Sunday, April 29, 2012

Reboot Christianity: Dunbar's number and the organization of the local church

... Dunbar's Number, as it has come to be called, has been demonstrated time and time again by anthropologists, psychologists, and social scientists. It seems that one can only feel a sense of community and connectedness within a group of about 150 people.

I cannot help but think of the local church in relation to Dunbar's Number. In my life as a Christian, I have attended churches of all different sizes: first I attended a church with several thousand members in college; then my wife's home church (700); then a fast-growing evangelical church which began at 75 members and was over 350 when we left; and now I attend a church with perhaps 125-150 people on Sunday morning, including children.

What I have found is that Dunbar's Number holds just as true in churches as in any organization. I believe that this has some very practical influences on our Christian faith.

And the observations include the following:

The modern American church, however, is focused almost exclusively on expanding and building huge churches: the biggest argument among most evangelical leaders is whether their tens of thousands of church members should gather in a huge sports arena each Sunday morning, or have multiple services, or form multiple campuses. Rarely (if ever) will you hear a modern pastor say that he wants a maximum of 150 people and, if we have more, then we need to plant a new church! (The last church I attended got close: they recognized that around 150-200 was the most that they could handle; however, this was approached at their church not through church planting with independent staff, but instead through multiple services and campuses.)

Michael Belote adds a few other observations but I'll still with citing these paragraphs.
Something that could be discussed is whether or not Belote's arguments from Dunbar's number constitutes a kind of argument from natural law and whether or not that is necessarily considered a legitimate basis of argument for smaller churches. Obviously someone already committed to a megachurch will be likely to disagree for pragmatic reasons. Having been in a church where a stated committment to the Dunbar number principle was provided as a reason to not let services get too big transformed unceremoniously over time into a rationalization of multisite and something called videology princples and rationales can definitely change over time.

Some organizations have the goal of gaining as many numbers through conversion and/or assimilation as quickly as possible and for entities like that the Dunbar number and line of argument will be relatively meaningless.  Small group participation could be considered more crucial for churches regardless of size.  I am not sure that small group participation really solidifies any local community except in two broad cases, where real and mutual affinity develops and where sheer committment in advance to the ideology and collective identity of the social unit trumps an obvious lack of mutual affinity or social cohesion.  I've seen both kinds of small group in my life within the church and it does not take a rocket scientist to figure out which group is more fun. You might say that "fun" is not the goal but I wonder if a "Christian hedonist" would be able to follow that line of argument to its reductio ad absurdum conclusion. Granted, I wouldn't categorize myself as a Christian hedonist but even I don't presume to say that a person should go to a small group just to be in a small group. There are other ways of obtaining Christian fellowship and accountability, after all.

What a group joined by affinity and convenience may lack in authenticity in the eys of some will be through what others consider a lack of pedantic and perfunctory attempts to manufacture community on the other. Of course in neither case will the resulting community be in any necessary way authentic (or think "authentic", for the sake of that point) but community whether it may be consider authentic or inauthentic, involves a lot of work. 

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