I linked a week or two ago to Seth Godin, but this one is worth a bit more attention. Godin draws attention to 'Dunbars number', the maximum number of people anyone can meaningfully relate to. It's 150 - any more than that, and there are too many people to know and interact with. It turns from a 'tribe' to a mass.
At one level, that's slightly comforting. It gives me an excuse for being so poor at keeping in touch with people, having moved around the country several times, and been in quite intense relationships with folk each time (churches, theological colleges). Yet each time I fail to keep in touch with more than a handful of people.
Our church isn't far off this size, and is well over it if you include occasional attenders, and people in the 'fringe'. There are churches which are much bigger, but these are constantly trying to work with a smaller group dynamic - cells, clusters, mid-sized communities (currently the structure of choice amongst larger evangelical Anglican churches in the UK, from Chorleywood to Sheffield via Cheltenham, Derby and Haydock).
A few years ago - I don't know if this still applies - I heard someone speaking about the Methodist church in Singapore, which was growing rapidly. Their policy was that any congregation which grew to 100 would automatically split into two congregations of 50. Here was a structural limit which prevented the churches becoming too big for meaningful relationships. Interesting that, when Jesus went beyond 12 people, it was only to 70 or 120, well within the Dunbar number.
2ndmanunited speculates that the way our churches are led will be determined by the size of the church, and that leaders of larger churches 'enter a celebrity/politician relationship with the congregation'. If a church leader simply isn't that kind of character, what happens? Does that just create a ceiling for church growth?
I also wonder if Dunbars number is an average, and there are some of us who would struggle even with a much smaller number. And church isn't the sum total of our our social contacts. Or at least, lets hope not. So if you have 100 family, friends, neighbours, work colleagues etc. in your 'tribe', it's only going to be possible to get to know a few other folk from church really well.
There's more of a challenge for church leaders in medium-sized churches. If you want to stay in touch with folk from 'normal' life, is it really possible to get to know everyone in your church of 80 people? 100 people? 149 people? And if it isn't, does that mean that the church turns into a 'mass' rather than a 'tribe' for the leader? If the leader has any kind of life outside the 'tribe', then perhaps the optimum number for any church leader to relate to is much smaller than 150. Team leadership overcomes some of this, but that would still mean that everyone has some leaders who they feel they know, and others with whom they feel distant.