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.

  • http://philippians314.squarespace.com Kim Shay

    Thanks so much for this. Our church became so big that we need two services in the morning, and now, I feel like I don’t know everyone anymore. My son, who went to bible school, chose a church there with under 100 people because he likes the ability to get to know everyone.

  • Foppe VanderZwaag

    Very true. Same holds for schools. Didn’t Baxter in The Reformed Pastor say it to be about 250?

  • Adrian

    Although I can’t remember where I’ve read/heard it, I do know that there are some who suggest that 153 is the ideal size for a local church – from the number of fish in the net in John 21:11. Not that I’m suggesting that’s good exegesis, but it’s interesting how close 153 is to 150 :-)

    • PBJ

      Jay Adams used another passage in John for a guideline – John 10:3, speaking of the shepherd being able to call his sheep by name. When a pastor cannot know the names of all his sheep, it is time to divide the flock for their best benefit. This was exploded, however, when Spurgeon reportedly could recall the names of 1000′s of his sheep, along with their family ties and children’s names! But the principle is sound – having a true and pastoral connection with the whole congregation. Good guard from sheep falling through the cracks.

  • Joe

    I have been in just such a small church for several years of attendance near 10, plus or minus 2, and the per person giving has been relatively high, when compared to similar larger churches. The level of intimacy is high as well. I don’t see myself attending another large church for the foreseeable future. Much rather have the knowing of a small really well then try and remember the superficial details of 50 or more people.

  • Joe

    I grew up in a church with around 75 congregants. Each size can have its challenges, but I could certainly get to know everyone there. Now I’m in a church with around 400, which isn’t large for American standards, but I often feel overwhelmed by not knowing so many people even after a few years being there. Also, being on council has overwhelmed me (though I can’t blame that feeling just on size, but I believe it’s a part). I thought maybe it was only because I grew up in a small church that has caused it to be harder to adjust, but this is encouraging that it might not just be me.

    I’ve heard church planters use 200-300 as rule of thumb for then planting a new daughter church.

  • http://rcsprouljr.com rcjr

    Amen and amen. This is why Saint Peter Presbyterian in southwest Virginia, where I served for 15 years, has three parishes (each with its own preaching pastor, none of this video stuff). Would that we would stop building bigger and bigger churches, and instead build deeper and deeper relationships

  • http://www.rpcla.org Nathan Eshelman

    This is my session’s vision for church planting. 125-150 and 50 of them will be planted in another location of Los Angeles. Pastoring more than 100 people is difficult if you are the only teaching elder.

  • AndyNBarringer


    I’ll spoil the party and disagree.

    Causally knowing everyone’s name in a social setting may provide a level of comfort to some but it by no means indicates deep friendships.

    If we take Jesus’ example we can see he had a close inner circle of three or four with close friendship with 12 or so. Then a much wider audience of casual “friendships”.

    This mirrors the findings of recent studies like http://www.slideshare.net/padday/the-real-life-social-network-v2

    It found that “Average American has four strong ties” and “10 people they speak to at least weekly”. (slides 100-104) and the Average FaceBook user has 130 friends(Dunbar!) but only interacts with 4-6 on a regular basis. (slide 105).

    From Jesus’ example and the social studies that have been done we can better organize our churches in ever expanding circles. Each person should have a core group of 3-4 that they meet with of the same gender frequently. This is the deep friendships that we all so desperately need but I’d guess most of us don’t have.

    Then a small group of 10-15 gender diverse people that meet weekly. (now commonly known as “small groups” or “care groups”?)

    Through various life circumstances I’ve had to move many times during my life and had the opportunity to be a member of various size churches. In my ancedotal experience the size of church had almost nothing to do with whether or not people had deep friendships. Those always take hardwork and a culture that accepts but doesn’t condone failure. I’d guess the vast majority of men do not have any deep gospel centered friendships. As has been said, “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.”[1] I think if there is an organizational deficiency in most of our churches it’s in developing the deep friendships regardless of the number of regular attenders.

    [1] David Henry Thoreau (?)

  • Clive Pritchard

    I have to disagree with the article and many of the comments. I have had the privilage of traveling and visiting many churches over the last 30 years in many countries and I have clearly seen how much outreach and mission can be acheived by good size churches (400+). Knowing people on a one to one basis is good but not central to all church life and growth.
    I have also belonged to a church of 20, and one of 50, and one of 200 and also one of 400. Give me the 400 church any time. For fellowship, outreach into the community and for international mission.

    • http://www.socialmediaforyourchurch.com Darren Chapman

      Couldn’t agree more Clive. I’ve been in churches of 20, 50, 100, 400 and 1000 and what you can DO with a larger church, the missional impact is astounding. Mobilising hundreds of people in one venture makes whole communities stand up and take notice.
      I do agree that smaller churches have a better ratio of involvement and winning people for Christ however.
      Reality is the Church needs mega-churches, large, medium and small churches to meet needs. But for us to reach whole cities for Christ we’re going to need a LOT more growing churches and mega-churches!

  • http://suburbiauncovered.com Matt P

    Thanks for this post…. it was a joy to read. I have recently been thinking through this issue and taking it to the scriptures and, as often happens, many of my culturally developed presuppositions have been challenged. I wish these conversations took place in seminaries…

  • Steve

    I’m concerned, in the view point of the writer, that “relationship” seems to be the purpose of local churches. Isn’t The Gospel the purpose of the local church?

  • http://www.newlifefellowship.ie Mark Loughridge

    Malcolm Gladwell says something similar about 150 being the number of connections we can sustain – I think it is in Tipping Point

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