by Alan Hartung

Seated in a sanctuary with twelve hundred other persons, I listened to the Associate Pastor announce a great need for workers. Small group leaders, children’s church helpers, Sunday School teachers, you name it, they needed it. It was about that time I first heard the principle that 80 percent of the church will not do any of the work, while 20 percent do all of the work. That was nearly a decade ago, and since that time, I have heard the 80-20 principle time and time again.

Church growth experts may tell you the proper response to this principle is to spend 80 percent of your time with the 20 percent who are doing the work. Or possibly they will suggest ways to network with the 80 percent, so you can increase the percentage of people who are laboring in the church. Almost all advice centers on the idea that slight modifications within current structures or changes in emphases will improve results.

But what if the 80-20 principle actually results from the structure itself? Current church structures are designed for large numbers of people to merely attend church. The myriad of working positions currently available in most churches would not be necessary without the large numbers of people who have no other responsibility beyond that of showing up.

This principle will hold true as long as the Sunday worship service, in its current form, is the center of church life. The Sunday service is geared around worship, possibly communion, and the sermon. At a bare minimum, you need a worship team (or a leader who can play guitar), a preacher, and child-care workers. Of course, persons to prepare the bulletin, change the lyrics on the overhead, clean the sanctuary (and bathrooms), and to usher would also be necessary. Greeters at the door are always nice, but maybe the ushers could double up on that duty. Recruiting the number of people it takes to pull off a quality Sunday service can seem like a never-ending battle.

Most—if not all—of these jobs hold one thing in common: they are not necessary unless you have a crowd of people coming who do not do any of these things. In its current form, the Sunday worship service creates a need for large numbers of non-workers. The 80-20 principle should be the expected result when the Sunday worship service is the central focus of the church—the design dictates it.

A pastoral staff could choose to just accept the principle as the way of life for the church. Perhaps, in our culture, it is the best way to introduce people to the church. After they have been introduced to the church, you can try to transition them into some sort of ministry position (this is probably the heart of the seeker-sensitive model).

Another option not often looked at is to shift the focus of a church. This is not a simple thing. One church I know of has begun using small group rhetoric in an attempt to get the focus off of the Sunday service: “We are no longer a church with small groups. We are a small group church.” To date, only about twenty percent of the members of that church are involved in a small group.

Some churches have had greater success than that, but few churches dedicate the required resources to successfully make such a shift. Rhetoric and even a good number of people dedicated to small groups is not enough to truly shift the focus off the Sunday worship service. As long as the bulk of church resources are consumed by the Sunday service, it will be the focus of your church. And with that focus, the 80-20 principle will apply.

A shifting of resources significant enough to change the focus requires tremendous sacrifice. Before a staff, eldership, board, or congregation pursues such a step, the costs must be counted. To start, many persons in the 80 percent group enjoy being in the 80 percent group. They simply like having no responsibility. Also, with the current format engrained in the evangelical psyche, any changes will feel awkward—even for those recognizing the need for the change. Additionally, a shift in church models will most likely make it difficult on paid staff; the lines will be significantly blurred between who should be paid for their services and who should not be paid.

In addition to these things, the definition of success must be radically redefined. When success is defined as numerical growth, the pressure to draw a crowd will beat down any attempt to shift the focus of the church. For the church plant I am working with, the definition of success is developing a community which embodies life in the Kingdom of God. This has been our definition of success from the beginning, yet we still struggle with the idea that numerical growth is the standard of measure in American Evangelicalism.

After careful evaluation, if a church still wants to shift the focus, a new model must be chosen. Above, I mentioned small groups as the possible focus (this means more than just having small groups in your church). I do not consider it the best option, but presently it is the most common choice. Other possibilities include: planting new and smaller churches, dividing the congregation, or starting ministries which may be called “church within a church.” Changing the entire format of a Sunday worship service to reflect different values is another option. Whatever model a church pursues, the structure should not work against the goals, as the current model does.

Once a model is chosen, the difficult task of shifting the resources of the church must take place. By resources, I mean everything the church has at its disposal: people, funds, property, etc. If most of the finances and laborers in the church are dedicated to the Sunday service, the resources have not been shifted enough. There is no formula to determine how much of a shift needs to take place; each church will have its own unique problems and solutions.

If a sufficient number of persons is not devoted to the change, division will surely follow. Change is always painful, and unfortunately, some will choose not to endure the pain. If the leadership of the church is convinced the 80-20 principle is neither healthy nor biblical, changing the structure is inevitable. Consequently, the loss of some of the 80 percent group is also inevitable. And don’t be surprised if some of the 20 percent group bail on you as well (some in this group love being in the minority group of ‘committed’ members).

Specific changes from this point are highly contextual to the model a church has chosen to pursue. Changes are difficult for people, and care should be taken not to do too much, too fast. Changing too slowly, however, could be a sign that the fear of the costs is greater than the desire to change.

Given the high costs of change, few will engage in this journey. Those who decide to pursue this change must tread carefully. A deep-seated belief that people are harmed by a model or the church is falling short because of the model will be necessary to weather the storm. Of course, if a conviction that strong is held, not making the changes would be a violation of conscience.


Alan Hartung is the General Editor of THEOOZE and currently resides in Los Angeles, CA where he acts/writes/blogs/podcasts. His blog and podcast is A Different Perspective.



We attend school, but we do not attend a hospital. I don’t believer we attend work either. We do not attend a pub or a bar but we attend a music concert. We also attend a movie premier. We attend a hockey game, but if I play hockey, I can not say I’m attending the hockey game – nor do I attend the arena.

Why don’t we attend a hospital? Because we bring something and we get something. Illness and healing.

At our places of employment we most definitely bring something to the table – our time, our skills, our experience(s), and our expertise – and we definitely get something – our paycheques – and hopefully some sense of accomplishment and value.

When we frequent a bar or a pub we become part of that crowd that evening. The bartender does not set the “atmosphere”, the crowd does. We’re getting closer to abandoning the one-man-show issue.

When I attend a music concert or a movie premier I am only an observer – a spectator. Apart from paying admission, I am only taking something away with me. I am bringing nothing. I am sharing nothing.

So why is it that we are supposed to attend church? The answer is; I think we are not supposed to attend church. The fact is we do attend church. We attend church like we attend a movie premier or a music concert. We attend as an observer and a spectator. We walk away with something (hopefully!) but bring nothing – maybe only the price of admission.

I don’t think this is what Paul meant when he describes the “church” as one body (1 Corinthians 12:12-27). I don’t think Paul wanted us to buy an admission ticket and attend a hockey game. I think Paul wanted us to buy hockey gear and play hockey! When will we stop attending church and start “playing” it? We don’t attend church. We are church.

So where do we buy the hockey gear? How do we play the game? What does that look like?

There exists a very real, very practical aspect of church today that necessitates a Business Model. It’s a simply fact of economics. Bills need to be paid. Money needs to be made. Take away the money and the bills don’t get paid. Take away parishioners and you take away the numbers. Take away the numbers and the money goes away.

Until “church”, or the Institutional Church, stops functioning on an Economic Business Model, this 80-20 will never go away.

I find this disturbing. I hear talk about trying to emulate church leadership after the New Testament times with its pastors and elders, and presbyters, etc., but what I repeatedly see is the Economic Business Model. I don’t believe Jesus and His 12 Disciples’ ministry was based upon this model.

Before we can even begin to entertain how church is “done” and before we can begin even asking the question, we must first look at changing how the most basic, practical, and mundane issues of how it is managed is done. How do we pay the rent? Or, maybe, even that’s asking the wrong question. Should we even be paying rent? The Church does not need a roof over her head. The Church is a Corporate Entity, but it is not a person like you and me.

But Church, as this Corporate Entity, has a roof over her head while individual people are left out in the cold of a spiritual wilderness. And I don’t believe this is what the Lord had ever intended.

Jesus said that He had sheep of other folds (John 10:16). He also repeatedly told Peter to “Feed my lambs”. “Take care of my sheep”. “Feed my sheep”. (John 21:15-17). So the question begs to be asked: Why does the church have a roof over her head while there are people left out in the cold of a spiritual wilderness?

Good article! I’d be very interested to here where this goes and if any results come about!