Dunbar's Number: Is There an Ideal Church Size?

Mega-Church: e.g. Rick Warren's Saddleback Church
No one builds a tower without first counting the cost - well, except for us. If
our picture of church is anything like family - then being big comes at a price.

I recently read an article about Francis Chan - and realized that his story is the perfect place to begin this post.

Francis Chan started Cornerstone in 1994, in his living room with just 30 people. It grew quickly. Within 2 months the church had 100 people. By the year 2000, Chan's congregation had grown to 1600. At its height Cornerstone had as many as 5000 people attending. By all outward appearances, his Church was a huge success, but in 2011 he decided to step down as pastor of the church he had founded - and start over.

In a recent talk he gave at Facebook headquarters, Chan explained why he did it. Part of the reason, he said, was discomfort with changes he noticed in himself. Pride over the success of his book "Crazy Love," and the attention that had drawn to him. Seeing his face on a magazine, or entering a room and hearing people whisper about him - and then noticing that he actually liked it, he thought  "Everything you (God) said you hated, that's me right now. I gotta get out of here. I'm losing my soul." It wasn't just his personal struggles though, Chan was also troubled by what was happening in his church - or rather, what wasn't happening.

"I'm going wait a second. According to the Bible, every single one of these people has a supernatural gift that's meant to be used for the body. 5,000 people show up every week to hear my gift, see my gift. That's a lot of waste. Then I started thinking how much does it cost to run this thing? Millions of dollars!"
But, what stood out the most in Chan's talk was a story he told of a young man who had stopped attending Cornerstone.
"I remember this kid, from this gang, that I baptized. He was so involved - and he left. And I remember him saying, when one of my friends asked him 'How come you're not at Cornerstone anymore?' He said, 'I didn't understand Church. When I was baptized, I thought that was going to be like being jumped into the gang - where it's like 24/7, they're my family.' He said, 'I didn't know it was just somewhere we attend on Sundays.' And I was like, 'Oh, that makes me sick. That makes me so sick, that the gangs are a better picture of family than the church of Jesus Christ. I can't live with that. I cannot live with that. We're going to do something different.'"
Chan's decision to step down was not met without some skepticism. Gospel Coalition friends Mark Driscoll and Joshua Harris both questioned his decision. Suggesting that he might be "afraid of success," or that "giving up might be a pattern for him that he'd be doomed to repeat - if given in too." One can hear in their constructive criticism, a bit of defensiveness. Chan's reasons for stepping down, his criticism of the mega-church model, could easily be applied to their own ministries as well. His stepping down could be seen as an indictment of a whole industry. (See Article).

Francis Chan now pastors with others in a network of House Churches
called "We Are Church". 15 congregations each having two pastors. The congregations are small enough where everyone can know one another's names, and be a part of one another's lives - where everyone can make use of their spiritual gifts and feel like a family. And as Chan reiterates a couple of times in the article - "its all free".  It seems to be exactly what he wants, and thought he says his work is harder now than it was pastoring a mega-church - he seems to be happy.
You can read the article about Chan in The Christian Post (Here).
I've also posted the relevant part of his Facebook talk on Youtube (here).
I wanted to take some time to connect Chan's experience to the thinking of this blog. Whether or not Chan is aware of it, there are good reasons behind his instincts.

Many people long for a church that feels like a family. Somewhere we all know one another, somewhere we feel we fit in and have a vital part to play, somewhere we feel valued.  It is the promise of the New Testament Church spout in 1 Corinthians 12:12-27. Here he talks about the church being a body made up of many parts, where each part is valued, and makes a vital contribution. So when people complain about churches being impersonal, or not feeling valued, or not knowing where to fit in - they aren't just whiney people who need to just learn to "suck it up", these are valid concerns, concerns raised by the social challenges posed by group size - and its not our members letting us down, we're letting them down.

So is there an ideal church size? Many popular authors have cited the work of Robin Dunbar on the human brain and social group size.  His calculations showed that natural human social groups maxes out at about 150 persons. This is because the brains processing capacity limits the number of individuals with whom one can maintain a stable interpersonal relationship (Read Here). Once you start getting larger groups, you need to add layers of hierarchy to maintain group cohesion. People then try to find intimacy in smaller cliques within the group. Anonymity starts to become a problem as people struggle to connect with the group. So does a sense of belonging as people struggle to find expression for their gifts. 

When you consider that the size of the average church size is about 186 people you might not think that's so bad. That would mean most churches are doing well - right?  Not quite. Dunbar stresses that to maintain intimacy in a group even this size -individuals have to spend at least 42% of their time in social grooming exercises (hanging out together). No modern church can do that. The only groups that can do this are survival oriented groups like villages, military units, etc. The typical modern human's limit for social intimacy is actually much smaller. 
... we might expect the upper limit on group size to depend on the degree of social dispersal. In dispersed societies, individuals will meet less often and will thus be less familiar with each, so group sizes should be smaller in consequence. - Robin Dunbar
Christopher Allen has an excellent series of posts on the Dunbar Number, on his blog "Life With Alacrity". He suggests that for socially dispersed groups, who see each other less often, groups should be very small - like less than 10 people. This extended quote shows how he breaks it down.

In my experience the smallest viable group size seems to be somewhere in the range of 5 to 9.

Looking smaller, we see that a group of 2 can be tremendously creative (ask any parent), but often has insufficient resources and thus requires deep commitment by both parties. Notably, often the difficulty of a 2-person business partnership is compared to that of a marriage. A group of 3 is often unstable, with one person feeling left out, or else one person controlling the others by being the "split" vote. A group of 4 often devolves into two pairs.

In my opinion it is at 5 that the feeling of "team" really starts. At 5 to 8 people, you can have a meeting where everyone can speak out about what the entire group is doing, and everyone feels highly empowered. However, at 9 to 12 people this begins to break down -- not enough "attention" is given to everyone and meetings risk becoming either too noisy, too boring, too long, or some combination thereof. Although I've been unable to find the source, I've heard of some references to a study from the 1950s that says that the optimum size for a committee is 7. Likewise, it's fairly easy for us to see and agree that a dinner party starts to break down somewhere above 7 or 8 people, as do also tabletop games of both the strategic (I prefer 5) and role-playing varieties (I prefer 7). These size limits can be overcome, but require increased amounts of "grooming".

The chasm that starts somewhere between 9 to 12 people can be especially daunting for a small business. As you grow past 12 or so employees, you must start specializing and having departments and direct reports; however, you are not quite large enough for this to be efficient, and thus much employee time that you put toward management tasks is wasted. Only as you approach and pass 25 people does having simple departments and managers begin to work again, as it starts to really make sense for department heads to spend significant time just communicating and coordinating (and as individual departments become large enough to once again allow for the dynamic exchange of ideas that had previously occurred in the original 5-9 member seed group).

I've already noted the next chasm when you go beyond 80 people, which I think is the point that Dunbar's Number actually marks for a non-survival oriented group. Even at this lower point, the noise level created by required socialization becomes an issue, and filtering becomes essential. As you approach 150 this begins to be unmanageable. Once a company grows past 200 you are really starting to need middle-management, but often you can't afford it yet. Only when you get up past that, maybe at 350-500 people, does middle-management start really working, primarily because you've once again segmented your original departments, possibly again reducing them to Dunbar-sized groups.

So we find, if our ideal church is one that feels like family - the ideal size is about the number of people you could comfortably fit in your living room.

Now lets consider the pretty widespread norm of owning a church building.
Whether you buy a church building, or build it yourself, the cost of running and maintaining this edifice will automatically put you out of the range where natural, egalitarian, group intimacy is possible. This is probably why the average church membership is a little less than 200 - you need that many people just to support the cost of the facility. Now however, you're starting to need that middle management, but you still can't afford it. So you are driven by the system to grow even more- 350-500.  By this point, a pastor has long ceased being someone who cares for the individual sheep - and has become what some have called an over shepherd, someone who manages other people who do the work of pastoring. Fellowship too, is not with the church as a whole, but with a segmented part of it. Now also, many people who attend the church are strangers to you. And so new people who come may be missed entirely by regular members - who mistake them for someone they simply don't know.

A lot of the blame gets laid on members of the congregation - for being cliquish, or not recognizing and welcoming the visitors,  but its built in to the system. The human brain has limits to its social capacity. You can create strategies to make up for these deficiencies, but they become increasingly artificial - and far from what one might have been hoping for if your idea of church is intimacy, value, and making a personal contribution. Is being assigned to greet people at the door really using a person with the gift of hospitality to its fullest, or is it just a slot to fill in an institution requires these roles to be filled?
In the end, yes, I do believe there is an ideal church size. I would divide churches into two varieties:
  1. House fellowships of no more than 10 people (at which time the group should probably split into two.
  2. And small congregations of around no more than 150 (at which point they should also split).
While I would prefer the intimacy of the house gathering, the larger congregational meetings might suit others better. I would also recommend holding off on purchasing a building or building one. Consider splitting into two churches before you consider owning property - because its inherent needs will become the driver of church growth, rather than discipleship. And the cost of doing business will radically shift away from ministry toward maintenance.

Francis Chan Goes Into Detail With Facebook Employees About Why He Left His Mega-Church, Christian Post, Sheryl Lynn

Pastors Question Francis Chan's Decision to Leave His Mega-Church, Christian Post, Lillian Kwon

The Dunbar Number as a Limit to Group Size, Life With Alacrity, Christopher Allen.

One Key Reason Most Churches Do Not Exceed 350 In Average Attendance, Thom S. Rainer

State of the Church 2016, Barna Research, George Barna

Fast Facts About American Religion, The Hartford Institute for Religion Research.

1 comment:

George C. Hartwell said...

So two numbers to consider. Small groups that are like family up to 10-12. and a worship community of 120 if we use the celtic Christians used to send off founders of the next community.