Learning from Lyle Schaller: Social Aspects of Congregations

By Olson, Daniel V. A. | The Christian Century, January 27, 1993 | Go to article overview

Learning from Lyle Schaller: Social Aspects of Congregations


Olson, Daniel V. A., The Christian Century


A survey that William McKinney and I recently conducted invited 1,500 conservative and mainline Protestant denominational leaders to choose from a list of 63 contemporary religious leaders and authors the ten who have had "the greatest impact on your thinking about the church's life and mission today." Among the choices were Peter Berger, William Sloane Coffin, Jr., Charles Colson, Harvey Cox, Billy Graham, Jerry Falwell, Jesse Jackson, Martin E. Marty, C. Peter Wagner and James M. Wall. While these names were, checked by many respondents, none was checked more frequently than that of Lyle Schaller (checked by 43 percent).

Why is Schaller so popular? Unlike most other names on the list, he appeals to both conservatives and liberals. His numerous articles and more than 30 books offer readable, practical answers to problems church leaders commonly face. Having visited thousands of churches in dozens of denominations, Schaller is considered an authority on congregational life. A less obvious but perhaps more important explanation for his influence is that he brings a social-science orientation to his understanding of congregations, a perspective that is not familiar to many church leaders.

While many seminary students receive training in psychology in preparation for pastoral counseling, few learn about organizational theory, group processes or sociology in preparation for congregational leadership. When church leaders run into problems that are not easily diagnosed in theological or psychological categories, they often find help in Schaller, who has reworked some social-science concepts and insights in popular style. His work suggests that the frustration experienced by leaders and members of congregations is often due to a failure to understand the basic social principles that operate in all human organizations, including congregations.

Though Schaller was trained as an urban planner, he is not actually a social scientist. He ignores conventional research methods, often supporting his claims with nothing but appeals to his own experience. Though he incorporates the findings of social psychologists, organizational theorists and demographers, he ignores academic convention by seldom citing his sources. In fairness to Schaller, however, he does not seek to satisfy the standards of academic social science, nor is he seeking to develop general theories of congregations. He is a practitioner and a consultant, one who seeks to solve concrete problems. And in doing so he is not embarrassed to contradict his own previous statements.

Readers who keep these features of Schaller's work in mind - and realize too that most of Schaller's experience is with white, North American, Protestant churches - can find in his books rich insights into the social aspects of congregations. Two of his most useful insights concern the significance of congregational size and of subgroup structures.

Three of his books and part of a fourth are based on the premise that a congregation's size (measured by average attendance) is a more significant variable than almost anything else, including denominational affiliation, theology, community setting and the personalities and agendas of ministers and laypeople. Differently sized churches differ in quality as well as quantity. The have different "behavior settings." A large church is not simply a small church with more people. It is, as Schaller says, an entirely different kind of animal. He suggests that one of the greatest sources of frustration for denominational leaders, pastors and church members is their failure to recognize these qualitative differences. Ministers who have successfully led a small church often fail in a large church because they try to repeat the strategies that were successful in the small church.

How do small and large churches differ? Schaller lists many points of difference, but there are three significant ones. First, they differ in their central priorities.

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