When I tell Americans that most congregations in Scotland have less than 50 people, they’re not only surprised, they usually pity us. But increasingly I’m inclined to say, “Weep not for us, but for yourselves and for your children.”
While most Scottish pastors and Christians would love to see much bigger congregations, they might lose more than they gain, especially if they get larger than 150 people. Sure, they’ll get more money, more activity, more respect, etc, but they will lose something far bigger than all these assets put together – relationships.
I know of some Scottish churches where there are only 10-20 regular attenders and yet, though poor in numbers and money, they are immeasurably rich in Christian friendships and fellowship – something that’s hard to create or cultivate in 150+ size congregations.
Where do I get that 150 number? I get it from Gore-tex, and it’s called Dunbar’s law, after a professor of sociology who studied the success of Bill Gore’s fledgling outdoor clothing factory:
From its modest beginnings, GORE-TEX grew and grew, Dunbar says, until Gore opened up a large factory. That, too, continued to grow.
Then one day, Dunbar says, Gore walked into his factory.
“And he simply didn’t know who everybody was.”
Gore wondered why this was. “It was his gut instinct,” Dunbar says, “that the bigger a company got, people working for the company were much less likely to work hard and help each other out.”
Gore did some counting, and realized that after putting about 150 people in the same building, things at GORE-TEX just did not run smoothly. People couldn’t keep track of each other. Any sense of community was gone.
So Gore made the decision to cap his factories at 150 employees.
“Whenever they needed to expand the company,” Dunbar says, “he would just build a new factory. Sometimes right on the parking lot next door.”
Things ran better this way, Gore realized. In smaller factories, Dunbar says, “everybody knew who was who. Who was the manager, who was the accountant, who made the sandwiches for lunch.”
Business was never better. One-hundred fifty, it seemed, was a magic number.
Although there’s a lot of evolutionary mumbo-jumbo in the rest of this article, I believe there’s a basic truth that we’d do well to consider: “Human beings can hold only about 150 meaningful relationships in their heads.” Apparently it holds true on Facebook too! After 150 “our brains just max out on memory.”
Of course, the church does have the huge additional help of the Holy Spirit to build and bless relationships, but still, this does have implications for the nature and number of churches.
The nature of our churches
One of the joys of a smaller congregation is the comfort and relaxation of just knowing everybody. In larger congregations most people remain “strangers” to us, changing the whole nature of the community, making it more uncomfortably formal or unsatisfyingly superficial. Christians can also hide from responsibility and service, because there are always lots of other people who can step up.
The number of our churches
But this kind of data should also impact our church planting vision and strategy. If this research is true not just for businesses, but for organisations, institutions, and communities everywhere, it should help churches decide what to “cap” it’s numbers at and when to plant churches elsewhere. “Downsizing” like this might decrease income and prestige, but it may increase far more valuable assets – friendships and fellowship, service and giving, etc. – and also multiply Gospel witnesses in many more communities.