Dunbar’s Number and the Church

Even as members and pastors have changed over the years, one complaint I’ve consistently heard about my church is that there are too many cliques. It’s an easy thing for a church culture to fall into. In fact, it may be impossible to avoid.

Research into human relationships has given us insight into the number of close personal connections a person can maintain. This limit is referred to as Dunbar’s Number.

From Wikipedia:

First proposed by British Anthropologist Robin Dunbar, Dunbar’s number is a suggested cognitive limit to the number of people with whom one can maintain stable social relationships —relationships in which an individual knows who each person is and how each person relates to every other person.

When thinking about relationships in a mid-sized church in the context of Dunbar’s Number, cliques are almost inevitable. Some churches seem to recognize this and embrace the concept within the institution by facilitating the formation of small groups. These small groups serve to anchor people within a number of manageable relationships in order to facilitate close bonds within the church. Rather than rejecting the cognitive limits of the human mind, these church’s have acknowledged those limits and given sanction to living within them.

I used to fault church members for not being welcoming enough. For some time after I joined the church, I felt somewhat left out. I didn’t feel like anyone was going out of their way to include me in their circle of friends. I faulted the church and the culture within it. One day I realized that, by holding church members to a higher standard than everyone else, I was setting myself up for disappointment. Humans who are members of a church are making a commitment to be better, more spiritual people. They’re not perfect, though. They are still bound by the same mental limitations that are part of being in the human race. Those limitations make it hard to go out of our way to expand our social circles (this is obviously harder for some than others). Every Sunday, we make a corporate confession of sins and acknowledge our unwillingness or inability to rise above them. We are all burdened by sin, imperfection and limitations. How could I have believed otherwise?

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