200 friends or less

I don’t get to watch the Colbert Report nearly as much as I’d like, but last night I was fortunate enough to catch a little bit of it last night.

Now, I’m not sure if you’re aware of this, but Colbert — like Jon Stewart — actually throws some useful information in with all the satire and general quirkiness. In this episode, Stephen referenced something called Dunbar’s number, a theoretical cognitive limit to the number of people with whom one can maintain stable social relationships.

In a nutshell: Your brain can only handle between 100 and 230 relationships — that is, people with whom you know and maintain ongoing social contact. (According to the theory, that doesn’t include people with whom you’ve ceased relationship, but it does include those people whose relationships are dormant — that is, you’d pick right up where you left off.)

This number, which generally is rounded to 150, varies on an individual level, because it is correlated to a person’s neocortex size. The theory was developed by studying various anthropological data, including subsistence villages, nomadic tribes and historical military groupings.

So what does all this mean?

For one thing, it means I don’t feel as bad when I see someone I knew in high school and I just can’t quite place their name. I used to think that was a sign that I’m getting older, but the truth is, I have ceased relationship with them (no, Facebook doesn’t quite count) and my neocortex RAM has deleted their file to make room for another personnel dossier.

I’m not old; I’m just out of relational hard disk space. Nothing personal.

If this theory indeed is true, it has major implications for our wide, wired world. What does it do to our brain to be “friends” with 960 people — as I do — on Facebook? (Maybe it’s a good thing Facebook helps us out by limiting which friends actually show up in our News Feeds.)

 

Interesting social media fact: The average Twitter user follows 126 people. Yep, that falls within the Dunbar number. That’s interesting because on Twitter, there is no feed filtering, really. You see everybody’s stuff.

There’s a built-in speed limit in our brains with regard to relationships. It’s not because God, who fine-tuned our brains, wants to limit our capacity for relationship. It’s because He knows that in this finite place, Earth, we only have so much energy and time to devote. He sees the value of community, and since it’s not a numbers game, He thinks it’s better to love a few people really well, than have a lot of people on the periphery.

When God came to Earth as Jesus, He demonstrated His grasp of this concept. Jesus, who only had three years of earthly ministry — yet probably the most high-functioning neocortex ever created — had a group about half the size of the Dunbar number. He wanted to devote so much energy to them, because He knew that they would carry His message long after He returned to Heaven, so he had a hyperfocus.

The multitude heard Him preach, and saw a miracle or two. Closer to Jesus were the 72 disciples whom He gave special attention. Then, closer in, were the 12 disciples/apostles, whom He spent most of His time with, and gave lots of attention. Then, there were the Three — Peter, James and John — who were His inner circle. And then there was John, Jesus’s BFF.

Jesus understood concentric circles of relationship, and understood that He couldn’t give all of the multitude His undivided attention. The level of intimacy the Twelve had with Jesus allowed them to see and learn things a large crowd never could have. And without that intensive instruction, there would have been a large crowd of FANS of Jesus, not a small band of FOLLOWERS.

I think this is why megachurches can only survive if profound, committed small groups are in place. In a church such as mine, with 3,000-plus attendees week-in and week-out, there’s a natural neocortex overwhelm that happens when one gazes upon the crowded auditorium. I think there’s a mindset when you deal with that many people of a production rather than a community, no matter how friendly the congregants are and down-to-Earth the pastor is. It’s a tough thing to get people to take that step from the arena into the small-group living room, because essentially they have to choose a dozen people to hang out with out of all the fish in the sea. What if I choose a psycho group? What if I don’t relate to anyone?

It seems easier to have a bunch of small groups or small churches uniting en masse than to have a mass of people divide into smaller groups. The multitude formed after Jesus chose the Twelve, not before.

Even with the small groups model, in a large church situation, we all know in the back of our minds that there’s always the option to bolt to a different small group. In churches, there’s always the option to bolt to a different, less overwhelming church. In the societies and groups studied to develop the Dunbar number, there was no bolting. They were, in most cases, stuck together for the sake of their survival. The same is true of churches in persecuted countries. Not the case here in America. Cars (and other technologies) make it easy for us to bolt, and as I said in a previous blog post, we choose to bolt, shopping around rather than committing to community. We end up well-known and well-networked, but lonely.

Strangely enough, the mean average size of an American church is 184. Yep, that’s within the Dunbar number. Or, perhaps more telling is the median average, which shows that more than half of the churches in America have fewer than 75 people. This article explains the difference well. Either the Church in America largely follows our cognitive limits, or a majority of churches roll with 72 or so people, like Jesus.

So what do we do? Obviously we’re supposed to be intentional in our friendship circles, but does this mean we whittle down our Facebook “friends” to 150? (That’s an estimate, of course; analyze your own neocortex.) Do we adopt an understanding that time, energy and resources should be diverted away from Sunday gatherings and instead to small group cultivation and support? Should we nix the plan of growing churches as big as they can get, opting instead to plant churches after they hit about 200 people? It seems to me that model would cut down on our shuffling Christians from church to church.

On a personal level, though, I believe it means we have to realize our limits, and get very real about to whom we are giving our attention and time. This fluxes some with seasons of life, but I think for the most part, the most committed relationships — that oikos, or inner circle — stay put.

What’s it like in our own lives when we develop a wide periphery at the expense of a deep inner circle?

“A man of many companions may come to ruin, but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother” (Proverbs 19:2 NIV).

It’s cool to realize our limitations, and stop trying to be everything to everyone, but the oikos thing really only works if everyone is of a like mind. Unity in the 72, in the Twelve, the Three and John made each of those circles work. Each member of each of Jesus’s circles was dedicated to those circles. John didn’t have another BFF. Peter wasn’t some part of another inner circle. They were sold out to their proximities.

Imagine if we all had such commitment to one another in each of our circles of relationship!

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