FELLOWSHIP & Why Is Robin Dunbar Killing My Church!? #DunbarNumber

by Bob Whitesel, 4/4/14

One thing Donald McGavran emphasized is that we should not be shy about applying the sciences to our study of church health and growth. And the Dunbar Number can explain why many churches plateau in size.  Here Is how I explained the Dunbar Number at the request of a colleague of mine Dr. Gary McIntosh at Biola University:

The Dunbar number is a sociological theory (based in physiology) that people can best relate to an extended group of about 150 individuals. By keeping this in mind, factories have been created with under 150 employees where unity and self-identity are higher. This of course has ramifications for the church, and explains in my mind the cohesiveness of these church-style Dunbar groups:

> missional communities (3dm ministries and Mike Breen)

> sub-congregations, such as venues, multiple sites, campuses, Whitesel and Hunter in A House Divided (2001).

> clusters (St. Tom’s Church of Sheffield, see Whitesel “From Gathered to Scattered: St. Tom’s Church,” a chapter in Ryan K. Bolger, Gospel After Christendom, Baker Academic Books, 2010 (http://www.amazon.com/The-Gospel-after-Christendom-Expressions/dp/0801039436).  The proliferation of Dunbar-sized “clusters” seems to be an explanation for St. Tom’s rapid growth after losing their large venue, The Roxy in Sheffield, UK.

Thus, church growth may be helped by the the multiplication of Dunbar groups within a congregation.  Wikipedia has a good article on the Dunbar Number

Also, read this good overview in an article on the “Dunbar Number” by National Public Radio, titled: “Don’t Believe Facebook, You Only Have 150 Friends.”

Here are some quotes:  “MARTIN: The factories were capped at 150 people, and Bill Gore found things worked better. People knew each other. They worked better together. DUNBAR: Everybody had the same label on their jacket that said GORE-TEX Associate, and that was that. Everybody knew who was who – who was the manager, who was the accountant, who made the sandwiches for lunch. ”

A student of mine once responded:  “I can see how having multiple services to create community for groups of 150 people is necessary.  What I’m having trouble wrapping my mind around is how you avoid tensions and problems between the different community groups within the church.  In the example above the GORE-TEX associates knew who the manager was and the accountant was and so on…I wonder and I’m just guessing here, do problems arise because the multiple services leads to multiple ‘managers’ which leads to conflicting ideas and different needs that need to be met?”

Here is my response:

Hello (name); Yes, you are right, there is tension. But, by keeping people as part of the same church organizational structure you work out our differences.  The problem in most of today’s churches is when conflict arises we don’t address it, we just bless them and send them out to start a new church to their liking. This creates conflict-avoidance. Thus, churches become enclaves of unified, but uni-cultural people.  And as thus, many people can’t relate to our fractured nature.

The key is to have diversity, within one organization which then creates unity or E pluribus unum.  To obtain this, see the “Exercises for Unity” in The Healthy Church (2012)