By Taylor Burton-Edwards
Consider this a provocative proposal rather than an absolute bottom line.
Keep in mind that it's my own provocative proposal-- not officially endorsed by or intended to represent anybody else!
And consider it to apply primarily to "typical, established, single point US congregations" rather than to several newer models (such as we've often discussed here!) like the New Day Communities in Dallas and beyond, as well as a variety of neo-monastic and micro-church congregations whose social ties, discipling practices and missional focus, and therefore also institutional power, are substantially more potent per person than the "typical" congregation built still on largely late fourth century assumptions.
So here goes...
It takes 75 people who can be counted on to participate actively when called upon for a congregation to be "competent" in the four core competencies of congregations.
Why 75? Or, perhaps more to the point, how 75?
Two different approaches to organizational capacity land us right around that number.
One is based on the considerable sociological and anthropological work of Robin Dunbar and associates on human and primate brains and the relative size of various levels of social networks, including religious organizations (congregations).
The other looks at the core competencies themselves and asks both how many people and what level of social organization is needed to achieve each of them individually, as well as all four of them collectively within a single organization (in this case, a congregation).
Dunbar's work notes three levels of organization and organizational size compatible with "unit cohesion." Unit cohesion refers to a feeling of bonding between people in groups compatible with the work of the groups as groups. Dunbar's work is credited with establishing the number 150 as the size of "maximal unit cohesion"-- that is, the degree to which everyone in the group will know everyone else personally and be likely to respond toward one another altruistically to achieve a common goal. As it turns out, this has been a pretty stable maximum size for army companies, tribes, religious bodies, and even working units within large corporations throughout human history and across many human cultures. While all of these human organizations can and often do get larger than 150, 150 is the maximum size of any unit within them where people can actually have lasting face to face relationships at any meaningful level.
The next level down is sometimes referred to as the "team," a group of 25-50 who not only know each other face to face, but also associate and work together around common goals with some level of efficiency and proficiency. In early Methodist terms, this might equate to a Methodist Society.
Below that is a smaller group, 10-15, who are capable of basic human support for each other. This corresponds roughly to the early Methodist class meeting.
Finally, there is one smaller grouping still, the inner most circle of friends (not much more than 5) who can "share anything" and hold each other accountable. This would correspond to the early Methodist band, a group of 4-5 people of the same sex who "confessed their sins to each other, and prayed for each other, that they may be healed."
There are two basic rules of thumb for how these groupings work as part of or in relationship to larger groupings of the same organization. First, people tend to function according to the grouping in which they are presently participating or think of themselves as primarily participating at that time. So, for example, if I am with my tightest inner circle, I may share things, say things or do things I would never share, say or do with even the next level up (class meeting). Second, the same people will tend to function within the organization as a whole only to the capacity of the largest grouping of the organization to which they have direct access. This means, for example, if my organization is basically the size of a team, the way I function within that organization will reflect team-based loyalties rather than loyalties to a level of social organization beyond my individual team.
Now, as we think about the four core competencies of congregations, what level of social organization seems necessary to ensure all four are accomplished competently?
One competency at a time
1. The Public Worship of God
Public events are just that, public. They are intended not simply for a very tightly bound "in-group" but to have enough social space to make newcomers feel at least "not excluded" from the outset. The "band" and the "class meeting" are both exclusive by design. The "tighter" (or smaller) the team (the level from 25-50), the more exclusive it is as well. So for worship to be public, it needs to start with a body of people at least on the larger end of the team, and perhaps somewhat larger than that so the group size is well beyond a mere "our team" mentality.
Going half again as large as the upper limit of team gets us reasonably beyond the the "let's all be our own group" mentality that 50 or less could easily reinforce. And that number is... 75.
2. Teaching Basic Christian Doctrine
While in theory this could be done one on one, or even be self-taught to a certain degree, if what is at stake were merely the capacity to know and repeat doctrinal formulations, the reality is that doctrine has little or no real power in people's lives (and therefore, in a very real sense, has NOT been taught or learned), unless and until it is also externally validated. Sociologist Peter Berger refers to this external validation process as an external "plausibility structure." The poet T. H. Elliott referred to it as an "objective correlative." John Wesley was getting at this aspect of Christian doctrine when he spoke of there being no religion but social religion.
If we think of Jesus and his disciples, the basic teaching unit size was "the twelve." This is a close parallel to the class meeting of early Methodism. But one important reason his teaching could even "take hold" as it did in his disciples was because parallel basic doctrine was being taught in other levels in which both the earliest disciples and early Methodists participated-- the synagogue and the whole of Jewish culture, epitomized in the Temple, for the disciples, and both the Methodist Societies and the congregations of which Methodists were also a part (usually, though not always, parishes of the Church of England) for early Methodists. The Wesleys were strong advocates for not allowing the Methodists, organized in their class meetings, bands and societies, to become a separate church precisely because they saw how these other levels, particularly the ritual life and teaching of the congregations, were foundational to the teaching work of the class meetings and the societies. (See Reasons Against a Separation from the Church of England, 1758).
This is partly why when the Methodists in North America did separate from the Church of England in 1784, John Wesley supplied them both liturgical resources for Sunday morning worship only slightly revised from the Book of Common Prayer and a set of Articles of Religion also only somewhat revised from the Church of England's own 39 Articles. If Methodists were not going to attend the Church of England and its parish worship any longer, they at least needed its ritual and the heart of its doctrinal affirmations as foundational for the worship and teaching they would continue to offer in what would now be their congregations, as well as what may continue (if not for long) as their societies, class meetings, and bands.
So, once again, as we think about the size of grouping needed to enable the teaching even of basic doctrine not only to be done, but actually to be sustained by something outside itself, we're probably looking at or above the upper limits of the team level. Maybe around 75?
3. Caring for Members and Participants:
Depending on the level of care needed, the basic caring unit could be one on one, or even handled through groups at the size of bands or class meetings. But what is envisioned here, and actually what early Christians apparently were putting in place even in the first century (see Acts 6!) was a process for ensuring a comprehensive "system of care" both for its members and for the people in the neighborhoods where they lived.
Systems of care require coordination, and the coordination needed across a system of diverse types of care needs to happen at a level beyond any of the individual caring units themselves. To use the analogy of an NFL football team, you have about 45 "suited" players in three distinct "sub-teams" (offense, defense, special teams) as "the team." But that team can't actually play football properly without its coaching and managerial staff (typically another 20-25 people on NFL teams) who coordinate how these three sub-teams play together as one. So, 75?
4. Being a Reliable Institutional Player in the Local Community:
Because Christian congregations still function as essentially public institutions in most of the West and Global North, and increasingly in the Far East and Global South, there is a need for its "public facing services" to earn, keep and build trust in what they offer. Those who are truly competent in this area do more than offer their own existing services to the public, however. They also function as trusted partners with other groups and institutions in deploying their resources in other ways, as requested or negotiated, to build the common good. Institutionally reliable congregations have reputations as organizations that can get things done in and for the community, not simply as a collection of warm-hearted people with good intentions or effective ministry teams doing their own thing for their own reasons.
Here, then, we're talking about a coordination of services and administration well beyond what just a team itself can do. Indeed, we are at least somewhere well on the way toward the maximal unit cohesion limit of 150. Maybe, at minimum, this might be 75.
Putting it all together
So far we've considered Dunbar's numbers regarding the organizational capacity of specific social grouping in relationship to the four core competencies of congregations in isolation from one another.
From that angle, we've seen we need at least a larger team-level size to address three of the four core competencies. But that also assumes the congregation is focusing just one one of these at a time. In reality, congregations deal with issues related to all four continuously, and in the case of providing systems of care and being a reliable institutional player in the local community, often simultaneously.
The need for the organization to be attending to all four of these competencies well, in itself, requires a level of differentiation exceeding the capacity of most teams to accomplish. So it would seem that, indeed, given all of these considerations, 75 people who can be counted on to participate on some level in these four systems when requested may well be a "harder" minimum than may have been considered at first.
A more generous angle?
Now, the way of arriving at 75 I have so far suggested assumes that team size (and therefore the "ingrown-ness" of team culture) in a given cultural context tends not to subside substantially until around 50. What if, in a given context, team sizes were socially felt to be like teams closer to 20-25, and that after that number, rather than 50, they became much more socially open and flexible. Given this, might it be possible for a group as small as 35 highly committed people (which is to say, people who are active at least weekly, if not in some cases daily, in delivering 2 of the 4 competencies) to "cover" all four?
In some contexts, maybe. Even in the US, as little as 50 years ago in some places, possibly.
50 years ago in the US, "regular" attendance and participation in the life of a congregation generally meant being part of worship and likely one other activity at least weekly. A group of 35 people (and here I mean principally adults) who attended worship every week and were involved in addressing at least one of the other three competencies each week could, back then, have covered all bases.
But here's the rub in the US now. Today, "regular" worship attendance means not weekly, but once per month. That's not simply a change in how people decide what "regular" means. It's an actual change in the rates of participation of persons who are considered to be "members in good standing" by their respective congregations. And it crosses nearly all denominational lines. So while as few as 35 "members" or "regular attenders" may have been able to comprise a competent (if also highly "stretched") congregation in 1963, it is highly unlikely 35 people designated as "regular attenders" by today's measurements could pull that off.
Now, to say "regular" worship attendance is now closer to once per month on average is not to say these persons are unavailable for participation in the life of the congregation in other ways if asked. Some may attend worship only once per month, but also work in a food pantry bi-weekly or visit nursing homes on the weekend once per month. In other words, instead of assuming the "average participant" in the congregation is actually available to help the congregation deliver on its four core competencies one time in four opportunities, let's assume it's a little closer to one time in three. And let's assume, still, the maximum team size in this congregational culture is closer to just under 25 than to 50.
You still need three times the team size, plus a few more, to deliver on all four competencies with competence. In other words, you need about 3 times 25, or... 75.
And none of this is factoring in finances... at all. Just core competencies. Just those things congregations have been designed to do and that the wider culture still fundamentally expects them to do, and do well.
What implications does this admittedly fuzzy, but still sociologically, culturally, organizationally, and even somewhat historically and neurologically grounded math suggest about the "people-power" congregations, as congregations, need, not simply to be competent, but actually vital in their local contexts?