Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Dunbar's Number and Optimum Congregation Size

    Even if the sermon was trite, the music banal, and my mind too restless to gain insights during the meditation, connecting with my church community (about 100 people on Sunday mornings)  always renewed me.   I loved going where I knew everyone, where I was known.  Where I knew the minister and the minister knew me. 
    Then we hired a new young minister who turned out to be a dynamite preacher.  Attendance doubled.  By the time I welcomed all the new people, there was no time at coffee hour to connect with my old friends.  My community had disappeared into the crowd. 
    There’s a scientific reason for why the tenor of my congregation changed.   Robin Dunbar, an evolutionary anthropologist from Oxford, says, “...there is a natural grouping of 150.   This is the number of people you can have a relationship with involving trust and obligation – there's some personal history, not just names and faces.”  That number, 150, has become known as Dunbar’s number.
    The Alban Institute, a consulting, research, publishing, and education firm that focuses on church life, confirms that once attendance surpasses Dunbar’s number, churches lose their family feeling and the governance undergoes a qualitative shift. 
     According to the Alban Institute, in a  Pastoral church congregation of  50-150, the congregation has a sense of family—everyone knows everyone else.   Each member can expect personal attention from the pastor. The majority [71%] of all churches in the United States are this size. 
    Once a church has more than Dunbar’s number of 150 adults and children attending it becomes a  Program church.  At that point, a qualitative shift occurs and a true organization comes into being.  Formal governing, formal communication, formal leadership roles and responsibilities, and explicit procedures become necessary.
     As our church expanded into Program size, running the place got more formal and complicated.  For instance, committees now had to submit their minutes to the Board which became simultaneously more remote and more powerful. Church work became more talk than action; I felt like Sisyphus rolling that stone uphill forever. 
    Everyone in the congregation seemed to assume that church growth was a good thing, but Texas minister James Nored says in blog: “...this growth [>150] will cause a loss of intimacy and knowing everyone who is in the church.” 
    If people in our church complained, “we’re getting too big,” the staff told them to join a small group, but strong personalities dominate small groups. Besides, joining a group means you have to go to church more than once a week –  for Sunday and for the group.  Not only that, since small groups are often segregated by age, gender etc, we lose our mixed, intergenerational community. 
    In a Program church, says the Alban Institute, the minister recruits and leads key lay leaders and staff.  This team creates separate programs for children, youth, couples, seniors, and other age and interest groups. The church becomes known for the excellence of its programs.
    As far as I was concerned, my church was trading community for potentially improved programming.  Programming, shmogramming!   As I see it, lectures and music are available elsewhere, but community is priceless. 
    Rather than let our congregations jump the shark and grow beyond Dunbar’s number, let’s do spin off churches.  In a church plant, twenty or thirty members agree to take their pledges and their energy to found a satellite congregation.  The satellite group can rent a room and use taped sermons from the home church until they get a minister. They have both their own community and the resources of the home congregation.  When the satellite church expands to Dunbar’s number, it can spin off again.
    Grow the movement, but keep community.