Have you ever heard of “Dunbar’s number“? Here’s a quick summary from Wikipedia:
The rule of 150 suggests that the typical size of a social network is constrained to about 150 members due to possible limits in the capacity of the human communication channel. The rule arises from cross-cultural studies in sociology and especially anthropology of the maximum size of a village. It is theorized . . . that the number may be some kind of limit of average human ability to recognize members and track emotional facts about all members of a group. However, it may be due to economics and the need to track “free riders“, as it may be easier in larger groups to take advantage of the benefits of living in a community without contributing to those benefits.
You can read more about it in a recently poplular book “The Tipping Point” (M. Gladwell), ch. 5, where the author points to military standards, corporate policies, and even Hutterite colonies to substantiate his claim that we are “hard-wired” to function best in small communities. For example:
The Hutterites… have a strict policy that every time a colony approaches 150, they split it in two and star a new one. “Keeping things under 150 just seems to be the best and most efficient way to manage a group of people,” Bill Gross, one of the leaders of a Hutterite colony outside Spokane told me. “When things get larger than that, people become strangers to one another.” The Hutterites, obviously, didn’t get this idea from contemporary social psychology. They’ve been following the 150 rule for centuries. But their rationale fits perfectly with Dunbar’s theories. At 150, the Hutterites believe, something happens — something indefinable but very real — that somehow changes the nature of community overnight. “In smaller groups people are a lot closer. They’re knit together, which is very important if you want to be effective and successful at community life,” Gross said. “If you get too large, you don’t have enough work in common. You don’t have enough things in common, and then you start to become strangers and that close-knit fellowship starts to get lost.”
Churches have been riding the wave of “small groups” for the last couple decades (with fairly questionable Scriptural grounding, I might suggest). Perhaps the model we really ought to be promoting is one of small clans. I’m not the first one to sugggest such a thought, but it’s worth considering. (Personally, I can testify that I developed deeper bonds and spiritual growth in a group of 100 college kids than I ever did in a “small group” — or a large congregation.) What I’m suggesting is, perhaps a ministry strategy worth exploring for the coming year could be: how can we subdivide our growing congregations into smaller, tightly-knit fellowship communities where a few score people can regularly connect in lasting, meaningful ways? (Just don’t call them Sunday School classes!!)