The 80/20 Problem – A Different View (Scripture Impressions and Digressions)

[This is an impression and digression from my sermon at FBC Tulsa on 4/29/2012]

Most churches today are all too familiar with the 80/20 principle. This concept is described as follows: 80% of the essential service of the church is done by only 20% of the church’s people. The exact ratio will obviously vary from church to church; but most would agree these numbers sound about right for most modern congregations.

This idea is not original to ecclesiology. On the contrary, the term likely originated in the business world in the late nineteenth century. According to a marketing specialist,

Vilfredo Pareto, noted economist and sociologist, best known for his law of income distribution, gave birth to the Pareto’s Law or the 80/20 rule. Pareto was one of the first people to analyze economic problems using mathematics. In the late 1800s, he observed that 80 percent of the land in Italy was owned by 20 percent of the population. While gardening, he later observed that 20 percent of the peapods in his garden yielded 80 percent of the peas that were harvested. And thus was born the universally accepted 80/20 rule.

In churches, we call the Pareto Principle the 80/20 Problem. In most ecclesiastical settings, a paid group of clergy and a core group of dedicated volunteers carry the bulk of the workload and are responsible for the vast majority of service and outreach. These two groups usually make up around 20% of the people. And then there’s the other 80% who, for whatever reason, are not overly involved much beyond attending Sunday worship services.

David Elton Trueblood, a Quaker theologian of the 20th century, remarked:

“Millions are merely back-seat Christians, willing to be observers of a performance which the professionals put on, ready to criticize or applaud, but not willing even to consider the possibility of real participation.”


The most obvious and common approach to this problem is for those who comprise the 20% to urge the 80% to pick up the pace, get off the sidelines, and get in the game.

But what if the problem is not only with the 80%?

After all, the 20% are in fact the church leadership. Are they not responsible to follow the leadership of Christ and set the course and direction for where a church ought to go?

This problem is not unique to our era. I will argue below that our modus operandi, which facilitates the 80/20 mentality, has not changed all that much for nearly 1700 years. If that is the case, should the onus for finding a solution fall on those who are on the outside looking in or on those with the potential to shake things up? Perhaps we have set ourselves up to fail and have not done much about it.


Prior to the fourth century, churches had not yet become substantial autonomous structures. In fact, churches weren’t buildings at all. The Early Church, as it blossomed beginning with the events recorded in the book of Acts, was for the most part a minority, grassroots movement. Churches often met in homes or smaller meeting venues and the “congregations” were made up of smaller groups of people. As a result, each person in a church was needed to play an integral role of service. The Church was not a building, she was the people.

Churches were also smaller by necessity of keeping a low profile. For the first three centuries, seasons of persecution were rampant. It behooved the churches to encourage believers to “lead a quiet life, mind your own business and work with your hands, just as we told you, so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders and so that you will not be dependent on anybody” (1 Thessalonians 4:11-12 NIV). Attracting a lot of attention was not usually a good idea in terms of self-preservation.

But lots of things changed drastically in the fourth century AD. In the decades following The Council of Nicea (AD 325), the grassroots movement that was the Church throughout the Roman Empire became “cemented” to the Roman state. The Church and the Empire became a conglomerate and the Imperial Church was born.

It’s popular these days to blame the Roman Emperor Constantine for all of the problems that soon befell the Imperial Church. I don’t think that’s altogether fair, however. The Church was all too happy to become married to the state in those days – and they built large structures to house their burgeoning congregations.

Here is where I see some of the first evidences of what has become a major problem. In the middle of the fourth century, the period when the Church was perhaps at its greatest height of success, the leadership created an atmosphere where the 80/20 idea was able to develop naturally. Unfortunately, I believe we continue to foster the same atmosphere and make many of the same mistakes today. This is best illustrated, perhaps, by the emergence of the first cathedrals.


When the fourth century leaders of Church and State set out to find a model or template for building their grand cathedrals, the obvious place to start would have been the religious structures: the shrines and temples used to worship Roman gods and goddesses. But these circular styled temples were deemed profane and their layout unsuitable to Christian worship.

Leaders then turned to the “basilica model,” which was known to the Romans long before the word came to be used to describe churches. In pre-Christian Rome, the basilicas were not actually used for religious purposes; they were used for politics. The English word basilica comes from the Greek basilikai, which was the title used for royal courts of law. The basilica model became the clear choice for building cathedrals large enough to house a larger forum for congregational worship.

Allow me to walk you around a Roman basilica courthouse.

  • The main entrance often opened directly into the main hall which was the largest space in the basilica.
  • The main hall was rectangular in shape with a wide central aisle and two narrow side aisles.
  • Outside of the main hall were several smaller rooms attached which were used for business or gathering places.
  • At the end of the main hall room, on the opposite side of the entrance, stood a semicircular, elevated speaking platform, better known as the apse, with a higher dome-type ceiling above it.
  • On the platform of the apse sat the judges and orators who practiced judicial business for the crowd in the main hall to observe.
  • If a jury was needed, they sat on benches behind the judges and orators on the apse.
  • And last but certainly not least: under the floor of the main platform was often a cellar or dungeon to hold criminals awaiting trial.

Ah, but the basilicas were more than places for politics; they were places of entertainment. In the Roman world, crowds gathered for entertainment at places like the coliseum, smaller coliseums, the theaters, the racetrack, and large public speaking forums. If a person wanted to hear the best public speakers of the day, they would go to the basilicas. The basilicas provided the equivalent of a good courtroom drama in the Roman Empire.

Basilica of Maxentius and Constantine

As cathedrals began to be constructed according to the basilica model in the fourth century, their layout followed the courthouse template closely. Schaff points out that the Christian basilicas were quite ironic – they were built of places of worship but they looked just like the places where earlier Christian martyrs had been convicted and condemned to death.

Allow me to walk you around an early basilica-modeled cathedral.

  • The main entrance was still at the back, sometimes with an additional side entrance.
  • The main hall became the main sanctuary.
  • The attached rooms for business became places of worship and training for believers, perhaps even something like Sunday School rooms.
  • The judicial speaking platform became the altar and the pulpit.
  • The seat of the judge became the Bishop’s chair.
  • The benches of the jury became the seats of church leaders and later for choirs.
  • The jail beneath the platform became a crypt in which those who were considered the faithful were buried.

In the basilica cathedrals, there was always a large image of the cross – either in the structure of the main hall itself, on floor or ceiling, or on the walls behind the apse. In later centuries, basilicas would add towers to hold bells which were precursors to church steeples. The church steeple, which came later, was intended to place the cross at the highest point in the city or to be a giant spire pointing towards God.


In many ways the basilica-modeled cathedrals became as much a place of entertainment as the courthouses. The bigger the cathedral, the better the preacher. The better the preacher, the bigger the cathedral. The service and ministry of the Church became highly professionalized and the work which used to belong to the many now belonged to a few. In centuries prior, nearly everyone in the churches had a role to play. They truly believed in the New Testament teaching about the Church as the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12). Certainly there leaders among them who were called to be “the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers” (Ephesians 4:11 NIV), but that did not exclude the majority of others from making essential contributions of service.

When the churches became dominated by professionalism, like their secular counterparts in the courthouses, perhaps something deeply valuable was lost. After all, sitting in the basilica watching the events unfold was certainly easier than being an actual participant in the trials. In the same way, why should 80% of a church’s people take the risk of real participation when the 20% seem more equipped to carry out the tasks. Again, if the structure of the Church has been facilitating the 80/20 problem for more than a millennia-and-a-half, perhaps the problem lies to a large degree with the 20%.

I am convinced that in many ways we have continued to make it too easy. Too safe. Many people in our churches treat their faith like other areas of the Western mindset: why not pay professionals to do the work if they are willing? What results is the the paid professionals on the platform handing out what we are trained to produce. And the biggest churches have the best professionals. And the best professionals end up at the biggest churches. And only 20% of those listening view their role as participatory.

As David Platt wrote, “Maybe this is why we sit back and settle for a casual relationship with Christ and routine religion in the church. It is safe there, and the world likes us there. The world likes us when we are pursuing everything they are pursuing, even if we do put a Christian label on it. As long as Christianity looks like the American dream, we will have few problems in this world.” (Radical)

Do we have the courage to shake things up?

6 thoughts on “The 80/20 Problem – A Different View (Scripture Impressions and Digressions)

  1. Eric, does this assume that the church paradigm is the only place to repair this lack of motivation? I hear your concern-and echo it-but could it be that a radical overhaul of church as we know it is needed to change these statistics?

  2. Good follow-up to your sermon. I wondered if you had run into Mr. Pareto. It is a widely used (and sometimes) misused thing. Mathematically, the number has to be between 50 and 100, as stated in good old Wikepedia:
    It is a common rule of thumb in business; e.g., “80% of your sales come from 20% of your clients”. Mathematically, where something is shared among a sufficiently large set of participants, there must be a number k between 50 and 100 such that “k% is taken by (100 − k)% of the participants”. The number k may vary from 50 (in the case of equal distribution, i.e. 100% of the population have equal shares) to nearly 100 (when a tiny number of participants account for almost all of the resource). There is nothing special about the number 80% mathematically, but many real systems have k somewhere around this region of intermediate imbalance in distribution.[3]

  3. Mark,
    I am afraid you might be right. Then again, we live in Tulsa where the church paradigm is still very real to at least a third of our city. Not to mention, we have a pretty great church thing going on in downtown!

    If we need an overhaul to shake things up, I hope we won’t be left behind!


  4. Eric, great illustration. I’m going to steal it…just so you know. 🙂

    Coleman, in Master Plan of Evangelism makes an argument that Jesus spent all of his time with 12 guys and the majority of that with just 3. If the problem is with the 20%, does it move the needle for the 20% to pray for and find the one guy, the one woman, that they can pour their own life into for a season? Just a thought that seemed to relate.

    1. Very good thoughts, Mark. I had a conversation with a friend recently in which he said, “Today, I don’t need to think about where I fit in to the grand scheme of everything God is doing around me. I just need to think about that person or those two or three people God will bring across my path who are in need of the gospel and discipleship.”

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