How Many Friends Can You Have?

Mashable reports on the work of British anthropologist and evolutionary biologist Robin Dunbar, who says your brain can only cope with one hundred and fifty friends. (This is supposed to be the link to the interview in The Times but I can’t make it work.) The Mashable piece applies this to the (ridiculous?) number of people some folk ‘friend’ on Facebook, but also gives examples from industry of companies that know and understand this principle, for example Gore and its breaking down of employees into small teams so that people still know each other.

But if Dunbar is right, what are the implications for church life? The size, structure and leadership of churches would all be affected, and perhaps we already know this implicitly in Christian circles.

So currently when stationing ministers (something of which I’ve had recent experience) my denomination looks for an appointment where a minister looks after about one hundred and eighty church members. A probationer minister’s appointment ideally has one hundred and fifty. (These are figures my Chair of District told me.) Even if these ratios have been arrived at out of necessity, simply by dividing the number of members nationally by the total number of ministers, pragmatically we have ended up in quite a good place if members want to feel known.

It isn’t quite as simple as that, of course, at least speaking from the minister’s side. It is complicated by other factors. One is the number of churches the members are spread across: three churches of fifty members create more bureaucracy for a minister than one of a hundred and fifty.

Also, a minister has a huge number of existing friends from outside the current locality as a result of all that has preceded in his or her life. I’m not generally one who makes tons of friends in ‘real life’ – usually it’s a few deep friends. However my moves and travels in life mean I currently have 278 friends on Facebook. Some while ago, Debbie and I said that before we move on from Chelmsford this coming summer, we will delete some of our Facebook friends with whom we don’t expect to continue having any meaningful contact. We’d rather use Facebook largely for keeping in contact with people we really know rather than seeing it as some kind of competition to prove we have lots of friends.

Dunbar’s 150 may also help explain why some churches stop growing around that figure. Church Growth literature used to affirm in the 1970s and 80s that this was the numerical limit to which a sole minister could generally grow a church. (Not that I wish to downplay the rôle of the Holy Spirit, you understand.) More staff would be needed. Equally, it is a point of resistance in some congregations, because some members say they don’t want a church to grow to the kind of size where not everybody knows everyone else. Therefore at this stage important questions of strategy come into play. How does the church continue to grow while honouring the need for relationships? Does it grow as one entity with a lot of smaller units, like Gore? Does it divide into more than one church?

I’d be intrigued to know if anyone reading this has any experiences or observations on this matter. Does this sound about right to you, or are there glaring holes?


  1. Good post Dave – Seth Godin mentioned this a few weeks ago, and I blogged about it, along similar lines to you:

    A couple of concerns: – as you say, church leaders also have friends outside of the church. So an optimum size of ‘tribe’ for what church leaders can relate to is less than Dunbars number. If we have a structure which requires everyone to know a single church leader, then that will naturally stall any church from growing to more than 120 or so.

    For the church members, that’s also an issue – many churches are so busy that members struggle to maintain a social life outside church meetings.

    Our church is currently at 120 members, part of the limit is that our building only holds 100, but it’s been bumping along at that level for several years…


    1. Good points, David. In my experience it has often been the aspiration of small church members to feel that the minister knows everybody, and even in those churches it isn’t always possible.

      As for the busy church = no social life outside the church, that’s exactly why I’ve become more and more committed to a missional rather than attractional approach to church, combined with as simple a church structure as possible (be that cell church or something else). When a Christian’s social life is organised around church activities, that is usually – in my opinion – a disaster.


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