Dunbar’s Number, Social Circles, and Church Size

Switched.com carried out an interesting experiment in light of the re-release of Dunbar’s famous study on social circles.
Robin Dunbar of Oxford University demonstrated that the human brain can only comprehend a social circle of about 150 people. He tested that theory again in light of the Facebook phenomenon and concluded that the number held.
Switched performed a test using one person to see if it held up and it (pretty much) did. (A larger sample would, obviously be necessary to be more conclusive.)
What does this have to do with church, you ask?
According to church growth expert Gary McIntosh, 75% of churches in the US number 149 people or less (One Size Doesn’t Fit All, 17). I don’t think that’s a coincidence. Many people like to go to a small church because they like to know everyone and want everyone to know them. They want to “fit in.” They want to know the pastor and for the pastor to know them. That only happens in a smaller church.
I spent fourteen years in a church of 5,000 people. I was a leader and so I knew many people outside my age group and social circle, but I really only knew a small group of people closely (according to the Switched criteria). So even in large church, your social circle is not any larger, you just have a larger pool from which to draw. The problem is, you will probably be segregated according to some demographic and may not find the person with whom you really should be friends.
Remember how many people were in the upper room on the Day of Pentecost? Yes, 120. Pretty close to Dunbar’s number.
In short, I think Dunbar’s number is innate, we all understand it to some degree and that is why churches flock together around this number. It’s not that small churches want to remain small, it’s just wired into us.
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About Michael R. Jones

Pastor and PhD candidate writing on Paul's theology of suffering.
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2 Responses to Dunbar’s Number, Social Circles, and Church Size

  1. Dave says:

    I agree…. but that church very quickly gained in number… what then? Church planting and raising up new leaders I’d guess? should we expect to live with change and see numbers fluctuate from, say, 100, to 200 and then plant? so we’re most of the time a little below or above ideal?

    • Hey, Dave, thanks for the comment. I think many times we are a little above or below ideal. We also have to take into account the Lord’s working which doesn’t always fit either our comfort levels or our ministry models. In the church where I pastor, we have written into our ministry plan that when we see we’re going to outgrow our current facility, we begin planning on birthing a church plant. Consequently, our number would be higher than Dunbar’s number and even after a plant it might remain higher. We also have on our church’s weekly prayer list to remind people to pray for numerical growth as well as spiritual and also to praise for the Lord to raise up new leaders. This maintains our focus on responding to what God is doing in the church rather than expecting or demanding him to fit our model.

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