The Church of Dunbar

In the past I liked big churches. The bigger the better thought I. Large amounts of people both bring in the cash as well as provide more opportunities for efficient use of resources. I once attended a large church (700-800 people) for some ten years.

Now I don't like big churches, and the reason is biblical. The pastor of a church needs to have a relationship with those he ministers to - and by that I mean some level of relationship whereby a person has had a one-to-one conversation. The larger the church, the less likely it is that he can minister to them effectively at this level.

Titus 2.7-8 says Show yourself in all respects to be a model of good works, and in your teaching show integrity, dignity and sound speech that cannot be condemned.... These words were written about church leaders, and the idea of modelling godliness is something which is integral to those who would be pastors. If there are people in your church that you cannot "model" your godliness to, then that is a problem. Pastors therefore have a dual role in teaching - they teach in word as they preach, and they teach in action as they relate to people.

The problem is that the bigger the church (in terms of numbers of people), the less chance the pastor has in relating to people. Moreover, in modern churches there exists a "bureaucracy" of leadership whereby lower level leaders have the opportunity to "relate" to the ordinary church-goer while all the pastor needs to do is to "relate" to his staff and lay leaders. This is dangerous because it means that, firstly, the pastor does not understand or relate to ordinary church members, and, secondly, that those he does relate to are those who depend upon him for their position. In other words, the larger the church and the bigger the leadership bureaucracy, the less likely it is for the pastor to model good works and the more likely it is for ungodly leadership to develop.

Big churches also pose a problem in terms of relationships. The bigger the church, the more potential relationships develop. Moreover, this increase in relationships is exponential. The amount of relationships that can occur is determined by the formula r = P x (P-1), whereby P = the amount of people. So, in a group of 5 people, a total of 20 relationships can be formed. In a church of 50 people, 2450 relationships are possible. In a church of 100 people, 9900 relationships are possible.

Of course, what all of this indicates is that the greater the amount of people, the more difficult it is for people to maintain the relationships they have and the harder it is to initiate new relationships. Bigger churches thus allow people to come along and be anonymous - in other words, relationships between people become more difficult the more people there are.

And this is where Dunbar's number comes into play:
Dunbar's number, which is 150, represents a theorized cognitive limit to the number of individuals with whom any one person can maintain stable social relationships, the kind of relationships that goes with knowing who each person is and how each person relates socially to every other person. Group sizes larger than this generally require more restricted rules, laws, and enforced policies and regulations to maintain a stable cohesion. Dunbar's number is a significant value in sociology and anthropology. Proposed by British anthropologist Robin Dunbar, it indicates the "cognitive limit to the number of individuals with whom any one person can maintain stable relationships". Dunbar theorizes that "this limit is a direct function of relative neocortex size, and that this in turn limits group size ... the limit imposed by neocortical processing capacity is simply on the number of individuals with whom a stable inter-personal relationship can be maintained." On the periphery, the number 150 also includes past colleagues and high school friends that a person would want to reacquaint themselves with if they met again.
This quote (from Wikipedia) basically points out what we know in practice - that relationships become more difficult the bigger the group becomes.

I have two sorts of relationships - I have relationships with those at church and relationships with those who don't go to my church. It would be very strange if a person's circle of relationships were limited to church members (although this is probably common practice amongst cults).

We need to remember that a church is a community. Moreover, we need to remember that there are physical limits to the amount of relationships individuals can effectively maintain. If a church becomes big, the sheer amount of people will actually hinder the natural love that can be fostered within the group.

If we take Dunbar's number as being correct, and if we understand that each person has a web of relationships that exist outside the church, and if we understand the need to welcome newcomers properly into our midst, then what do we come up with?

Dunbar's number is not a biblically determined number. Even Dunbar himself would have argued that the 150 number is merely arbitrary and that other determinants like culture and age might influence it.

What Dunbar's number confirms for us is that large churches are not as good for the gospel as we might wish to believe. While tiny churches have problems of their own, we probably need to recognise that churches become ineffective at developing quality relationships once it goes beyond a certain size. Moreover, because relationships become less effective as the church grows larger, you could also argue that the church's ability to communicate the gospel to unbelievers is similarly affected.

Why is it that McDonalds doesn't have a regional restaurant? Why not have a mega McDonalds rather than one very few suburbs as they do now? I would probably hazard a guess that the strategy McDonalds has has worked out that smaller restaurants spread across many suburbs is more profitable than having one large regional restaurant - even if the large regional restaurant is impressive in and of itself.

In the same way we also need to realise that churches should have an "upper limit" that is not just determined by building size, but also by human relationships. The way the New Testament shows us is that pastors need to have positive relationships with church members in order for them to model godliness. While the NT doesn't give us Dunbar's number as a clear line not to cross, it is clear that anything which hinders both the pastor's natural relationships with his church members, and the church member's ability to relate to one another, would constitute a direction in which the biblical commands would be harder to keep.

In other words, the larger a church becomes, the harder it is for a church to maintain itself in a godly way. Churches should therefore seriously consider planting new churches once they reach a certain size, rather than moving into bigger buildings.

Ray informs me that my maths is wrong and he should know since he is a maths teacher. The formula should be r=(p x (p-1) ) / 2.


BLBeamer said...

Good thoughts. You've touched on one of my biggest objections to large churches: the challenge of maintaining Biblical discipline. When there are so many people, it is very difficult for the leaders to know whether or not sin needs to be addressed in the lives of individual members.

One Salient Oversight said...

Please note that the mathematical formula I gave was wrong. I have corrected it above.

One Salient Oversight said...

Spot on there Beamer, although I would also argue that it cuts both ways - not only are members more likely to "get away with" sin, so is the pastor. Surely the congregation itself has a responsibility to keep their own pastor accountable.

BLBeamer said...

I agree, but you had already mentioned the possibility for ungodly leadership to develop, so I didn't address that.

Justin said...

OSO --

Couldn't agree more. I wrote about it HERE and HERE.

I'd like to know which church you are at, OSO. I did MTS in 92-94 in Newcastle in the early days of Hunter Bible Church (It wasn't called that then.)

PS. Paul Barnett responded to your comment on Craig's Blog.

One Salient Oversight said...

Charlestown Presbyterian