Monday, November 17, 2008

Why churches are usually big or small

Scot McKnight is a college professor who writes a wonderful blog called Jesus Creed. Among several factors, one thing that makes Jesus Creed wonderful is that it is a true online community: there is a tight group of regular readers who read almost every post, comment frequently, and have actually gotten to know one another online. The tone of their discourse is civil and gracious, even when they disagree. Scot is a prolific writer, but he is also a master at moderating comments and regularly interacting with them.

In my view, Jesus Creed has become as close to an online “church” as it is (currently) possible to do so-- the readers are the congregation, and Scot is the Pastor, and he regularly feeds them from the Word and encourages them in the growth of their faith, while they learn and grow together in fellowship and discussion.

Scot recently had the opportunity to expand the reach of his blog, and after careful consideration, he took it. When he announced the changes that would take place (which included “moving” the blog to a large online community called BeliefNet), he got mixed reactions. Here is an example:

My concern about a lowered level of dialogue remains also. There is thoughtful, quality commentary in many of the actual articles on Beliefnet. But perusing the comments and looking at those ads mentioned above, Beliefnet feels more like the fast food station in Wal-Mart, while this blog has felt like a cozy community-owned cafe that has its own community-shaped culture. Maybe rather than the McDonalds in Wal-Mart, the Starbucks in Barnes and Noble is a more fair analogy to Beliefnet, I don't know. I'd still prefer the locally owned coffee shop with its own community based culture over the corporately created ambience of the B&N Starbucks. I hate the fact that this sounds snobbish. But the level of discourse here is one of the reasons I come, and if in order to find one thought provoking comment I have to wade through multiple posts that don't follow the basic rules of logic or show an awareness of how to make a point cogently while trying to ignore obnoxious advertisements, then I'll probably come less often.

This comparison-- small vs. big, community-based vs. corporate, local vs. chain, etc.-- reflects a common posture toward the church today, and one that is the fruit of social, psychological, and anthropological constructions. While the Jesus Creed blog
isn’t a church, it presents an interesting case-study that helps us understand why churches are usually big and growing larger, or small and staying so.

It turns out that we have built-in levels of capacity. Seven happens to be the highest number of memorable digits-- which is why the Bell company originally chose seven digits for telephone numbers: they wanted the highest number of digits possible that would still be something easily committed to memory. Psychologists have tested this and proven that, by and large, this is a built-in limit for most people. They call this “channel capacity.”

Our built-in limits to handling information affects us relationally, too. Anthropologist Robin Dunbar has developed extensive theories about what writer Malcolm Gladwell calls our “social channel capacities.” Here’s Gladwell describing Dunbar’s findings:

If you belong to a group of five people, Dunbar points out, you have to keep track of ten separate relationship; your relationships with the four others in your circle and the six other two-way relationships between the others. That’s what it means to know everyone else in the circle. You have to understand the personal dynamics of the group, juggle different personalities, keep people happy, manage the demands on your own time and attention, and so on. If you belong to a group of twenty people, however, there are now 190 two-way relationships to keep track of: 19 involving yourself and 171 involving the rest of the group. That’s a fivefold increase in the size of the group, but a twentyfold increase in the amount of information processing needed to “know” the other members of the group. Even a relatively small increase in the size of a group, in other words, creates a significant additional social and intellectual burden. [Malcolm Gladwell, The Tipping Point (New York: Little, Brown and Co., 2000), pp. 178-179.]

This inherent increase in complexity explains why growing groups appear to struggle, while static groups seem to be more consistently content: there is an intellectual and social challenge attached to growth that is correlated in an exponential way to the addition of members. For every single person added to the mix, that represents an additional challenge of much more than one more relationship-- and that addition increases with every new member.

Gladwell continues:

[Quoting Dunbar] “The figure of 150 seems to represent the maximum number of individuals with whom we can have a genuinely social relationship, the kind of relationship that goes with knowing who they are and how they relate to us. Putting it another way, it’s 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.”Dunbar has combed through anthropological literature and found that the number 150 pops up again and again. For example, he looks at 21 different hunter-gatherer societies for which we have solid historical evidence, from the Walbiri of Australia to the Tauade of New Guinea to the Ammassalik of Greenland to the Ona of Tierra del Fuego and found that the average number of people in their villages was 148.4. The same pattern holds true for military organization. “Over the years military planners have arrived at a rule of thumb which dictates that functional fighting units cannot be substantially larger than 200 men,” Dunbar writes. [Malcolm Gladwell, The Tipping Point (New York: Little, Brown and Co., 2000), pp. 179-180.]

So we’re beginning to get the point: we tend to cluster into groups of 150 or smaller. Does this apply to churches too?

Yes it does. One more quote from Gladwell:

Then there is the example of the religious group known as the Hutterites, who for hundreds of years have lived in self-sufficient agricultural colonies in Europe and, since the early twentieth century, in North America. The Hutterites (who came out of the same tradition as the Amish and the Mennonites) have a strict policy that every time a colony approaches 150, they split it in two and start 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 the Hutterite colony outside Spokane told me. “When things get larger than that, people become strangers to one another...” 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.” Gross spoke from experience. He had been in Hutterite colonies that had come hear to that magic number and seen firsthand how things had changed. “What happens when you get that big is that the group starts, just on its own, to form a sort of clan.” He made a gesture with his hands, as if to demonstrate division. “You get two or three groups within the larger group. That is something you really try to prevent, and when it happens it is a good time to branch out.” [Malcolm Gladwell, The Tipping Point (New York: Little, Brown and Co., 2000), pp. 180-181.]

This explains why the readership on Scot McKnight’s blog are antsy about the changes that will draw more readers and, by implication, commenters (who will become members of this online community). They have felt the struggle of that exponential increase in social/intellectual challenge before. They realize that it will happen again-- to a community that they love. They are acting on instinct.

This is also what happens in
any church-- especially an historically small congregation-- that experiences rapid growth. The original members push back instinctively. Pastors and leaders tend to dismiss this as a poor attitude toward growth, but what Gladwell wrote above suggests that it is more than that, and far more unconscious and innocent than that.

I’ll continue this post
tomorrow next time, when I’ll bring in the idea of churches that are big, how they got that way, and why some grow big while others don’t.

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