Blog Archives

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?

Pope Benedict: Thou Shalt Blog

I picked up from Mashable the Pope’s message of three days ago encouraging and urging Catholic priests to use the digital realm and especially social media as tools for the Gospel. His whole message is here. I just thought I’d pick out one of two things I liked about Benedict’s approach:

Firstly, in addition to all the language of ‘proclamation’ and ‘catechesis’, he talks about ‘dialogue’ and being ‘faithful witnesses’. It seems to me these are important approaches on the web, especially in the social media. They are digital conversation tools more than digital proclamation tools. Within that, he sees the opportunity for the use of ancient wisdom.

Secondly, there was an image that I think builds helpfully on that attitude. Near the end he says,

Just as the prophet Isaiah envisioned a house of prayer for all peoples (cf. Is 56:7), can we not see the web as also offering a space – like the “Court of the Gentiles” of the Temple of Jerusalem – for those who have not yet come to know God?

I like that idea. Jesus was so taken with the ‘Court of the Gentiles’ that he defended it against the moneychangers.

With all this, the Pope brings a healthy Christian ethic to the Internet and social media. Elsewhere, he says:

In my Message last year, I encouraged leaders in the world of communications to promote a culture of respect for the dignity and value of the human person. This is one of the ways in which the Church is called to exercise a “diaconia of culture” on today’s “digital continent”.

Again, all good stuff.  He calls for competence and spirituality to go hand in hand, the latter leading the former, for he calls priests

to use these technologies in a competent and appropriate way, shaped by sound theological insights and reflecting a strong priestly spirituality grounded in constant dialogue with the Lord.

OK, as a ‘Protestant’ I’d express it slightly differently, but the core point would be the same.

So a big thumbs-up from me to Benedict XVI today. Let’s hope other Christian traditions can be as positive as he is.

Sabbatical, Day 78: Susan Boyle

Let me be the last blogger in the world to comment on the Susan Boyle phenomenon. This is the famous YouTube clip, with now somewhere around thirty million viewings in a week:

Visible Measures has more detailed stats. That clip is more popular than the Iraqi journalist throwing shoes at George W Bush, Tina Fey’s impersonation of Sarah Palin, and Barack Obama’s victory speech.

And here is the 1999 recording she made of ‘Cry Me A River’, uncovered by the Daily Record and thought to be her only CD recording so far:

She’s being reported on even across the Pond in the Huffington PostMashable speculates she might be the biggest YouTube sensation ever. And so on.

The core of the story is, of course, that she is a forty-seven-year-old single Christian woman who has ‘never been kissed’. Her appearance is not one that displays conventional beauty. Some have taken to calling her the ‘hairy angel’. Even the official website admits the judges had probably made up their minds negatively about her before she began singing. However, they were then blown away by her voice. Piers Morgan and Amanda Holden were on their feet before she finished her audition song. Simon Cowell added his imprimatur at the end. 

My thoughts? First of all, in my experience, the Christian church has got Susan Boyles tucked away all over the place. Whatever we have by way of cheesy worship bands or choirs filled with members who remember when they had strong voices, we also have a collection of people with Susan’s kind of talent. Not only in the sense of her singing ability, but also with their commitment – like her – to quiet community work that benefits not them but those they serve. Like Susan, it may be to elderly people who don’t matter in the demographics of the advertising world. But they are there, and as Christians we should celebrate these people – their talents used in the service of God, both directly in worship and through love of neighbour as expression of love for God. 

Secondly, the Huffington Post article linked above refers to her as an example of the meek inheriting the earth – so appropriate, considering her faith, and so pleasantly surprising from such a renowned secular liberal source. The writer and commenters celebrate the triumph of someone on the grounds of raw talent rather than image and physical beauty. So let’s think about that.

For one thing, yes, this is the way God sees people – God looks at the heart, not the outward appearance. How refreshing to see that the wider world is hungry and thirsty for such an approach.

For another, it ought to be grounds for repentance in the Christian music industry. View the CD sleeves from major stars in the Contemporary Christian Music field, especially from the States, and there’s little doubt good looks are required alongside the musical ability. Of course, they will be dressed modestly, because we wouldn’t want to think any of it was about lust, would we? That only happens when someone wears revealing or provocative clothes, doesn’t it? Yeah, right.

But I also wonder how long this will last. Britain’s Got Talent is the sort of TV show that works symbiotically with the tabloid newspapers of this country. Tabloid culture has got form in this area, and it’s not promising. It’s only sixyears since Michelle McManus won Pop Idol. Not being the conventional sylph, she was an outsider. However, she won. There was widespread public sympathy for a large woman. However, nineteen months after winning the contest, she parted with her management company, and said she believed it was to do with her weight. Not only that, sections of the popular media turned against her, and her weight became the reason to poke fun at her.

I think someone needs to be ready pastorally to support Susan Boyle whenever the populist tide turns against her. For knowing the cynical nature in some of our media, I fear it is inevitable. Once they have sold newspapers to those who love her, they will want to sell copies to the other camp and not lose them.


Finally, how wrong can you be? A few weeks ago, I wrote about a family service in a church where a lot of long words were used. Today, one of the Sunday School teachers told me he had the same impression of that service. However, after reading my blog post, he asked every single child what they thought of that service. Every single one of them replied that they thought it was great. They were taking on board much more complex thoughts than either he or I had anticipated they could.

Let’s hope I’m wrong about the fate of Susan Boyle, too.