Two years ago, one of the fringe meetings at July’s session of the General Synod focussed on the needs of ‘mid-sized churches’, in this case defined as worshipping communities of 20 to 60. The reason for this was a question that William Nye, Secretary General of Synod and the Archbishops’ Council, had raised:
Without meaning to, a lot of the time, we, the national church institutions, just default to thinking about bigger churches, because a lot of people’s picture of the norm of the church is a vicar and about 100 people on a Sunday morning. We have overlooked this middle third. Lots of staff at Church House, lots of bishops, come up through bigger churches, worship in bigger churches; bishops have led bigger churches.
I suspect some would have questions about whether this size was really the middle, or the smaller end, but it has obvious implications for church growth, as the Church Times article points out:
Arithmetic done by staff at Church House suggests that, if each of the 5,000 mid-sized churches gained an extra five people, the Church of England’s decline would be reversed. About 200,000 people worship in these churches, which serve a population of 16 million.
In the session, I did point out that, from my experienced of being a member of a church of around 50 membership in Southampton, and then being involved in larger churches, one of the challenges for the smaller or ‘mid-sized’ churches was that of resource. There is quite a strong expectation in contemporary culture that things will be done ‘well’ on a Sunday morning, and that means that a church community needs to be comparatively well organised and well resourced, which can be a struggle for smaller churches. It was not intended to be a criticism (though seemed to be taken as one!) but indicates that partnership between congregations might be a key question.
All this does raise the question of what is the idea size for a local church and why. Online discussion covers a range of issues. Some discussions focus on practical and technical issues; and this short summary describes an average attendance of around 100 ‘small’, which reflects its North American context. Church growth guru Carey Nieuwhof says that his short exploration of what keeps ‘small’ (less than 200 attendance) churches small is his most-read article—but I thought it interesting that he focusses almost exclusively on technical, structural issues, particularly around how leadership is organised.
The shift from structural issues to issues of relationship comes when we think about leadership and resourcing in more personal terms. One blog discussion from a Reformed perspective makes this observation:
There are several things to think about simultaneously. One way to go at this problem is to ask what is the ideal ratio of pastors to congregants? I was told in seminary that the ideal is one pastor for everyone hundred people. My experience as a pastor over the last 25 years suggests that this is a good ratio. If this is true, then, so long as a congregation is well staffed, theoretically, it could grow as large as it wanted. Others, however, have argued that about 200 to 250 is the ideal number of people in the congregation and that after a congregation reaches 200 to 250 people it should begin daughtering new congregations.
This is both a relational and a resource question: how many full-time leaders/pastors do you need for a congregation—and how many can you afford? The question of financing ministry, which is therefore also a question of the sustainability of smaller congregations, is easily avoided in the C of E because of the way that financial structures share resources. That can be very good, since it enables the C of E to sustain ministry in areas and contexts that other denominations have withdrawn from. But it can also be very bad, since it can allow us to avoid hard questions about what is going on in ministry and congregational leadership in different places.
A recent article by Ed Stetzer in Christianity Today magazine touched on some key relational issues:
Another advantage for churches of over 100 is the anonymity factor. Visitors and new attendees are able to come in and sit towards the back or in a place where they are most comfortable. They don’t have to sit right next to a stranger or walk to the front of the church to find an empty row.
Of course, there may be disadvantages to this as well. People may visit your church for weeks and go completely unnoticed because of the size. This is very unhelpful for the health and growth of the church. If you sense this is an issue in your church, it is time for you to form a plan make sure people feel seen and welcomed when they visit you.
It can also be more difficult for people to visit churches with less than 100 seats. Small congregations may feel more like cliques, drawing attention to the fact that visitors are ‘outsiders’ who are new to the group. If you are a smaller church, how are you handling this? If you don’t have a plan to welcome people in without making them feel uncomfortable, it is time to make one. In such a small church size, you need to work hard to make people feel welcome and show that you love them.
I think Stetzer is right to see anonymity as both a good and a bad thing; some people just want to slip into church at the back to explore, before being confronted with the full obligations of involvement, and I think this is often missed in discussions about relationship and size.
Some discussions do take a fully relational perspective, like this comment on a discussion board:
My own personal opinion is that a church should be between 80-120 members. When a church exceeds 100 members it becomes a bit more difficult to get to know everyone and the sense of close fellowship can be lost. With 80-120 members it is still big enough to be self supporting. My own personal view is that when a church reaches the 120 mark it should set aside around 40 members to be a church plant in a different nearby location. That church in turn will grow and plant.
So we have a variety of answers, considering a range of issues. But is there somewhere to look that might give us a more objective insight into the dynamics of this kind of human community? The New Testament does not give us direct answers, since it is less interested in numbers and structures compared with issues of theology and missional dynamics. But this theological perspective offers us two pointers. First, the ‘church’ (in the New Testament ekklesia) is about the formation of human community. Part of the clue to this is found in the extensive discussions of relationship dynamics, both in Acts and in the writings of Paul and others in the New Testament, with organic metaphors of the ‘body’, relational language of ‘incorporation’ into Christ, and even the metaphor of being ‘living stones, built into a temple’ (1 Peter 2.5). But the term ekklesia is also key; rather than having the institutional or architectural implications that the word ‘church’ has today, it draws on both the Greek meaning of the gathering of citizens in a polis as well as the gathered people of Israel in the Greek translation of the Old Testament. (That is why the AV often mentions the ‘congregation of Israel’ within the OT narratives.)
But the early Jesus movement was not just any human community; NT writers understood it as involving the recreation of humanity as God had intended, and the ‘new creation’ (2 Cor 5.17) in anticipation of God’s renewal of the whole of the created order. Although we can see that this community was clearly not perfect and not without its problems, nevertheless it modelled something of the ideal of the new humanity in Jesus, for example in the sharing of possessions in Acts 2.42f.
There is therefore a good reason why we might look to the natural dynamics of human community, that is, to anthropology, for insights into the ideal size of a local church.
A recent episode of The Life Scientific, hosted by Jim Al-Khalili, comprised an interview with Professor of Evolutionary Psychology Robin Dunbar. Dunbar started his academic life exploring the social dynamics of gelada monkeys in the Ethiopian highlands, living with a group of 500 of them for most of his 20s! (It is worth listening to the whole episode.) One aspect of their social life that particularly struck him was the amount of time the monkeys spent grooming, something that it is easy to notice amongst primates when you watch any wildlife film. At the time, there were two major and competing theories: the purpose of grooming was about hygiene; and the purpose was about building social relationships. Dunbar wanted to decide which of these was most important, and had to think about how this might be tested. So he analysed the amount of time spent in grooming and compared it with two things—primate body size, and the complexity of social relationships. He found no correlation with body size, but what appeared to be a clear correlation with social complexity. In other words, if you are going to maintain a complex society, you need to invest time in building a wide range of strong relationships.
This led him on to consider a wider issue of why different primate groups have different levels of complexity in their social organisation. Complexity has advantages, for example the sharing of resources and the ability to protect one another. But it also makes higher demands, since (in essence) you need to be smarter to manage complex relationships. So Dunbar compared brain size with size of social group, found there was a clear correlation, so extrapolated up to the size of the human cortex, and arrived at Dunbar’s number: 147 (usually rounded to 150). He believed that this was, in principle, the optimal number for human social groups—and in fact found numerous historical examples of human social groups naturally settling into this size. The number has been sufficiently important that some businesses have even organised their offices into groups of this size.
Although this number is the best-known aspect of his work, Dunbar actually sees human interaction in a more nuanced and textured way. In a reflection on why social drinking is so important in many human cultures, he makes this comment:
Our studies suggest that we devote about 40 per cent of our available social time (and the same proportion of our emotional capital) to an inner core of about five shoulders-to-cry-on. And we devote another 20 per cent to the next 10 people who are socially most important to us. In other words, about two-thirds of our total social effort is devoted to just 15 people. That is a very substantial commitment, and amounts to an average of about two hours a day. It makes it all the more necessary that what we do with them is fun, otherwise they won’t keep coming back for more.
From an anthropological, psychological and social perspective, he sees human relationships clustering around the group sizes of 5, 15 and 150, and in fact in other conversation adds a mid-sized group of around 50.
There are two intriguing things to note about this structuring of community in relation to the question of the ideal church size.
The first is that there is some evidence in the New Testament of this kind of differentiated numerical structure. It is often noted that, amongst the twelves apostles (making 13 altogether, not far from Dunbar’s second number), Jesus was particularly close to Peter, James and John, these being the ones he took with him up the mountain at his transfiguration. There are good arguments that the ‘beloved disciple’ who is the writer of the fourth gospel, was not one of the Twelve, but a disciple based in Jerusalem, and that would give us a core group of close friends of five, in Jesus, Peter, James, John and the Beloved Disciple. The 72 sent on ‘mission’ in Luke 10 are not far off Dunbar’s third number, though there are other obvious symbolic reasons for this number, being half of 144. In Acts 1.15, the number of ‘brothers’ is around 120, though it is not clear whether this includes the women who were there or not, adelphoi being used as a generic term for followers of Jesus.
It is also worth noting that in the first century you need 10 adult Jewish men to form a synagogue, and adding in wives and children that would get you to around Dunbar’s third number. This is also the kind of size of many early Christian communities meeting in large houses, according to Peter Oakes in his exploration of the practical dynamics of Christian meetings in Reading Romans in Pompeii.
(In the one discussion I did find of church size in relation to Dunbar’s main number, Howard Snyder notes the correlation of this number with his observations of congregational dynamics—but he does not mention Dunbar’s other numerical observations.)
Returning to our opening question: what is the ideal size of a church or congregation? Well, actually is it all of 5, 15, 50 and 150. If we want to encourage genuine growth, encouragement and accountability, there is nothing quite like have a small group or 4 or 5 that meets regularly; at St Nic’s where we belong, these are called ‘core groups’. But the ‘home group’ of 12 to 15 has had a good track record, as a place for more general learning and mutual support since they became popular in the charismatic renewal from the end of the 1960s. Sandy Miller told us at a church weekend away that ‘pastorates’ of around 40, not far from Dunbar’s third number, has been key in not only church growth but the nurture of leaders in the HTB network—and this corresponds to the ‘mid-sized church’ that we began with. And once you reach 150 as a congregation, it is probably time to think about church planting, a strategy which the C of E now appears to be taking to heart.
In a previous discussion about this, one contributor Richard Saunders-Hindley commented:
I am part the Inspire Movement, a growing ecumenical and international discipleship movement which draws on John Wesley’s wisdom. Wesley organized the movement into Societies (probably around 50), Classes (12-15) and Bands (3-6). The premise of Inspire is ‘mission spirituality’, i.e. growing as disciples in order to spread the gospel. The heart of Inspire is the Fellowship Band of 3 or 4, in which people can forge deeper relationships and be accountable to one another in their discipleship. Larger groups of 12 and bigger gatherings of 30+ fit naturally into this pattern. The Wesleyan focus on the Spirit-filled transformation of individuals through the deep, accountable fellowship of the church, and then the sharing of that transformation in evangelistic mission points to the importance of smaller, more intimate groups that focus on spiritual growth. I encourage anyone to consider this approach in their church strategy.
These things matter because, when it comes to the kingdom of God, relationships matter. Numbers matter because numbers represent people, and people matter.
(A previous version of this article was published in 2019.)