Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Is your church too big?

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.


  1. I remember hearing David Pawson say something similar to this in the early 80s; when a church gets to 100 it should divide. I don't think he had Dunbars number to draw on but it would have been an issue for a church like Millmead Baptist in Guildford. It does make sense and like you I have to admit that I am only able to maintain a small number of relationships with people from past places e.g. college & parishes.

  2. We've been doing a lot of thinking about this at All Souls - partly off the back of the Malcolm Gladwell book "Tipping Point" where I first came across this "150" number and then a pair of 'church growth' books (including "The Myth of the 200 Barrier").

    Fundamentally it comes down to facing the fact that size of church has a lot more impact on church life than anything else - more than churchmanship, style, building etc.

    I don't think you can say it's impossible to have a bigger church, but that the bigger it gets the more intentional you have to be in making your structures, teams and approach to church life fit the size.

    The most profound insight comes from the "myth" book above - that not all sizes of church are 'stable' - i.e. that there are some sizes that aren't naturally self-sustaining. In particular he talks about the range from 150ish to 300ish, where the church is "small enough to want to live and act like a family, with the vicar knowing everything/everyone", but "large enough to aspire to the programmes, staff and buzz of the next size up". The author recommends Vicars he meets not to stay in churches of this 'transitional' size longer than 5 years becuase he belives they'll burn out...

    We're trying to cross that transitional gap as quickly as possible - partly by starting a second (afternoon) congregation.

    Well worth conversation and thinking.

  3. Very interesting post. Of course, it would be rather good in its own way if it were a very widespread problem...because small congregations suffer big problems too, and there are rather more of them.

  4. Just as an example:

    we have about 150 people split between our four main services, (8am 11pm 6pm & midweek)in a large(ish) town parish.

    But because we have a Children's worker, senior worker and a pastoral visitor who attend to folks raising that number perhaps double, I do wonder how well the priest knows everyone.

    The second thing I wonder is whether he needs to?

    He certainly knows every-one's name, but does he have to be "best friends" with people that he wouldn't be, were he not the vicar?

  5. David,

    Thanks again for the comment you left on my similar post. I'm interested in your reflection on 2ndmanunited's insight about the personalities of leaders in large churches. I think you'll find there's already been some work done on this very issue. Now if only I could locate the relevant Grove booklet from my shelf (doesn't help I've forgotten title and author!) I might be able to point you in a more precise direction!

  6. Following up my comment of a few minutes ago, it's 'Personality and the Practice of Ministry' by Leslie Francis and Mandy Robbins, chapter 5.