Transforming Church Team Blog
resourcing leaders…reenvisioning the future

Bad Math Lie #2

The Truth About Auditorium Capacity and Options for Growth

Trevor Bron

Trevor Bron

When I was a kid growing up my sisters and I usually only went to church when we had stayed at our Grandparents house on Saturday night.  One set of Grandparents went to a large Baptist church that had just built an amazing new building. The seats were like the ones in the movie theater down the street from our house. They were just big enough and just comfortable enough for my Sunday morning nap.  Our other Grandmother went to a church that had a much older building. They had pews. I clearly remember thinking that they were named appropriately. While there was more room to stretch out for the nap, they had a funky smell and were covered in a really ugly orange fabric that was not comfortable to lay on. I wondered why they just didn’t get rid of them. After all everyone knew they were bad, everyone knew they stunk; everyone called them “pews”.
It wasn’t until much later that I discovered they weren’t named pews because of their smell or their look. And while I still do not know how or why they were given such an unfortunate name, I am certain of a few things: First, they are everywhere. There must have been an era when to be a builder of church pews must have been a lucrative business. Second, I have learned that not all of them smell. Third, some of them can be beautiful and very appropriate for a room’s style and architecture.  Fourth, they have inadvertently contributed to Bad Math Lie #2.

Bad Math Lie No. 2  “When your church’s auditorium reaches 80% of its capacity it is full.”
As a young pastor I remember being told this over and over. It was drilled into my head that once the room reached 80% we had to make a change. The change could mean only one of two things; going to 2 services or it meant relocating.
As a church consultant I cannot tell you how many times I have seen churches reach the 80%, believe the lie and go to two services. Within a few weeks the church had to double its ability to lead worship, teach, do kid’s ministry, and greet. The hope in making these huge leadership decisions is that by adding a second service the church will begin to grow now that there is room. While this may be true, the immediate reality is that the church now has one service in prime time and one service in not so prime time. For example, when going from one Sunday morning service that meets at 10 AM to two services that meet at 9:00 and 10:30 AM, the main service will most likely be viewed as the 10:30 service. The 9:00 AM service becomes the “practice” service and on average will attract only 20% of the main service and will grow at a much slower rate.
Let’s look at how this plays out practically:
Your church runs 240 people on a Sunday morning. Your auditorium seats 300 people. This means that according to Bath Math Lie #2 you are at capacity. You decide to go to two services.  After the initial excitement you find that your first service is attracting 48 people and your second service is attracting 192 people.  Both services take same number of people to lead.  The first service will most likely grow at a much slower pace. It is usually viewed as the “default” service that people go to on a Sunday that they cannot go to the main service.  The second service is the service that will grow more rapidly. It won’t take long to gain just 48 people, which means that you are back where you started and have fewer options.
The cost for starting a second service is high and on going.  [Bad Math Lie #3 deals with making the move to 2 services so stayed tuned).  So all of this begs the question, “What do we do when we reach capacity?” And maybe the next question is, “What is capacity?”  This takes us back to the smelly problem of the pews and beyond.  Pews are undefined space. Chairs are defined space. The average church chair gives each person about 21” of space. The average folding chair gives people 18” of space.  In a pew people take as much space as they want. I don’t know about you, but given the chance I am going to take more space rather than less. Can you imagine however what it would be like to have an airplane full of pews? I am quite sure I could figure out how to take up the entire pew row on the plane.
I am not advocating the banishment of pews. Some church buildings need to have them. They would look all wrong with folding chairs or theater seats.  I am however saying that your seating style plays greatly into determining capacity. If your auditorium has pews, your capacity percentage drops. For example, if you have pews you may find that your room capacity is closer to 70% not 80%.  If, however your church has chairs your capacity can be much higher.
The Who and Where Factors
There is another factor that needs to be taken into account when determining capacity. The age of your crowd plays a huge role.  Simply put, the older the congregation the lower the capacity will be. As we age, our need for personal space grows.  Our cars, our houses and even bodies tend to get bigger. If you lead a church of young adults, the capacity of the auditorium can potentially exceed 100%.  Not only can it go beyond its limits, it can serve a great purpose for it to go beyond it limits. To young adults, the crowded room is not only comfortable, but it communicates that the place is alive.  To have a standing room only auditorium for a time can build the momentum, create a sense of excitement, encourage your crowd to arrive early to get a good seat and help create a sense of urgency to make a move or a change.
Other factors need to be taken into account when determining capacity.  Is there a balcony? How many of the seats are in the balcony? How many seats are under the balcony?  Generally speaking balcony seats are not considered prime seating. They can be good for over flow seating, but most people choose balcony seats as secondary seating. Under balcony seating is also not generally prime seating. In many older churches with balconies, the switch to projecting words on a screen was made, but often times the screens cannot be seen when standing at your seat under the balcony.  So, if your church has ample balcony seating and lots of under balcony seating, your capacity is going to be lower.
What is Good Math?
If your auditorium has pews and your crowd is over 40 your capacity could be as low as 70%.  Some possible solutions for when you reach capacity:  If it is appropriate for your room to convert from pews to chairs, this can buy you time and space.  If this is not an option consider adding a second venue within your building at the same service time as overflow. This is a good interim step prior to going to a full-blown second service.  This service can also be a hybrid. It could have a live worship experience and a video feed for teaching. This can help people feel as though they are more engaged in the service. Watching an entire service via video feed can make a room feel disconnected.
If your auditorium has chairs and your crowd is over 40 your capacity can be stretched to closer to 90%.  Try removing 10% of the chairs from the back of the room prior to the start of the service. This will force people to sit closer to the front. As the front chairs fill up you can add the 10% you removed back in. This does three things. First, it controls the seating and forces people to sit closer to the front. Second, it creates an air of excitement that seats had to be added. Third, it provides specific seats for those who arrive a little late.  Again once you have reached capacity look for other venues within your building to conduct overflow services.
No matter what age your crowd is, no matter what kind of seating you have, it is crucial to make a specific determination as to your capacity.  Once you have reached whatever that capacity is, it is vital that you put a plan into place. Even in a younger church, people will only endure the cramped seating for a while (6 months).  People usually don’t leave a church because they can’t find a seat. But, over time they will become less faithful. They will begin to think that if they can’t get to church early or on time, they may as well not go.  They will also shy away from inviting new people out of fear they will not be able to sit with them.
Finding Your Own Solution
Once you have determined your capacity, do all you can to find any and all solutions.  Starting a second service should be your last option.   Secondary venues, a change in seating, asking your leaders to give up their seats, getting people in pews to move to the middle, keeping your choir in the choir loft throughout the service, starting a children’s church that runs the entire time of your adult service are all viable options.
Regardless of the type of seat I was sleeping in on a Sunday morning as a kid, my Grandma would poke me and tell me to sit up straight and pay attention. She would then poke my Grandpa and do the same. Which is what I did. (Grandpa usually just went back to sleep.)  Today, I am sitting up straight in seat, looking around the room and wondering why we insist on making up one-size fits all numbers and worse, one-size fits all solutions.  I think that we would do well to find our own solutions to math challenges rather than relying the bad math lies we’ve been told. Grandma would be proud.

[This article originally appeared in Church Solutions magazine July 2009. To read Bad Math Lie #1 please click on “tbron” on the right hand column of this page.]


2 Responses to “Bad Math Lie #2”

  1. For those who just can’t stand the suspense, according to Online Etymology Dictionary, the origin of the word “pew” is as follows: “1393, ‘raised, enclosed seat for certain worshippers’ (ladies, important men, etc.), from Old French puie, puy ‘balcony, elevation,’ from Latin podia, pl. of podium ‘elevated place,’ also ‘balcony in a Roman theater’ (see podium). Meaning ‘fixed bench with a back, for a number of worshippers’ is attested from 1631.” Scott

  2. Nice post and blog! Greets.

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