Dividing and Merging

What will happen to our church attendance if we go from one to two services? What will happen if we go from two services to one? When two churches merge, the resulting congregation should be about the size of the two merging congregations added together, right?

These are questions that are often asked of religious researchers. The common wisdom is that when two churches merge, or when a congregation goes from two services to one, within a few years the size of the new group is about the same as that of the larger of the two merging groups. When a group splits, however, the two new groups can be expected to have more members than the original one.

The common wisdom comes from anecdotal reports, and we can probably all think of some examples ourselves. I don’t know of any research on church attendance that supports this common wisdom. However, there are good theoretical reasons to think that the common wisdom is correct.

Ecological psychology (Wicker, Allan W., An Introduction to Ecological Psychology, Brooks/Cole Publishing, Monterey, CA, 1979), a theoretical perspective that arose in the 1970’s, looks at the behavior of people within “behavior settings” and studies the effects of size and other characteristics of a situation on how active participants are, for example. Wicker discusses in the book how “manning theory” (sic) predicts participants’ behaviors. He did considerable research both in schools and churches that related member activity level to organizational size, finding that people participated more in smaller organizations than in large ones. He also found that more “marginal” people (such as the less talented ball players or actors) were included better in smaller organizations. The theory predicts the relationship that most religious researchers have found that, as membership increases, the percentage of members attending worship decreases. In merger situations, the theory predicts shrinkage because a merged setting has fewer important roles to fill, e.g., you need only half as many ushers, committee chairs, etc, so people don’t feel as needed or feel insulted when they lose a job that’s important to them, or the leadership do not put as much effort into recruiting, training, and involving new people.

The reverse is true for divisions. In the late ’70’s I spoke at a conference on Sunday School growth sponsored by the United Methodists. One of Jerry Falwell’s colleagues from the Southern Baptist Church talked about their method to grow Sunday Schools. When a class reached a certain size, they split it, and then had to find new teachers, other new leaders, and new members to fill the new classes. They planned ahead for this, so they were always recruiting and training new leaders for upcoming slots, and urging members to recruit others to attend the new classes. It worked for them.

Does this mean that if your church decides to merge with another one that your total membership and attendance will not grow but will decrease? If all other things are equal, it probably does. However, you can take some steps to improve your chances of growing. First, you may want to think carefully about your new structure and make sure there are leadership positions or jobs for all those who want them. You should be extra careful that some folks who have been leaders do not feel they are being pushed aside (even if they say they want some time off). If you are combining worship services, you may want to take the opportunity to create another choir or praise team, have official greeters or hosts, or find some other ways of making sure there are lots of meaningful roles for people. And this may be the perfect time to reach out to new people in the community who are not members of either previous congregation. This can help avoid an “us” v. “them” situation as well as enrich your congregation with new people with new and different perspectives.

Dividing may work for congregations, as well as Sunday School classes. Building a bigger sanctuary is one way to handle growth in worship attendance, but so is starting a satellite church or helping start another church in a nearby town where some of your members already live. The whole may end up as bigger than the sum of the parts.


Fission (the process of dividing an atom)


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