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 www.christiancentury.org. This article was prepared for Religion Online by Harry W. and Grace C. Adams.
Olson suggests that Lyle Schaller’s influence among mainline and conservative clergy is due to his closing a gap in their own training by bringing a social-science orientation to the understanding of congregations. Citing the significance of congregational size and subgroup structures, Schaller offers practical solutions to both clergy and laity for fulfilling their commitment to church growth.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.