One of the most helpful books ever written on Church Growth is The Bonsai Theory of Church Growth by Ken Hemphill. Dr. Hemphill communicates powerful and enduing church growth principles through the visual metaphor of the Bonsai. Here is an excerpt:

The bonsai pot may be the most identifiable accessory for growing bonsai trees. The pots come in numerous shapes and sizes. Some are very shallow, designed for planting a bonsai forest (several trees grouped together). Others are tall and somewhat narrow, used primarily for trees that cascade downward. Many look simply like miniature versions of more familiar flower pots. Most are ornate ceramic pots with Oriental-looking scenes and beautiful glazes. All of them are expensive when you consider their relative size. You might think that you wouldn’t have to pay so dearly for such a small hunk of clay.

After only a cursory reading of my collection of bonsai books, I discovered that fitting the right pot to the right tree was an integral part of growing bonsai. The bonsai grower must take into account factors such as the size, shape, and color of the tree when making this crucial decision. In my case I added a fourth criterion – price. Once the pot and the plant have been chosen, you’re ready to go to work. The small tree must be placed in just the right position in the pot for the proper aesthetic beauty. Once this task has been completed you have embarked on your bonsai journey.

Yet the pot is much more than a simple decorative holder for a little tree. The pot in many ways helps to determine the size of the tree. The beautiful glazed dish must hold the dirt and roots that will support the tree’s healthy growth. One of the secrets to the small size of the bonsai is the limited space for root growth.

This discovery about little trees applies to churches as well. The size of the container in which a congregation is planted will in many ways determine the size it will grow to in maturity.

We have seen this principle at work in the plants inside our home. Let’s say, for example, that you purchase a small decorative fig tree from the local nursery. It comes to you in a one gallon container. You place your prized possession by an appropriate window and water it on a regular schedule and watch as it grows naturally for a year or so. We are surprised to see that it will grow with the virtual “benign neglect” that many of our plants receive. After about a year, you notice that the color of the leaves appears to be less vibrant and that some are actually falling from the tree. You continue to water your prized possession and even add a bit of fertilizer, but to no avail. What’s the problem? It has become root-bound. The root structure has outgrown the one gallon container. The tree must be dug up, the roots untangled, and the tree repotted in a more spacious container if growth is to continue.

If the container can impede the growth of a perfectly healthy house plant, then the “church pot” can inhibit natural growth, even in a healthy church. Bonsai pots come in different shapes and sizes, but all are designed to keep the root structure of the plant small. In like manner, there are different “pots” your church must think about to promote healthy growth.

The Education Building

The most obvious container for the church is its building. Notice that the church and the building are not one and the same. The church is made up of people. It is a living, growing organism. The building is made of bricks, mortar, wood, and steel. It functions simply as a container for the church. The building is nothing more than a wrapper around ministry and cannot be allowed to restrict natural growth. Physical buildings can never be considered to be more important than the people they are designed to reach.

It took years of reading and practical experience before I could accept the fact that when any portion of the building is 80 percent filled, the church’s natural growth will be inhibited and finally stopped. This rule-of-thumb can be applied to the worship center, an individual classroom, or the educational facility as a whole. Many churches have limited their growth because their facility restricts natural growth and development. Just as the container size affects the root ball of a bonsai, so the facility can restrict natural and healthy church growth. A church can be committed to growth, doing outreach, organizing people in small groups, and all the other right things and still not grow because the pot is too small.

If a classroom will accommodate 20 adults, the class occupying that room will grow to a size of about 16 persons in regular attendance. We arrive at that figure by applying the 80 percent saturation rule. A class or small group may actually over-crowd a room for a single high attendance emphasis, but they will not consistently maintain this saturation status. The class members may continue to aggressively enroll new persons, but the average attendance will remain static because the plant has become root-bound. In most instances small groups generally average about half of the enrollment in attendance on a given Sunday. But when a class continues to enroll people without adequate space for expansion, enrollment will continue to grow while the attendance remains the same. The small pot principle has had its effect.

If you want to promote healthy growth, you have several options. You can repot the class in a larger room, or you can create a new class by moving some of the members to an available classroom to start a new teaching unit. The second option is usually preferred because new units will allow you to maintain the small group dynamics of the class. It is also true that new units grow more quickly than older established units. Healthy churches strive to have 20 percent new units each year. That means that the church with 10 small groups should set a goal for 12 units the next year. The church with 20 will aim for 24 units etc. Each group should strive, with God’s help, to give birth to a new class each year.

This limiting factor is more pronounced, but often ignored in preschool or children’s rooms. Preschoolers and children require more floor space by the very nature of their educational needs. A particular church may have available rooms for new adult classes, but their preschool rooms are already overcrowded. Here, once again, the small-pot theory stifles the ability of this church to grow. If the preschool division or another similar division is unable to expand, the entire church’s ability to grow will be restricted. Young couples are unlikely to join the church that does not provide adequate space for teaching their children.

If you would like to understand the different space requirements of preschoolers, children, youth and adults, I suggest that you read Revitalizing the Sunday Morning Dinosaur. Chapter 9 of that book discusses the space needs of each age group. I would suggest the following guidelines to help you begin to assess your needs:

  • Preschool – 20-35 square feet per child
  • Children – 20-25 square feet per child
  • Youth – 10-15 square feet per student
  • Adult – 10 square feet per adult

Take the floor plan of your educational facility, utilize the 80 percent principle, and see where you have encountered bonsai pots. You can use the architectural drawing of your church for this project.  It should have a scale which will enable you to determine the dimensions of each room. In the center of the room, indicate what age-group is meeting in the room. In the upper right corner, using the square footage requirements given above, write the maximum number of people the room will accommodate. Now using the 80percent rule, write the number at which saturation is reached in the bottom left corner. The total numbers in the left will tell you what your education building will actually accommodate.

In our rapid growth years at First Baptist, Norfolk, I often thought we could grow a big tree in a small pot. When I looked at the tremendous growth, it occasionally appeared that we had defied the 80 percent rule. Without warning, Sunday school growth stopped at an average of 1,700 persons in attendance. We continued to grow in worship because we had completed an addition to our worship center and had room to expand. We already had two Sunday school time frames and two worship services, but Sunday school attendance was static.

Upon close examination, we discovered we had no rooms in which to create new small groups. It is a basic truth that new groups grow more quickly. Thus our ability to grow had been limited by our container. We decided to begin a third Sunday school. About two hundred persons understood our dilemma and made the move to the early hour. In a matter of months, our small group attendance surged to over 1,900. By enlarging our space, we were able to accommodate new growth. A small pot artificially limits a tree from growing to its natural size. A small building can limit a church from growing to the natural size for reaching its community.

Many church families resign themselves to the small pot because they can’t afford to build or land is not readily available. You can increase the size of your church without building. Consider off-site small groups. If there is a school or office building nearby, you can rent or borrow space. We had several single adult classes that met over the years in conference rooms at nearby hospitals and hotels and restaurants. Interestingly, some people attended these off-site classes who might never have come to the church building.