SIZES of CHURCHES & Why the Decentralized Alliance Model Makes the Most of the 5 Sizes put forth by McIntosh

by Bob Whitesel D.Min., Ph.D., 10/25/15.

Gary McIntosh is a good friend and I appreciate what he writes (and he must feel the same, for he has endorsed my books). But, that doesn’t mean we don’t at times see things differently.

Below is a dialogue with a student regarding Gary’s five sizes (typology) of churches.  I agree they are good types, but not Gary’s “types” are confined to the size limits that he suggests.  This has important ramifications for church health.

A student said:

After attending a conference with Gary McIntosh we read his book, “Taking Your Church to the Next Level: What Got You Here Won’t Get You There.”  In the book and conference he outlined Church levels as such:
The Relational Church: 15-200 worshippers
The Managerial Church: 200-400 worshippers
The Organizational Church: 400-800 worshippers
The Centralized Church: 800-1,500 worshippers
The Decentralized Church: 1,500-plus worshippers

I replied.

You’re right Gary McIntosh has helped by delineating different types of churches. But he knows that I disagree with him on one aspect. And that is that you don’t have to have that number of worshipers to be that type of church. In other words, some of us have seen churches that are overly organized in the 150 range. And we have seen churches that exhibit all the hallmarks of the centralized church in the 300 range.

What I think is a key is that churches can be “decentralized” much before they’re up to 1500 worshipers. What Gary is saying is that churches typically are decentralized once they get over 1,500 worshipers.

But, I have seen many churches that are over 1,500 worshipers which really are structured like an organizational church. Gary knows I disagree with him and that is because I tend to work with more different varieties and sizes of churches. But I think the personalities of these five churches are valid … but just not that these personalities are limited to these size ranges.

Now, why is this important?  It is important because the “decentralized church” is for McIntosh the goal of churches.  And, I agree.  I just think you can be “decentralized” for health and growth much earlier … even around 100 attendees.

The advantages of the Alliance Model.

You can have a decentralized church with even less than a hundred if you have a traditional worship service or even a blended worship service on Sunday morning and a youth meeting on Sunday night … you’re technically got (according to the Gary’s terminology) a decentralized church.

Defined:  The Alliance Model is a decentralized church where multiple cultures partner together to be stronger as one nonprofit organization.

This is the Holy Grail of church ministry. For a church to truly be healthy it needs to have as many different cultures partnering together to run one church. It creates a lot of dissonant harmony and it does mean that you have to reconcile people from different cultures. But this is part of the ministry of reconciliation. We are first and foremost supposed to assist in reconciling people to their heavenly Father. But secondly as Martin Luther King Jr. reminded us: we in the church must also be reconciling people of different cultures. For example,

  • the youth learn how to get along with the older people by being in the same church together.
  • And the older people learn about the youth by being in the same church together.
  • And both groups can learn about Spanish speaking neighbors by being in the same church together.

Also, McIntosh’s “relational church” is really the “sub-congregation” or “cluster” model we are talking about. And the relational church’s size (less than 200 according to Gary) is really defined by the Dunbar number and is usually unhealthy above 125.

McIntosh’s “managerial,” “organizational” and “centralized church” models are various ways to manage organizational behavior that are organizationally centric. These are usually unhealthy ways to try and grow an organization because the organization takes dominance over the importance of people.

Thus, I agree with Gary that the “decentralized church” is the goal.  But, I disagree with Gary’s implication that you have to grow to 1,500 to become this.

I have seen that you can do it even with a small church. Many of us know small churches that may only have 60 or 75 in the morning worship the 30 or 40 youth coming on Sunday evening. According to McIntosh’s definition that would be a “decentralized church” … but it doesn’t have 1,500 worshipers and it may not even have 150.

The Alliance Church is an effective goal, for it creates growth through culturally contextualized partnerships.

So I would say, “follow Gary’s five models,” only “don’t wait until you are near 1,500 to start becoming what George Hunter calls “a congregation of congregations” (George Hunter, 1979, p. 23).

You also might want to Google the “Dunbar number” and then “Mike Breen” and what he says about “mid-sized missional communities” or “clusters.” Also, check out my postings on the equivalent term I prefer: sub-congregations. This will throw light up upon the importance of becoming a decentralized church.