The most common reason why high quality churches still aren’t growing is that they are physically full and don’t know it.
Part of the problem is that everybody over-estimates the size of their sanctuary – and I mean everybody. Big churches, small churches, city churches, and town churches all overestimate their seating capacity. There are many possible reasons for this. Perhaps their numbers are based on the fire-marshal’s maximum capacity limits – beyond which it is unsafe to have more. Maybe they base their numbers on a record-breaking funeral or Christmas eve service when people were packed in shoulder-to-shoulder and thigh-to-thigh. Who knows? There may even be a little bit of pride in being just a bit bigger.
Whatever the reason, over-estimation of seating capacity hides the reality of needed expansion, and therefore stifles and chokes out the possibility of additional growth. Having a realistic understanding of your seating capacity is vital in identifying when your growth potential has been straight-jacketed by your building.
Here are 6 Reasons why your sanctuary is smaller than you think:
#1 – The Front Row Doesn’t Count
Nobody, especially visitors, wants to sit in the front row. For whatever reason people feel insecure and exposed there and will only sit in the front in an emergency. Because this is really a no-man’s land, don’t bother counting it as part of your seating capacity. As far as visitors and growth is concerned, it simply isn’t part of your useable seating.
#2 – The Over-Flow Doesn’t Count
From a visitor’s perspective, over-flow seating stinks. Although you may have the oddball regular who actually likes it, visitors are not impressed with the bad seats, bad view, bad sound, and often lack of pew-back promotional materials. If you are regularly using your over-flow it is time to expand – either an additional service, an additional site, or a larger building. If you are regularly filling your over-flow then expansion is over-due and your facility is definitely choking out your growth possibilities.
#3 – Don’t count the Centers of Very Long Pews
Even if visitors didn’t mind crawling over 5 or 10 people just to get to an empty seat it really wouldn’t matter. From their vantage point coming in the back of the sanctuary they can’t see that there are any empty seats there in the first place. This is absolutely true if they arrive just a bit late when everyone is standing and singing. It may be nice that the pastor can see some room from up on stage, but that doesn’t help them at all. The centers of very long pews are inaccessible to visitors, and shouldn’t be counted as part of your usable seating capacity. This is also a good thing to keep in mind if you are about to build – shorter pews are better.
#4 – Most People Aren’t Anorexic Super-Models
When you measure your seating capacity make sure you give at least 24” per person. This doesn’t assume that everybody is 2 feet wide, but ensures people have enough room for their purse and their Bible. No one, especially visitors, likes to sit thigh-to-thigh with a stranger. People will naturally spread out a bit and will naturally take at least 24” of space.
#5 – Your Ushers lack training
Because 95% of churches do not have any training for their ushers, there is a 95% chance that you don’t either. A trained usher will boldly walk down the aisle and look for empty spots and will ask people to shuffle in to make room. A visitor will do neither of these things. If your ushers merely shake hands and give out bulletins, then round your seating capacity down a bit more.
#6 – The 80% Rule
The 80% rule is this: once you have reached 80% full – you’re full. While on special occasions you might be able to forcibly pack people in and get beyond 80% capacity – you will never be able to do this on a regular basis. After you reach 80% full the quality of the visitor’s experience goes down dramatically. Beyond 80% your visitors will have a hard time sitting together as a family (they weren’t looking for one empty seat, but a block of four). Beyond 80% your visitors will not have any room for their belongings. Beyond 80% your visitors will be uncomfortably rubbing thighs with strangers. Beyond 80% your visitors do not have any real choice of where they want to sit. Beyond 80% your visitors will not come back.
What do I do about this?
After you have physically measured your pews and made all the necessary adjustments mentioned above you should have a realistic understanding of your seating capacity. Now take your average attendance and see how close you’re getting to that 80% high-water mark. If you’re anything over 70% then it is time to start making plans to add an additional service, an additional venue, or a new building. If you’re not at this point and are still having trouble growing then take a good look at your parking lot 10 minutes after the service starts – you may be choking people out before they even get in the building. If parking space and seating capacity are still good, then you may have some significant spiritual or quality issues you need to deal with.