The Numbers Behind Community
Dr. James Emery White
- 2022 Feb 03
One of the most important tasks for any leader is the building of community for whatever group they might lead. Whether school, business, team or church, a deep sense of community is one of the most sought-after outcomes. It is also one of the most attractive to those on the outside of the group contemplating whether to explore the group.
So, what are the numbers behind achieving community? For example, if you have a church of 300 people, is community achieved if, and only if, all 300 are in a healthy and intimate relationship with each other? No. Healthy, sure, but not intimate.
Does that answer surprise you? It shouldn’t. Every human life has a certain relational capacity. You can only know and be known by a limited number of people. Your social life has a biological limit, and that limit is approximately 150. Known as “Dunbar’s Number,” proposed by the British psychologist Robin Dunbar three decades ago, 150 is the number of people with whom you can have meaningful relationships. As Dunbar once put it, this is “the number of people you would not feel embarrassed about joining uninvited for a drink if you happened to bump into them in a bar.”
Writing about this in his book The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell found that military planners have arrived at a similar rule of thumb in regard to functional fighting units—that they can’t be larger than approximately 200 men. He also noted how the Hutterites have been following the 150 number for centuries. They have a strict policy that every time a colony approaches 150, they split it in two and start a new one.
But that only reflects the number of people we know well enough to greet or interact with without feeling awkward. Our most intimate, connected relationships are further limited to between five to 15 individuals. The larger the circle, the less sincere and meaningful the relationships become.
This has implications for all communities, but I’ll stick with the church.
As a church planter, I knew from the very beginning that there was a community dynamic that would have to be solved if the church were to not only establish itself but grow. For example, I could personally and optimally “pastor” about a hundred or so people. We had 112 at our first service, which means the church outgrew me on day one. I quickly learned that my job was not to personally pastor everyone, but rather to make sure that everyone was appropriately cared for. Interestingly, I had long been told by more seasoned pastors that you needed to have a full-time staff person helping to care for the church for about every 150 you had in attendance.
They were right.
Further, as the church came together and continued to grow, I knew the goal was not for everyone to know everyone, but for everyone to know someone. There’s a difference. The church wasn’t responsible for the entire relational world of our attenders (the 150), much less the entire relationally intimate world of our attenders (the 15). People came to the church with friends and family already in place. They wanted relationships in the church, but most did not need the church to provide all of their relationships.
What they needed was a sense of community within the church. Faces who knew their name, and faces whose names they knew. Long before I knew of Dunbar’s number, I had an intuitive sense that we needed to get new attenders networked with a handful of people within the first few months of their involvement or they would begin to drift. Even one or two others who they could gravitate toward, no matter the size of the crowd, and be greeted by and engaged.
If your church mindset is that true community means everybody knowing everybody, then any growth that results in them not knowing everybody will be resisted. I don’t believe you’ll find that definition of community in the Scriptures, and certainly not informing the mission of the Church. The very birth of the Church – 3,000 converts in a single day – went way beyond anything nametags could have served.
Growing churches are good at this. They know they don’t have to be a place where, as the old Cheers sitcom theme song put it, “everybody knows your name.” They know they need to be a place where somebody knows your name. They are constantly offering events and experiences, classes and groups, activities and gatherings that afford the opportunity to meet other people – often informally. The goal is to have some of the 150 relational slots filled by those within the church, and perhaps as many as two or three of the most intimate relationships. They understand that the goal of community is micro in nature, not macro.
The goal is to network people who are new to the community with others who are in the community. And ideally, with others who are also new to the community. If you think of it in terms of LEGO blocks, most people in your church already have all of the connecting points filled with existing relationships. They don’t have any room for more. So, the best way to foster community is to network the new with the new.
Knowing the numbers behind community means you don’t have to make the entire church into a single community as much as make the entire church into a number of community networks that come together as a larger community.
So don’t look at a crowd and feel overwhelmed;
… look at a person and introduce them to someone.
James Emery White
Ian Bogost, “People Aren’t Meant to Talk This Much,” The Atlantic, October 22, 2021, read online.
“Dunbar’s Number,” Wikipedia, read online.
Malcolm Gladwell, The Tipping Point.
About the Author
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunct professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His latest book After “I Believe” is now available on Amazon or your favorite bookseller. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church & Culture blog, visit ChurchAndCulture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram @JamesEmeryWhite.
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and a former professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president.
His latest book, After “I Believe,” is now available on Amazon or your favorite bookseller. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church & Culture blog, visit churchandculture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive, read the latest church and culture news from around the world, and listen to the Church & Culture Podcast.
Follow Dr. White on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram at @JamesEmeryWhite.