For some while now, I’ve had an uneasy feeling about the tendency toward larger and larger churches. Euphemistically speaking, I’m not at all convinced that the church growth movement did us any favours whatsoever in sowing this predilection into our religious psyches. Earlier this year, I read Malcom Gladwell’s The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference (Recommended). This book has had a great reception in the business world, and in the marketing industry in particular. About 2/3 of the way through the book though (pp.175-181), I landed on an insight that got me thinking about the church again.
While discussing three criteria which he identifies as necessary for a trend (good or bad) to tip and begin to spread rapidly or uncontrollably (an epidemic), Gladwell outlines what he calls “The Rule of 150.” He discusses the fact that as human beings, we can handle only so much information at once before we reach what in cognitive psychology is called our “channel capacity.” He writes, “Perhaps the most interesting natural limit… is what might be called our social channel capacity.” He goes on to describe the work of British anthropologist Robin Dunbar, who has observed a correlation between the size of the neocortex in the brain of mammals and the size of the groups in which they live. This can be tracked through every species of primate, where the larger the neocortex, the larger the group size. Naturally, man has the largest, and lives in the largest of groups. There is however, a specific limitation to the size of group of we can be a part without getting lost in its complexities… and adding a small number of people has an exponential effect on our ability to process the information necessary to keep it all straight.
If you belong to a group of five people, Dunbar points out, you have to keep track of ten separate relationships: your relationships with the four others in your circle and the six other two-way relationships between the others. That’s what it means to know everyone in the circle. You have to understand the personal dynamics of the group, juggle different personalities, keep people happy, manage the demands on your own time and attention, and so on. If you belong to a group of twenty people, however, there are now 190 two-way relationships to keep track of: 19 involving yourself and 171 involving the rest of the group. That’s a fivefold increase in the size of the group, but a twentyfold increase in the amount of information processing needed to “know” the other members of the group. Even a relatively small increase in the size of a group, in other words, creates a significant additional social and intellectual burden.
Gladwell goes on to explain Dunbar’s research, noting that the maximum group size for people works out to approximately 150. “The figure of 150 seems to represent the maximum number of individuals with whom we can have a genuinely social relationship, the kind of relationship that goes with knowing who they are and how they relate to us.” He then cites examples from Dunbar ranging from hunter-gatherer societies from Australia to new Guinea and Greenland to Tierra del Fuego, and other groups from the military to the Hutterites. All support the theory of approximately 150-200 as the maximum group size with which we as humans can cope and function as a group. The theorem is actually known as “Dunbar’s Number,” which is defined in Wikipedia:
Dunbar’s number, which is 150, represents a theoretical maximum number of individuals with whom a set of people can maintain a social relationship, the kind of relationship that goes with knowing who each person is and how each person relates socially to every other person. Group sizes larger than this generally require more restricted rules, laws, and enforced policies and regulations to maintain a stable cohesion. The Dunbar’s number is a value significant in sociology and anthropology. Proposed by British anthropologist Robin Dunbar, it measures the “cognitive limit to the number of individuals with whom any one person can maintain stable relationships”. Dunbar theorizes that “this limit is a direct function of relative neocortex size, and that this in turn limits group size … the limit imposed by neocortical processing capacity is simply on the number of individuals with whom a stable inter-personal relationship can be maintained.”
Further, it would appear that 150 is already at the upper end of what is generally practiced, for
Dunbar has theorized that 150 would be the mean group size only for communities with a very high incentive to remain together. For a group of this size to remain cohesive, Dunbar speculated that as much as 42% of the group’s time would have to be devoted to social grooming. Correspondingly, only groups under intense survival pressure, such as subsistence villages, nomadic tribes, and historical military groupings have, on average, achieved the 150-member mark.
One of the more popular early posts on my blog, “Church Size: Tall, Venti, or Grande?” is one in which I take what is admittedly a somewhat snarky tone at times as I criticize the “bigger is better” model of church size. At that time (September 2005), one of the swirling questions was what the minimum or maximum size for a church ought to be… and I think I now have something of an answer.
The Purpose & Size of the Church: At Odds?
Rick Warren in his 1995 best-selling book The Purpose-Driven Church presents his thesis that the church has five basic purposes, one of which is fellowship (the other four are discipleship, worship, ministry, and evangelism). If Dunbar is correct that a group of 150 people will spend some 40% of its time on social grooming, would it be correct to suppose that the church’s purpose of fellowship becomes over-weighted when a church approaches 150 members? In a greater sense, would it suggest that a church of 150 members would of necessity spend 40% of its effort on “maintenance” or self-serving rather than self-perpetuating endeavours?
I think the phrase that encapsulates the church growth movement more than any other would be “breaking the 200 barrier” and yes, I remember thinking that way. Back in the day, there was discussion about the real barriers to church growth, and how to blast through them. So it is that my latest attack may just have to be the granddaddy idea of “the 200 barrier” itself. The question I’ve asked myself is whether or not we should be trying to break it at all…and I think the answer could very well be “no.” I think it’s entirely possible that our Creator gave us a specific social capacity on purpose, and intended us to work with it. Now, I’m going to grant that some congregations go through explosive growth periods and simply don’t even notice the 200 barrier as it glides quickly by. I’ve been in a congregation like that, and I know other examples of this that I don’t want to criticize. Those settings may need a slightly different approach to a slightly different problem, but for those below the 200-mark who are wondering about growth… perhaps they shouldn’t sweat it so much, and perhaps they’re too big already. I’ll have to set aside the question of what to do at that stage, as I have another adjustment to consider first. Besides, they tend to be the exception and not the rule.
One of the things we talked about back in the day when I was part of a church leadership intent on pushing past the 200 barrier was the very real problem that after a person has been a Christian for a couple of years, they didn’t have any non-Christian friends anymore. This has been widely noted, and the problem, of course, is that we can’t grow (except by transfers, which we didn’t want) if we don’t know any unchurched people who we could draw in and convert. I’ve realized now based on the work of Dunbar that if these new converts keep their work and family relationships and supplant all the rest with the 120 or so people that are in the church they join, that’ll be the end of their social capacity. They’ve got the 150-ish group slots filled, and there’s simply no room for any more. We might notice congregations (I saw this first-hand) that seem to have “stagnated,” having a bit of in-and-out as people come and go, while by-and-large the congregations sit at about the same size and pretty much the same crowd that has been there for the past number of years. Perhaps now we should stop wondering why, and stop spending such considerable effort on “fixing” it.
Consider the life of the new convert. When they start hanging around the church, we tell them they need to get into an Alpha group, where they begin making new relationships. This is good. We put them in a home group, where they add more relationships. Also good. We make
them turn and shake hands on Sundays and drag them out to special church events, get their kids into the AWANA program, all the while telling them that it’s good to get “knit in” and develop some Christian friendships to help strengthen their faith. At least the goal is good. Get them involved in a ministry or committee or two, ’cause we sure could use their help—and it’s a way to express their commitment to Jesus and the church (not necessarily in that order). Pretty soon, they’ve got nobody outside the church to whom to relate.
I remember thinking that once a person becomes a Christian, most of them had about a two-year “window” in which to help bring their peer group to faith (or at least to church), and after that it would tend to dry up as everyone they knew had already heard about their conversion. We had figured out that a new believer may bring friends to church during their first two years, and that after that they’ll have a tendency to simply stop being evangelistic. We just never did figure out that we were doing it to them the whole time. We thought their faith was just getting cold or something, or perhaps that they were absorbing some of the passivity of the rest of Christendom. But we were doing it to them. All of our relentless “knitting them in,” while done with the best of intentions, was slowly displacing their existing relationships, using up all the available relationship-capacity that they had. And when it was all consumed, we’d sit and wonder why they stopped “witnessing” to their friends… and we’d talk again about how to break through that pesky 200 barrier, or the 400 or 800 barriers beyond that.
My own experience in churches of 130 or more tells me that Dunbar is generally correct, and there are times when 40% is definitely a conservative estimate. And if this is true, then it is plausible to suggest that without grappling with the issue and resolving it, church size alone threatens its purposes, and particularly what many would see as its raison d’etre, the missio dei. So how do we transfer some of that energy to the outside of the group?
I’m continuing to espouse a structure of church that centers around (read: is) small groups of people who relate together as church and not as some component part of what together is “actually” a church. But now I’ve got a new reason for this conviction… the rule of 150. If the church (in the comprehensive sense) is to grow, perhaps we can take a missional stance with people that does not displace most of the existing relationships in their individual social groupings of 150 people. I have begun to “suspect” that this will better allow the gospel to spread from group to group as they intersect, rather than continue with relying on a kind of transplant methodology that hinges around—is shaped and limited by—our individual social channel capacity. After all, it’s a methodology we’ve already tried and found wanting. In response, we take our first steps toward missional beginnings.
We begin with the realization that we don’t know anybody outside the church, that we’ve become enculturated by the church to its ways, to the point where we don’t see eye-to-eye with our neighbours anymore. At times it’s as though they’re part of a different culture entirely, one which our church culture calls “the world” in a somewhat disdainful mistrusting way. We realize this and to keep it simple for now, let’s just call it an amoral matter of fact. We tend to be cloistered, or insular, but long after we realize this, we still don’t know what to do about it. Since it remains a generally comfortable position, we can tend to want to shove the realization aside for a few more years instead—I know I’ve done it, and it’s still my tendency.
When a portion of the thoughts that have become this article first appeared on my blog, one commenter responded,
I’ve recognized for some time that I live in a “Christian bubble”, and I desire to build relationships with those outside of the Christian community. I can see how I was “knit in” and I’m hoping the Spirit is able to do some “knitting out”. My family is praying about opportunities to interact with our neighbors and community. One of the things that we’ve determined is that any relationships cannot be built on false hobbies, likes, etc. Any suggestions?
This, I said, completely gets the point. I also noted that I don’t have any particular inside track on this, as I am not nearly as good at it as are many others I know… I consider myself a much better theoretician than a practitioner. I offered several ideas and pointers as suggestions to get started, some good discussion followed, and I’ve now bumped it up to 25 entries. Just for “starters.”
- Stop thinking that every relationship outside the faith community needs to result in a “witnessing” opportunity;
- Cut back on church activities to make room… way back, if necessary;
- Don’t fabricate interests and hobbies (well-observed by the commenter);
- Opt for non-Christian versions of programs (Scouts & Guides vs. AWANA and Boys’ Brigade);
- Pay attention to what’s important to your community (from the school board to land use applications);
- Use the library;
- Read bulletin boards;
- Sit for a while in the coffee shops;
- Attend events of interest—music, lectures, public performances;
- Join a business networking group;
- Pick a restaurant and become a “regular” there;
- Find an interest-group, from book clubs to…??;
- Take a class;
- Take your kids to “story time” at the library or bookstore;
- Walk your dog where people can see you;
- Discover and follow the rhythm of your neighbourhood;
- Skip church sometimes;
- Coach a team;
- Shop locally, and hire “the little guy;”
- Become a “Block Parent”;
- Start asking people for their name—your mailman, your waitress, your mechanic;
- Slow down, slow down some more, and listen;
- Volunteer for something, anything that isn’t church-sponsored and where you’re not in charge;
- Enroll your kids in a class; and
- Review nos. 1 and 2 again (harder for some of us than you’d think).
I might sum up a lot of these with the recommendation to just slow down, pay attention to what’s going on all around you, and be visible. Spend time on your hobbies—find a new one if you need to, then find other people who share your hobby. Some of these might be “unpacked” a little as well, or extended further. This might all be considered just “living life,” and holistically speaking, most of this is just plain good advice without a missional label on it. The criticisms are that it’s nothing new or that it’s not very intentional about spreading the gospel. This doesn’t bother me.
The biggest single thing is to just get out and be with people, and see what “sticks” as an interest for you or your kids. If it doesn’t generate “friendships” right away, don’t sweat it—just keep on with it. I can’t say I know for certain, but I believe some period of de/re-sensitization is needed to change how we relate to worldfolk instead of churchfolk. At first, we can let it be just about changing the way we’re enculturated, and let it grow naturally from there.
We can flesh out some of the items on the list with examples. A few years ago, I spent a week in a very small northern town. I was there by invitation, and my host took me to the local hotel where a group of men gathered (daily it seemed) for breakfast. Nobody ordered their food, the waitress just brought out what they wanted. My second day there, I ordered “the usual,” and she brought me what I had ordered the day before, without skipping a beat. Places like this are special, and are good for getting to know what’s going on around the neighbourhood. I gather fortnightly with a small group of guys to kick around business ideas and observations, and we regularly meet in a local pub. Our regular waitress got herself onto a schedule where she was always off when we were there, but we saw her again recently, and she informed us that she’d changed her schedule for us. “I’m not kidding,” she said. Sometimes it’s the smallest points of contact that change someone’s day, and helps form the basis of relationship at some level.
Finding the rhythm of your neighbourhood is an important concept. If you discovered that everyone on your street mowed their lawns at 10:30 on Sunday morning and shared a beer together, would you still think it was better to be in a pew during that time slot? Every neighbourhood has a rhythm based upon the makeup of the people who live there, and falling into step with it will make it much easier to meet and get to know your neighbours. When our neighbours had their first child, my wife made sure we gave them a gift, and our kids will wave to them. Christmas gifts were exchanged. We don’t know them all that well, but upon returning home from someplace-or-other, we’ve seen them sitting on their lawn and sat down to chat for a while. One recent spring Sunday morning, my kids came in from outside and reported that the neighbours were outside in their front yard—my wife jumped up and rushed out to borrow a few tablespoons of baking powder, saving our Sunday morning pancakes, which were in jeopardy for the lack of it. A bit of a visit later, following the return of the child’s sled we had loaned them during the winter, we were on with our day. Small points of contact are important… by which I mean “normal” ones where we aren’t attempting to commandeer the conversation into a “witnessing” opportunity.
Our city publishes a “Leisure Guide” a few times a year announcing classes that can be taken for between $10 and $50 from 2-10 weeks, normally evenings at local schools. Our kids each did one last year (gymnastics & Hip-Hop dancing), and right now my wife is thinking about a Chinese cooking class (I selfishly hope she does it). I suspect that every town or city has things like this, if you just know where to look. Our family also became members of the local museum a few years ago, and we hang out there from time to time (the kids love it—go figure!) and they have special exhibits and programs on occasion. It was quite a few years ago now that we had a personal breakthrough… we skipped church on Sunday morning, went out and bought a kite, and took it to the park as a family to fly it. We aren’t part of an institutional church anymore, but at the time, this was huge for us, and we discovered that a lot of people went to the park on Sundays instead of to church. Over years of being involved in church activities, to some extent we can even forget what hobbies and activities used to interest us, even ignoring the good things we used to enjoy.
The biggest thing, especially at first I think, is just to get out and be among people who aren’t absorbed with the same subcultural ideals. See where it takes you. Last year one of our daughters joined Brownies; our friends took theirs to AWANA. I’m not trying to be down on those Christian programs, but the idea of outreach doesn’t always hold water like we wish it would, and that’s one of the things we’re shifting through this exercise. Our kids are in a Christian school, but we have friends whose kids specifically aren’t, just for this reason. We sometimes reason that we should put the kids in the Christian version of the program because it helps support the program or the church… but I think it’s more often better to support the community.
Have these things led to a bounty of “witnessing” opportunities and a rapid round of quick conversions? No. But they have made us more aware of the world and the culture around us, and they’re gradually making us more willing to share our lives with others. This is, I believe, the way Jesus went about it. It looks small and inconsequential, but I like to think of harsh criticism at this stage as faulting the road for failing to be the destination.
In Zechariah 4, Zerubbabel is faced with a mammoth task to be undertaken by an apathetic people who have barely made a dent in the work to be done—and frankly, it looked impossible. Fortunately, God speaks.
Then the angel who had been talking with me returned and woke me, as though I had been asleep. “What do you see now?” he asked.
I answered, “I see a solid gold lampstand with a bowl of oil on top of it. Around the bowl are seven lamps, each having seven spouts with wicks. And I see two olive trees, one on each side of the bowl.” Then I asked the angel, “What are these, my lord? What do they mean?”
“Don’t you know?” the angel asked.
“No, my lord,” I replied.
Then he said to me, “This is what the Lord says to Zerubbabel: It is not by force nor by strength, but by my Spirit, says the Lord of Heaven’s Armies. Nothing, not even a mighty mountain, will stand in Zerubbabel’s way; it will become a level plain before him! And when Zerubbabel sets the final stone of the Temple in place, the people will shout: ‘Grace, grace’ to it.”
Then another message came to me from the Lord: “Zerubbabel is the one who laid the foundation of this Temple, and he will complete it. Then you will know that the Lord of Heaven’s Armies has sent me. Do not despise these small beginnings, for the Lord rejoices to see the work begin, to see the plumb line in Zerubbabel’s hand.”
(The seven lamps represent the eyes of the Lord that search all around the world.)
(Zechariah 4:1-10, NLT) I think we’re fond of saying, “Grace, grace,” but here it’s an expression of recognition that the only way the temple comes to be built is through the grace of God… by his Spirit. The “level plain” is the promise that despite how the task looks, it will not be a difficult mountain climb, but an easy walk across a plain, for God does not accomplish his purposes by might or power, but by the gracious gentle work of his Spirit. Again, we love to quote the verse, but after we finish speaking the words of this promise, we then tend to work extra hard to accomplish the task. And we do this because the “beginnings” look too small. We’re impatient with slow progress and don’t trust the process if we can’t see steady movement before our eyes. We find it much easier to celebrate the end of a thing than the beginning… but not so with God. I am continually tempted to make light of such small missional steps, to discount them as inconsequential. And not only me, but many critics of the early phases, the missional beginnings. God rejoices to see the work begin, and tells us not to despise small beginnings. Perhaps I might respond to the critics with words of God from Zechariah, as the NET Bible puts it: “Who dares make light of small beginnings?”