This is a question that every growing church or organization has to ask itself. This is especially an issue in churches (like mine) where one of the "growth engines" is relationships or fellowship or community or however you want to describe it. It's kind of ironic that people are drawn to community yet the more people that are drawn the harder it is to maintain; the very thing that draws people to the church is endangered by them being drawn into it.
As I've been thinking about these sorts of things over the past year or so, I keep coming back to Dunbar's Number: 148. Robin Dunbar is a British anthropologist who has stated that 147.8(usually just referred to as 150) is the "cognitive limit to the number of individuals with whom any one person can maintain stable relationships." Of course, he has done a crazy amount of research pointing from primate colonies to hunter/gatherer groups and tribalism, to military organizations (Ancient Rome's military units were 150 strong), etc...
Dunbar has given a pretty large margin of error for his number but has a "95% confidence interval of 100 to 230." As our church attendance nears 200+ I begin to wonder, "what do we do now?" This last year I met a pastor from BC whose church had planted several times. He said that once they got close to 150 they began preparing to split and plant a new church. I have no idea why he chose 150 but it does line up with Dunbar's number.
The fact is that the bigger a church gets the more likely (and maybe even necessary?) it is that cliques form in order for people to maintain a sense of closeness and connectedness with at least some people in the church. After all, if you can't get to know everyone you have to know someone.
Outside of the church there is a movement called "Neo-Tribalism" which is partially based on Dunbar's Number. This is a movement of people who say that, with the increase of globalization, the foundations of society have fallen apart. To combat this they have formed "tribes" of people who live (literally or even virtually) together. They base many of their principles on the teachings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and others.
Christian Anthropologist David W. Shenk describes in his book, "Global Gods" the strengths of African Tribalism. He says that tribalism can be summarized as "'I am because we are, and we are because I am.' The person can exist only in community, and community can thrive only through the harmonious involvement of the person. The relationship between the person and the community is reciprocal, creative, and life enhancing."
I think it is safe to say that life in our contemporary society is far from "reciprocal, creative, and life enhancing."
What do you think?
So where does that leave each one of us?
What about the church?
How big is too big?
What do you think about Dunbar's Number?
What do you think of Neo-Tribalism?