AWA and Its Impact on Church Culture

Church denominations vary wildly in many aspects, such as doctrinal teaching, polity, roles of the pastor, roles of the laity, and the order and purpose of church services.  This statement stands as being obviously true to the vast majority of Christian believers, even to those who haven’t had the personal experience of visiting many denominations.  But what might stand as more of a shock to one’s system is realizing that even within a denomination that confessionally, or even on paper, contractually, holds all of these aspects in unity among its congregations, the culture present in each local body of believers can differ significantly to the point a worshipper might feel like a foreigner even in his own denomination.  This cultural difference isn’t in reference to expected differences that could arise from geographical variants, such as between Wisconsin Lutherans and Californian Lutherans.  This cultural shift lies within the church body itself and the change arises from the size of the church body’s Sunday average worship attendance (AWA).  Recognizing this cultural distinction is important for each congregation to be the best that it can be.

awa

In Gary L. McIntosh’s book, One Size Doesn’t Fit All: Bringing Out the Best in Any Size Church, he makes three cultural categories for churches based on the size of their AWA: small (15-200 AWA), medium (201-400 AWA), and large (401+ AWA).  From McIntosh, I learned that small churches have a relational orientation (everyone knows everyone and the pastor has personal a relationship with everyone), medium churches have a programmatical orientation (people mostly know others who are in the same program, group, or class and the pastor works more closely with the leaders of those groups and doesn’t know everyone in the church while still knowing a decent percentage of the congregation personally), and large churches have an organizational orientation (primarily the orientation comes through the senior pastor and the board’s vision and the pastor rarely interacts personally with people who are not part of the paid staff or under his specific ministry branch if he’s not the senior pastor).  In a class presentation by Dr. Peter on this information, I also learned about Arkub Riytgayge’s division of the cultural size differences which contains four groups: family size (1-50 AWA), pastoral size (51-150 AWA), program size (150-350 AWA), and corporate size (350-500+ AWA).  The differentiation between these sizes were very similar to McIntosh’s model, except here, the size divisions also created two additional divisions, that between the homogeneous congregation and heterogeneous congregation and between the group-centered church and the pastor-centered church, as demonstrated in the table below:

Pastor Centered

 

Pastoral Size
51-150
(Pastor knows everyone so it is homogenous)
Corporate Size
400-1000
Group Centered

 

Family Size
0-50
 

Program Size
151-400
(Varied worship services and groups, but the groups make it group focused)

Homogeneous
Organism

Heterogeneous

Organization

From McIntosh’s book, I learned that if a pastor tries to lead his congregation outside the bounds of his congregation’s size-culture, he will frustrate his congregation and himself.  The example in One Size Fits All was that of a pastor of a small (family) church who was leading as if he was a pastor of a large (corporate) church.  He was making all the decisions and creating new programs that were flopping.  He was vision casting and dreaming numerical growth strategies five to ten years into the future to people that only cared about the present state of the family (the church body).  He was doing all of this on his own initiative.  This could be fine if he was the senior pastor at a large congregation, but he wasn’t, and since he was at a small church, he really was doing all of this on his own.  Even in the large church, the senior pastor doesn’t do all the functional, nuts and bolts work, since he has a team of leaders that he directs and holds accountable, while they manage and work out their assigned ministry tasks with their teams.  For his setting, the pastor learned that he needed to be more relational, meeting with the members one on one, face to face, throughout the week, while saddling up next to the members who have primary influential sway within the congregation to get their approval for any new initiatives he’d like to implement before launching away with his plans.  As a lay member of congregations, I also learned that my previous experience being a part of a small church soured my understanding and expectations of the last congregations I’ve been a member.  They were medium sized churches that ran programmatically, and I wasn’t entrenched in any of the programs, while wanting to know everyone and have relationship with everyone like I did in the small congregation.  The result was that I hardly knew anyone and I felt as if the churches were failing to meet their most basic role in my life.

From that last point, I have had in mind more of a pastor-centered, pastoral congregation size setting for how I would lead as a pastor.  I have had plans in mind to be a pastor (shepherd) that goes to my sheep.  I’d want to meet with every man in the congregation one on one at least once a year, by meeting them for breakfast before their work day starts or going to their job site, meeting them at lunch breaks, for prayer, counsel, and basic relational bonding, as well as for encouraging and equipping them in using their gifts and talents in the congregation and in their day to day interactions.  My wife and I have discussed having a family over for dinner once a week or every other week for the same purposes, so that I could I get to know and minister to the women and children in the congregation too while protecting my marriage (following the Mike Pence rule!).  Now, from what I have learned about congregational size dynamics, I know that this approach to leadership will likely work wonders in a small church setting and help me build much trust and authority and influence to lead the church, but such work won’t be so helpful in a medium or large church.

In a medium sized church, I’d have to adjust this relational leadership plan to be focused on meeting with the leaders of all the congregation’s programs and boards:  Sunday School Director and teachers, praise band leader, elders, mission team leaders, small group leaders, and other key members.  McIntosh also mentioned that medium sized churches expect strong teaching and well-prepared sermons from their pastors, which is an element that I find appealing and I think I can excel at from my previous experience and evaluation feedback from being a teacher for the past twelve years.  It is through solid Sunday presentations that those in the congregation I don’t know will be connected to me, and based on the culture of the medium sized church, they’re fine with not personally knowing me as long as I deliver the goods on Sunday morning with excellence.  This means that in the medium-sized congregation, devoting more time to sermon and teaching preparation will be understood by the congregation, as long as I am generating quality material to justify that time allocation for those purposes.  Being a pastor at a medium-sized church might be up my alley, since I could still have much of the relational ministry element I desire, as well as the freedom to emphasize teaching in my pastoral ministry.

In a large sized church, I’d have to adjust my relational leadership by reducing my focus to the other pastors under my care if I’m the senior pastor, as well as the plethora of other staff, and of course the board of directors.  I’d also have to find the most influential members in the congregation and work and meet with them almost exclusively from out of all the members in the church.  Again, this is the culture of a large, corporate church setting, so this would be expected by the bulk of the congregation’s members, and it is what would be necessary for the church to thrive.  In many respects, this could be a very fulfilling position for me, since the relationships will be fewer and almost exclusively focused on the mission, vision, and work of the congregation – something that does fit well my political style of leadership.

In closing, after discovering the different culture dynamics that accompany the size of each congregation, and the necessity for the pastoral leadership methods to shift based on these dynamics, I’ve discovered that my one on one relational approach to ministry has a place in all sized congregations, but that the focus of who I should be relating with personally and ministerially will have to change depending on the size of the congregation.

Published by

Andy Wrasman

I live in St. Louis with my wife and two young kids. I am a seminary student at Concordia Seminary. I've written a book called, Contradict - They Can't All Be True. Be sure to visit my other website: https://www.contradictmovement.org.

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