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 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

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


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

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


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.