders who are stuck.


  2. Shawn says


    Loved this and have been edified greatly by this blog and it’s contributors. Love yah practical wisdom. Which 1-2 books would you recommend for a Pastor trying to break the 350 barrier? Thanks!!

    • Thom Rainer says

      Thanks for your kind words Shawn. Try Bill Sullivan’s book on the 200 barrier and C. Peter Wagner’s “Leading Your Church to Growth.”

  3. Mike Tucker says

    Thanks so much Tom for a much needed review from our early days in ministry! There is much for contemporary churches to learn from that body of work. Especially since so vast of majority of churches never break the 200 barrier.

  4. Mark Dance says

    About 20 years ago, I was pastoring a church I had recently helped to plant in NE Tennessee that was approaching the 200 barrier. I had no idea what was ahead. Fortunately, I attended a leadership event at Ridgecrest Conference Center that had a breakout session called, “How To Break The 200 Barrier,” led by two guys from the Florida Baptist Convention. To this day, that was the single most important hour of equipping I have received as a pastor. That church fortunately received these principles and broke through that barrier and has never turned back. I have since shared them with many other pastors. I wish I could remember who those men were so that I could thank them for investing in my ministry. Thank you for the reminder of church pioneers like these men and others (like you) who have been trail guides for pastors like me.

    • Thom Rainer says

      That’s a good word Mark. It would be good if our readers could help us with similar stories like yours.

  5. Wes Brockway says

    My first comment is a question. While I’m sure some of the principles regarding the 200 barrier can apply, are there other principles related to a church trying to break the 100 barrier? That’s where we are.

    I remember, poorly, teaching I received in Bible College related to church size and the personality/leadership style of the pastor. That is that sometimes church growth is related to the pastor’s limitations. Can you speak to this an od recommend a book that discusses this? The 200 barrier books probably cover this but it takes a pastor with additional skills to lead a 200+ church.

    I believe one of the unintended consequences from the church growth emphasis, and possibly an evangelism emphasis, is Christians who are very shallow in their faith and walk with God. A deep faith, a close walk, and a good knowledge of scripture will result in an overflow in the Christian’s life that will result in a natural evangelism.

  6. Jonathan Powell says

    I believe one of the main barriers in church growth is, as Dr Sammy Gilbreath has stated many times, “turf shepherds”. I’ve had the privilege of pastoring growing churches. Every time we’d hit a particular number, the “old guard” of the church would try and stir something up. In addition, you are accurate on the lack of evangelism emphasis. With no new blood coming in, the church will wither away to “me, my four, and no more”.

    In our current church, we’ve gone “old school” focusing on Sunday School, Discipleship, and Evangelism. What’s happened in 10 months? 61 additions, 31 via baptism. Attendance in SS has increased from 55-60 to 95-100. Worship
    Has increased from 80 to 130.

    Preach, teach, share. It’s a simple process when we allow God to lead!

    • Wes Brockway says

      Would you share some specifics? Do you have a set, weekly visitation program or are members just expected to go and tell? Do you have regular visitors to the church to visit during visitation? Do you do cold calls door to door in the community? How are you generating prospects? I’m in a church experiencing 50 in Sunday School and 80 in Worship and these are some of the questions we need to address.

      I have experienced that some sermons on evangelism are merely telling us how we are failing and are bad Christians because we are not being evangelistic but there is no preaching on living a godly life, walking in the Spirit, and sharing out of an abundance in our life. By saying that I am not implying that is what you are preaching or not preaching. I’m speaking from my experiences so please don’t take personal offense.

  7. Tim Sadler says

    Thanks again. Timely and appropriate. I have said for years that “Numbers aren’t everything. But, the numbers represent people, and people matter to God.”

  8. Doug Miller says

    Thanks Dr Thom. These 9 points are a great reminder of what the church needs to be doing. As you said, nothing really new, but still necessary. As I begin a new pastorate I commit further to doing both, teaching sound doctrine and theology, and pressing the Great Commission every chance I get. May the Kimgdom grow in numbers only God can explain.

  9. Bruce says

    I am like Wes. How can a church get over the 100 mark? Our church is an established family, country church that has declined from 78 to 38 over two decades. After four years of trying to gently encourage the leadership they remain unwilling to embrace new methods. Any help?

  10. says

    Thanks for this. As a guy toiling away in relative obscurity, this is both helpful and encouraging. We saw a church go from 10 folks and nearly shut down to over 70 with baptisms and discipleship happening. The big secret (3&4 above)… consistent exposition of the Bible and focus outside of the walls of the building. Much pain, some loss, but still seeing gains for the Kingdom.

    • Wes Brockway says

      I rejoice in your church’s blessing. Again, would you share as to specific ways you, “focus outside of the walls of the building.”?

      • says

        Thanks for the question Wes. For me, the overarching theme has been simplicity and doing things well. I work full time outside of ministry, so my ministry time is limited. When I began with the Church they had several ideas of outreach and what they wanted to explore, but I asked them to hold onto the ideas and we would first ensure that Sunday morning is done with excellence. From there we began a discipleship program to ensure that the flock was being well fed. To your question; what does it mean to focus outside the walls? It means that our ministry focus is 20/80, 20% focus on the well being of the flock, 80% focus on those in the community. All of this wrapped in the desire to glorify God and make Christ known in what we do. We have partnered with a local Christian camp and supply several workers each summer, bible teachers and other workers. We also scholarship kids from the community to the camp. We have few traditional Church “programs” but have agreed as a family to do our ministry out in the community. So the effort normally put into events, programs and the like is refocused on serving the community we live in. Each member takes advantage of the gifting that God gives them and uses that to bless their neighbor and glorify God. For example; one of our guys is a carpenter. He seeks opportunity to help folks with handyman work in the community and use that time to minister to them. Another gent is a logger and uses his time and equipment the same way. My main vocation is financial, so I provide pastoral and financial counseling for folks in the Church and in the community. So each member finds their gift and then uses it to work in the community for Christ. In the end, this has worked in our context, may not work in all ministry context. But the simple approach has worked for us.

  11. Michael says

    I see the church that I pastor in Bruce’s comment, I comments and anxiously await you response to Wes and Bruce.
    Thank you for this ministry it is a daily encouragement.

  12. Mark Dance says

    Some of you have asked Dr Rainer to recommend other growth barrier-breaking resources. Since he currently speaking in a conference and I am on his team, allow me to make a few recommendations in addition to the ones he has already made.

    “How To Break Growth Barriers” by Carl George; “There’s Hope For Your Church,” by Gary McIntosh; “Church Is A Team Sport” by Jim Putman. Also, Dr Rainer has written several books on this subject: “Breakout Churches,” “The Book Of Church Growth,” “Simple Church,” and “The Every Church Growth To Church,” “Essential Church?” by Thom and Sam Rainer. (or click on “books” at the top of this blog for more of his books).

    I hope this helps!

  13. says

    We need focus in Evangelism must be a priority. I hear little emphasis on evangelism in local congregations today. I want to share my strategy to Increace Evangelism in Our Churches, if we working together de $$$ no stop Churches projects. But need to working together,create e Network where each Churches can evangelice people more better. Where are people now, more time over Internet, over Facebook…..; Churches need create good way to move people to our Churches.
    If each Church have Free Video Conference with 250 seat , Pastors can evangelice with this Tools. I have tools to find local people, and we can invite this people to participate in Video conference. Please vesit my project, join to there. I help you. Churches can spend more $25 in web,hosting,video conference,video Hosting,autoresponder. All this tools can help us to increase Evangelism.

  14. Mark says

    The other problem with growth is that there will be a point where more deacons, elders, vestry members are needed. Some of the people currently belonging to those groups will not be keen on having their power diluted. Thus, growth can cause issues. Also, new people bring new ideas and the new ideas may not be welcome. You also must remember that sometimes, new people may not have grown up in or belong to your denomination but like your clergy and/or your service and so attend and donate. (Old liturgical churches near Washington have been reporting growth lately coming from people who did not grow up in those denominations, but yet they are welcomed.)

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