01 November 2012

Dunbar and 130 to 160

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The Dunbar Number represents the size limit for meaningful social interaction with others. We need to be careful that we don't have so many church friends that we have no remaining capacity for close social connections with neighbours and others.

Prof Robin DunbarThere is a value called the 'Dunbar Number' which is about 150. Robin Dunbar, a British anthropologist and pschologist, proposed that this was a natural limit to human group size. He wrote that it is ...
... a cognitive limit to the number of individuals with whom any one person can maintain stable relationships, 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.

In other words, groups much larger then 150 are too large for the members to know one another in a continuous and meaningful way. We simply cannot interact regularly with more people than this. We may know about other people and we may meet other people but we can't really get to know them adequately in a social sense. Knowing someone personally involves spending time with them more or less regularly and 150 is the approximate limit of our ability to do this.

In church life - So in a church context, although we might meet in larger numbers than this, we can expect to only properly know a subset of the people present. And if we regularly socialise with 150 church friends, we will not have much capacity remaining to socialise with neighbours, work colleagues, or the other people we meet day by day. And that is a problem.

Why is it a problem? Simply because we are supposed to be making disciples! We can only make disciples by spending time with the people around us in a social context. To do so our existing regular social group needs to be smaller than the Dunbar number of 150. If we maximise the number of friends we have in the church, we are automatically minimising the number we can maintain in the world. And we do not go into the church to make disciples, but into the world.

Practical suggestions - My advice is to expect church to involve smaller numbers, two or three, six to twenty, and for special purposes sixty to eighty. Meanwhile, focus some effort on having good social involvement with as many non-church people as possible. These will include your wider family, your neighbours and those you share an interest with or work alongside. These are the pools in which you may discover future disciples.

Recognise that good fellowship is possible with the twos and threes and with the sixes to twenties. Do you really need more than that? Weigh up the benefits and the costs of larger church groups than these. What will be gained and what will be lost if your entire capacity to socialise is spent within the church community?

Questions:
  • If you meet regularly with others in a group this size, how many would you say are your friends?
  • How do you relate to the others, those who are not close friends?
  • Are there arrangements to meet in smaller groups at other times? Does this help?

See also:

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