Breaking the 200 Barrier

A church plant is a lot like a boulder on a barren mountainside. You’ve seen this same rock in many adventure movies. Perhaps you’ve seen two nondescript cowboys desperately prying it loose, and then watching it fall. It quickly picks up speed, knocking other smaller rocks loose. Rocks smash against other rocks, breaking them from their resting places. All at once, a clamorous noise ensues, dust rises, and suddenly the entire mountainside is alive with the violent motion of falling boulders and debris. This landslide is what the cowboys were hoping for, and they whoop and holler at their success. A successful church plant is a lot like this scene.

In a 2006 study on fast growing church plants, I focused on church plants that, like a rolling boulder, generated enough momentum to reach an average weekly attendance of 200 within the first three years of public launch. I could have used any number, but conventional wisdom among most church growth experts is that this barrier is a significant momentum shifter in the life of a church. Steve Sjogren, an expert among church planters, writes, “With fewer than 200 people, a church will need to fight just to stay alive. With fewer than that number of people, you will not have hit your stride. It is inevitable that your attention will be focused upon trying to maintain the basics of church survival.” According to  Peter C. Wagner, a church plant should “expect to pass through the 200 barrier within about twelve months after going public. If you are not through it in two years, something is going wrong and your chances of ever doing it are greatly diminished.” A church plant that hits this mark quickly will be thrust forward with momentum and will have a greater possibility of retaining a growth pattern.

So, just how quickly should a church plant expect to reach 200? Some say it should happen in the first year, others believe you should reach it within the first 18 months. What I discovered was that both times are valid, but the “magic” cut-off time, if you can call it that, was closer to twenty-four months.

According to the data, 77 percent of the fast-growing church plants involved in this study reached an average weekly attendance of 200 by the twenty-four month mark. Only 23 percent of these fast-growing churches broke the 200 barrier after that time. It is statistically significant to understand that if a church plant has not broken this barrier within the first two years, it is unlikely that it ever will.

The graph above shows that only 15 percent of these fast-growing plants reached 200 within the first six months, 20 percent reached 200 by the end of the first year, an additional 15 percent reached 200 by the end of eighteen months. This bears revealing because it is widely believed, among some in the church planting world is if a church plant doesn’t reach 200 within the first eighteen months, it probably never will. Statistically, only 50 percent of these plants reached 200 within that time frame.

The highest grouping, percentage wise, was between months 19 to 24. A total of 27 percent of these church plants reached 200 within this time frame. Combining the percentages so far reveals that somewhere between 10 to 24 months is the real cut off point. If a church plant does not reach and go over 200 within the first two years, they have only a 23 percent chance of doing so.

Momentum is a major issue that either works for or against the church plant. If all goes well, a small, excited group will reach out to their neighbors and invite them to join their new church. Then these will invite their neighbors, and so on. Hopefully a spiritual avalanche will gather force and momentum. Similar to the movie rockslide but more realistic.