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Learning from Lyle Schaller: Social Aspects of Congregatioins

by Daniel V.A. Olson

Daniel V. A. Olson, assistant professor of sociology at Indiana University South Bend was working at the Center for the Study of American Religion in Princeton, New Jersey, at the time this article was written. This article appeared in The Christian Century, January 27, 1993, pp. 83-84. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation, used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This article was prepared for Religion Online by Harry W. and Grace C. Adams.

A survey that William McKinney and I recently conducted invited 1,500 conservative and mainline Protestant denominational leaders to choose from a list of 63 contemporary religious leaders and authors the ten who have had "the greatest impact on your thinking about the church's life and mission today." Among the choices were Peter Berger, William Sloane Coffin, Jr., Charles Colson, Harvey Cox, Billy Graham, Jerry Falwell, Jesse Jackson, Martin E. Marty, C. Peter Wagner and James M. Wall. While these names were checked by many respondents, none was checked more frequently than that of Lyle Schaller (checked by 43 percent).

Why is Schaller so popular? Unlike most other names on the list, he appeals to both conservatives and liberals. His numerous articles and more than 30 books offer readable, practical answers to problems church leaders commonly face. Having visited thousands of churches in dozens of denominations, Schaller is considered an authority on congregational life. A less obvious but perhaps more important explanation for his influence is that he brings a social-science orientation to his understanding of congregations, a perspective that is not familiar to many church leaders.

While many seminary students receive training in psychology in preparation for pastoral counseling, few learn about organizational theory, group processes or sociology in preparation for congregational leadership. When church leaders run into problems that are not easily diagnosed in theological or psychological categories, they often find help in Schaller, who has reworked some social-science concepts and insights in popular style. His work suggests that the frustration experienced by leaders and members of congregations is often due to a failure to understand the basic social principles that operate in all human organizations, including congregations.

Though Schaller was trained as an urban planner, he is not actually a social scientist. He ignores conventional research methods, often supporting his claims with nothing but appeals to his own experience. Though he incorporates the findings of social psychologists, organizational theorists and demographers, he ignores academic convention by seldom citing his sources. In fairness to Schaller, however, he does not seek to satisfy the standards of academic social science, nor is he seeking to develop general theories of congregations. He is a practitioner and a consultant, one who seeks to solve concrete problems. And in doing so he is not embarrassed to contradict his own previous statements.

Readers who keep these features of Schaller's work in mind -- and realize too that most of Schaller's experience is with white, North American, Protestant churches -- can find in his books rich insights into the social aspects of congregations. Two of his most useful insights concern the significance of congregational size and of subgroup structures.

Three of his books and part of a fourth are based on the premise that a congregations size (measured by average attendance) is a more significant variable than almost anything else, including denominational affiliation, theology, community setting and the personalities and agendas of ministers and laypeople. Differently sized churches differ in quality as well as quantity. They have different "behavior settings." A large church is not simply a small church with more people. It is, as Schaller says, an entirely different kind of animal. He suggests that one of the greatest sources of frustration for denominational leaders, pastors and church members is their failure to recognize these qualitative differences. Ministers who have successfully led a small church often fail in a large church because they try to repeat the strategies that were successful in the small church.

How do small and large churches differ? Schaller lists many points of difference, but there are three significant ones. First, they differ in their central priorities. Small churches tend to resemble extended families and thus emphasize fellowship, relationships, intimacy, belonging and member involvement. People matter more than performance. In contrast, anonymity tends to characterize large churches. Attenders of large churches thus seek performance more than relationships. They want quality programs, well-organized activities and professional leadership.

Second, the different priorities lead to different role expectations for laypeople. Having limited resources, small churches rely heavily on lay volunteers. Not only does this help small churches meet their budgets, but it provides numerous opportunities for member involvement. Since small churches emphasize relationships more than performance, members need not meet professional standards in order to volunteer; they suspect that if they don't say yes when asked to do something, the job may not get done. Thus, Schaller argues that contrary to expectation, it is easier to find volunteers in small churches than in large churches.

In small churches, members' necessarily high investments of time and money give them a strong sense of ownership and control. Small churches tend to be lay-run organizations. This is reinforced by the fact that many cannot afford a full-time minister. Those that can frequently experience high ministerial turnover due to the low prestige of small churches and the generally lower salaries. Members' heavy investments in their church make them reluctant to hand over too much authority to the minister, who they suspect is probably just passing through on the way to a bigger church. Small churches come closest to being a ministry of the laity.

In contrast, large churches have difficulty finding volunteers. Prospective volunteers know that there are probably many other members who are better qualified for a particular task. They also know that if they accept a job, they will be expected to do it very well. The incentive structure of the large church discourages lay involvement.

Third, Schallersays at the above-mentioned two factors call forth different role expectations as well. The small church's main expectation is that the minister love the members. Relationship-building is more important than preaching or other aspects of ministry. Thus Schaller suggests that the main qualification for ministers of small congregations should be interpersonal skills rather than academic credentials or leadership qualities. In contrast, the senior minister of a large church should be highly skilled in administration, supervision and leadership of both large and small groups. Member care is a relatively low priority. Schaller quotes one large-church minister who claimed it was impossible for him to be a shepherd of so many sheep. Instead, he was forced to be a ranch foreman, delegating the care of sheep to others.

Because most small churches are controlled by laypeople, the small-church minister is but one leader among many, and may not be the most influential. But the minister of a large church is expected to be an initiating leader. The size and complexity of larger churches give great power to the senior minister, who, because of her or his position at the hub of church communication networks, may be the only person with adequate access to the activities, problems and concerns of the church as a whole. Schaller argues that if ministers fail to exercise the power given by this knowledge, no one else will. Repeatedly he asserts that the "enabler" model of ministerial leadership is inappropriate for the large church.

In addition to focusing on the significance of church size, Schaller writes a great deal about the structure of subgroups and personal relationships within congregations. These topics most frequently arise in his discussion of church growth and evangelism. Schaller is no passive analyst of church-growth principles. He assumes that all churches can grow and that all Christians should be evangelists. He recognizes that not all church leaders agree with him and that some churches legitimately emphasize social justice over evangelism. Nevertheless, he believes that Christian churches are required at a minimum to invite unchurched people into their fellowship, and that it is unchristian to invite but not welcome people into the church. He asserts that many churches unintentionally exclude people because they are unaware of social processes that alienate newcomers.

Schaller believes that most people are first attracted to a particular church by pre- existing social ties to current members. Moreover, those who continue attending for more than a year do so based on the degree of love and fellowship they experience from other attenders. Schaller argues that one of the best ways to develop fellowship ties with newcomers is to involve them in small groups that meet outside of worship, and to give them a task or office in the church. Those who become incorporated into the network of the fellowship stay. The rest are very likely to leave, feeling unwanted and unloved.

If Schaller is right, one might think that social ties among members are a great asset for churches hoping to grow: the more fellowship among members, the better. But Schaller warns that social ties are a two-edged sword. Strong interpersonal ties tend to exclude outsiders. He argues that all social groups eventually become saturated: they can't absorb any more newcomers. Members have a limited desire and capacity (time and resources) to sustain close ties. Once people have as many ties as they want or can handle, they may remain congenial to newcomers, but will offer them only superficial friendliness. Such churches become "closed."

This may explain Schaller's frequent claims that it is harder for older churches (measured by the average number of years members have attended the church) to add new members. In "older" churches, most members already have many close ties within the church. The closure of such "old" groups is a normal social process. Schaller says that such churches develop a "single cell" mentality and resemble a large family. They do not want to grow beyond the single cell because they fear losing the richly rewarding family-like atmosphere. Just as the quality of family life might not be enhanced by doubling family size, so -- the members of such churches reason -- the addition of new members might not enhance the quality of church fellowship. Though Schaller vigorously objects to this attitude toward growth, he acknowledges that such fears are realistic.

How can churches use the natural social mechanisms of fellowship to foster church growth without suffering from the limitations that dense fellowship networks impose on growth? Schaller does not recommend breaking up existing fellowship ties and thereby alienating current members. Instead, he proposes that churches create new groups for new people. He calls this a "both/and" strategy as opposed to an "either/or" strategy. The aim is to preserve existing fellowship ties and to provide newcomers with other, less saturated entry points into the congregations. This strategy also takes advantage of the fact that those most likely to befriend newcomers are other newcomers who have few church friends and who are therefore seeking additional fellowship ties.

The single greatest barrier to instituting "new groups for new people" is the resistance current members may have toward new groups or a second worship service. Most well-integrated longtime members oppose new groups since existing groups satisfy their needs and they don't understand why newcomers are reluctant to join them. They don't see that the close ties they find welcoming appear exclusive and cliquish to newcomers. Moreover, long-term members don't understand why the church should invest in starting new groups that have been tried before and failed.

Schaller says that one can expect about half the groups created by a new-groups-for-new-people strategy to disappear within two years. But he believes the potential benefits far outweigh the costs of failure. Such groups are open to both newcomers and those old-timers who never got deeply involved in the church before. They provide settings for people to participate in the work of the church and to care for one another.

Schaller also suggests establishing multiple subgroups as a response to diversity. He frequently argues that regardless of the theological arguments for and against the adoption of the "homogeneous unit principle" as a self-conscious strategy, the empirical evidence suggests that it works. Attempts to grow heterogeneous congregations usually fail. People from diverse backgrounds experience greater difficulty in establishing close fellowship ties. Such fellowship demands personal sharing, which in turn demands mutual understanding and trust, something that is much harder to establish among people with very different experiences and backgrounds.

He also contends that pluralism within a congregation can be fostered through a diversity of subgroups within a church. This allows very different people to find a comfortable home within the same church. Each subgroup tends to be internally homogeneous, though it may be quite different from the other internally homogeneous subgroups. While Schaller agrees that Christianity must strive to incorporate all types of people, he does not think that this expectation needs to be applied to each individual congregation or to each subgroup within a congregation.

Interestingly, he notes that social and economic diversity is less of a problem in churches that stress theological uniformity. In contrast, churches that put a greater emphasis on fellowship and belonging have more difficulties with diversity and hence must be more intentional about the creation of diverse groups within the church.

Nowhere does Schaller argue that the nature of congregations is purely social. He believes that Christian churches are called by God to accomplish special tasks in the world. Yet in order to fulfill this calling, congregations need to be aware of the ways in which their social nature both hinders and advances their calling.

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