Thursday, May 14, 2009

Green church growth

In my previous post, I ranted a little bit about today's raging green hype. But as implied there, Christians are not without some responsibility in all this business. So I'll turn this around on those of us who do claim to understand the purpose of Creation.

Green thoughts were fresh in my mind yesterday when a pastor friend of mine (Paul Batson) and I were driving toward a meeting in Charlotte. (We were off to meet with a couple of area pastors about church real estate.) So I found it interesting that Paul brought up the topic of how church properties tend to be some of the foremost examples of underutilization around. It's a reasonable claim, actually: a building big enough to hold hundreds of people in one giant space, plus additional classroom space, but actually used for, what, maybe six hours a week? Church, how do we deal with this monumental waste of resources?

I'll go further, and personalize this. My church has just entered into a building program because we're having trouble fitting people into the temporary accommodations currently in use after outgrowing the previous worship and educational space. (Did you follow that?) Was this the right decision? I mean, I understand the desire to avoid multiple worship services and multiple small group periods in the name of keeping all the membership together with that comfy feeling of unity. But might better use of existing space — and money — demand the opposite approach?

I'm no social scientist, but I've noticed that almost every time I check the number of friends that someone I know has on the social networking site Facebook, the number tends to hover between 200 and 300. This caused me to recall something I'd heard long ago about some theoretical maximum number of social connections that a person could maintain stably. I did some Googling around, and I think Dunbar's Number was that figure. British anthropologist Robin Dunbar theoretized (based on the physical size of a region of the brain) that folks could keep about 150 such connections. (A more recent and more directly derived estimate of about 250 came out of research by anthropologists H. Russell Bernard and Peter Killworth.)

What does Dunbar's (or Bernard-Killworth's) Number mean for large churches? Does it explain why many people start to get antsy when their congregrations grow too large — why they start to feel disconnected? Does it allow an interpretation that having more moderately-attended church services benefits the sense of Christian community better than holding fewer gatherings of humongous crowds? And how does this all play into better use of church resources?


  1. I have been thinking over the last six months or so about being a "middleman." (When I actually take time to utilize my blog, I will be sharing more thoughts about this.) Not so much a middleman in a business sense, but a middleman, especially as a minister, to help do the work of God on earth.

    I think it's really cool to be in the situation you and I were in yesterday to connect two other pastor friends churches to help potentially better utilize the resources of the Church (big "C" intentional). That's one way of being a middleman. Really, this is a major challenge for the Church today: to be able to see the potential for ministry when we partner resources, energy, and focus to reach people. It's my opinion that churches really would like to do this, just don't know how to do it well. As a minister, I'm trying to figure this situation out, too. When the Church does solve this, look out!

    More church leaders, staff and volunteer, should be talking about this because it WILL change the way God can and will use the Body of Christ in the world today.

  2. @Paul: Thanks for the comments. I like the "middleman" idea, and would enjoy hearing more about it when you start blogging on the topic. And yes, yesterday's meeting was a beautiful thing. My prayer is that it results in a mutually beneficial situation for the churches involved.

    Just to clarify, I don't mean to imply that all churches drastically under-utilize their facilities, or that churches are the only groups that do. Also, I don't think there's anything inherently wrong with building big buildings. Each church must decide for itself if the cost of such a project justifies its benefits. Finally — but most importantly — while eco-friendliness is a good goal, it remains secondary to the goal of bringing glory to God.