Church size: Is 150 the “magic” number?

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.

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Ministry Miseries or Pastoral Pleasures

Have you noticed the Ministry Misery writing genre that’s proving strangely popular in some circles?

Pastors try to outdo one another in painting ministry in general, and themselves in particular, in as dismal and depressing a light as they possibly can.

There are usually two recurring memes:

(1) Ministers are more evil than you can possibly imagine. I’m more hypocritical, more devious, and more selfish than Hitler, Saddam, and Osama put together. To prove it let me tell you about how bad a father, a husband, and a pastor I am. Again and again and again.

(2) The ministry is more evil than you can possibly imagine. You’ve no idea how hard it is to be a pastor. So much suffering, so much persecution, so much giving, and all for so little return.

Misery, misery, misery. Sometimes it appears that the worse they describe themselves and their work, the more popular the articles seem to be. Lots of other pastors chime in with “I’m even worse than that…and so’s my congregation.”

Is this some kind of perverse Reformed monkishness that enjoys very public and painful self-flaggelation? Is there something especially holy and admirable about this activity?

I know there’s a danger of pride in ministers, and we need to strip away the illusions of pastoral glamor lest naive young men are attracted to it for the wrong reasons, but come on guys, we’re not totally evil and neither is our work. People are not lying when they say, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the gospel of peace” (Rom. 10:15)?

We are ambassadors for Christ with a high and noble calling. While every job has its thorns and thistles, there’s huge satisfaction and pleasure too. Usually there are far more positives than negatives. Can there be anything more enjoyable than preaching the Gospel, evangelizing the lost, pastoring needy sinners, equipping saints for works of service, and helping saints on their way to glory?

Let’s get a better balance in our view of God’s work in us, through us, and around us. And let’s have more articles and books on Pastoral Pleasures and less on Ministry Miseries

It’s a few years old now, but here’s a starter on the joys I’ve experienced in my own ministry.

Feb 18 2009 Murray Chapel from Puritan Reformed on Vimeo.

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Paul Washer Interview

Download here.

After a brief Connected Kingdom interlude while Tim went on his world tour, we return this week with a Paul Washer interview. We talk about his new book, his ministry, and also the Shocking Youth Message that has in many ways come to define him and his ministry. Here is a short index to our conversation (which lasts about 25 minutes):

  • 1.00 Why did you write your new book, The Gospel’s Power and Message.
  • 2.30 Who is Paul Washer the person? Conversion, family, hobbies, calling to mission work, etc.
  • 7.30 What have you learned through your wife’s protracted illness?
  • 8.30 Present work is training and supporting 175 missionaries among unreached people groups.
  • 10.15 What’s the greatest need of the church in India?
  • 11.35 How has that “Shocking Youth Message” changed your life?
  • 16.00 What is Gospel reductionism and what are its fruits?
  • 20.00 Has the Gospel-centered movement helped the church?
  • 22.45 What would be your 2 minute message to pastors about building positively for the future?

If you would like to give us feedback or join in the discussion, go ahead and look up our Facebook Group or leave a comment right here. You will always be able to find the most recent episode here on the blog. If you would like to subscribe via iTunes, you can do that here or if you want to subscribe with another audio player, you can try this RSS link.

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