I’m always fascinated when I hear about research that brings more clarity to how God has created our brains. The most recent example of this was from a TED Radio Hour podcast on networks. The podcast has several intriguing segments, but the one that really captured my attention was from an interview with Robin Dunbar, Professor of Evolutionary Psychology at the University of Oxford, about relationships.
Among other things, Dunbar is a leading expert on social networks. In fact, you might be familiar with Dunbar’s Number. That number is 150. It’s a reflection of Dunbar’s research that has identified that 150 is the limit of the number of people we can have meaningful relationships with at any one time.
“After 150 people, we have almost nothing left to give.”
In the podcast, though, Dunbar shares even more detail about how we interact with these 150 people. He’s found that the typical person only has 5 friends in their inner-circle. Then we have 10 “best” friends and 35 people who might be considered just “good” friends. Dunbar explains that these layers are the consequence of the time we invest with people. We spend 40% of our time with the closest five people. The next 10 people get 20% of our time. And the remaining 135 get the balance of our time. After 150 people, we have almost nothing left to give.
By the way, Dunbar has also looked at social media data. One might think the ease of maintaining connections with Facebook or Twitter, as examples, might also increase the number of slots we have for relationships. Dunbar has confirmed social networking doesn’t change that number. You may have 5,000 Facebook “friends” but you, obviously, can’t have meaningful relationships with all those people.
In the full TED Talk on this topic, Dunbar also explains a couple of additional key thoughts. For example, if someone is in a romantic relationship, they also have space for one less inner-core friend. Assuming your spouse is that romantic relationship, God has wired up our brains to only have space for four more meaningful relationships in that inner-circle.
We all need “best friends” in our lives, but it’s not possible to develop those relationships by sitting in rows in a service, a class or any other event.
Additionally, Dunbar confirmed something that you’ve probably known in your gut for some time. He studied what strengthens relationships and prevents friendships from decaying. For women, talking keeps relationships from decaying. For men, though, talking does not help. (Every man who is reading this just let out a loud, “I told you so!”) But guess what does help male relationships: Doing stuff together.
When I dig deeper into the unique design God wired into each of us, I can’t help but apply these findings to ministry strategy. For example:
One pastor can’t have meaningful relationships with more than 150 people.
And, if some of those relationships are with people who are not in the congregation, that means pastors have to learn how to share ministry and relational engagement with other ministry leaders in order for the church to continue reaching more people.
If we only have space for 5 inner-core relationships and 10 best friends, we either need to help people move into small groups of friends or we need to change expectations for the level of relationships that are going to develop in the context of larger ministry environments.
This is why I often hear the team at North Point Community Church talking about moving people “from rows into circles.” We all need meaningful relationships and “best friends” in our lives, but it’s not possible to develop those relationships by sitting in rows in a service, a class or any other event.
If men develop deeper relationships by doing stuff together, we may want to reevaluate our small group strategy and/or leverage the opportunities for meaningful relationships to develop in serving teams.
I’m not suggesting men have permission to stop talking. That’s still certainly a huge need for the important women in our lives. For real bonds to develop with other men, though, it probably requires putting faith into action.
In the meantime, you may have wondered why I’ve been such a lousy friend on Facebook and Twitter. Now you know. The brain God gave me only has space for 150 close friends. I still like you, but I may not have the space in my life to routinely be “liking” you.
One other note: The Unstuck Group recommends one full-time staff equivalent for every 150 people in a ministry environment. That’s one staff person for every 150 children in children’s ministry. One staff person for every 150 students in student ministry. One staff person for every person attending a multisite campus. The balance of the staff positions provides overall, centralized leadership and support to the entire church. We were recommending 150 before we knew about Dunbar’s research, but this certainly affirms that target. You can find more on the rationale for this in Vital Signs: Why Church Health Matters and 14 Ways to Measure It.