Dunbar’s Number and Church Plant Success

church plant success

Church Plant Success 

In the back of my mind I’m always wondering why some church plants take root and grow while others are forced to close their doors. Closed church plants impact lead planter families, community relationships, newly gathered congregants and supporting churches. Church plant success matters.

I recently compared around 20 open and closed church plants, comparing size of congregation on launch Sunday and results of the lead planter’s Ridley Assessment scores. (Ridley Assessment measures pastors ability on a 5 point scales for 13 identified abilities for successful church planting. I have not found where the assessment has been tested for validity, but is widely used in various forms among church planting associations.) 

Research Results

I ran a test on the data that would predict if results (open or closed church plants) would be attributed to the factors I suggested (church launch size and lead planter Ridley scores). I found multiple things. I do need more data and more specific data. I used whole numbers which did not give me specific enough results. But, there were two things that were interesting. First, 12 of the 13 Ridley Assessment planter qualities did not seem to predict or affect whether a church plant would remain open or be forced to close. The only factor that was close to being significant was “reaches the unchurched”.

The second interesting result was finding that 162 people attending on church launch Sunday seemed to represent a tipping point. If 162 people attended launch Sunday, it would raise the rate of church plant success by 56%. Every individual added after that would raise the percent of success by about .6%. (This was just an initial data analysis. I need to use more specific results from the Ridley Assessment and need to add more church plant numbers to find more specific results.) 

But, I think this number “162” is powerful. Last night I heard something on NPR that made my jaw drop. I believe Dunbar’s Number is connected to, or at least correlated with 162 for church plant success. 

Dunbar’s Number and Church Plant Success

Professor Robin Dunbar hypothesized that any one person can not have more than 150 stable friendships at one time. You can read a little more about his number HERE. But, think about this, if one person can only have 150 stable friendships and church plants with 162 adults increase their success rate by 56%, then these two numbers seem very connected. At this point it’s merely a hypothesis, but I suspect there’s a correlation.

Interpreting the Connection

If these two numbers are connected, then the less relationships within a church plant are dependent on the lead church planter, the more likely the success of that church plant. It seems, once a church plant can push past every relationship being contingent on a personal connection to the lead pastor, that church plant’s rate of success will likely increase.

Potential Church Plant Application

If a church planter began with the goal of having 162 people attend on opening Sunday, he/she should immediately know that number is slightly beyond the number of relationships he/she can hold by themselves. Therefore, in order to attain long-term success a church planter should begin a church with multiplication on their mind. The better then can multiply themselves, and effectively pass on their vision for the church they hope to create, the more likely they will succeed. I believe this goes beyond simply “creating new leaders”. Instead, it’s about effectively passing on a vision for the church that other people are able to internalize and effectively pass on to others (like a virus). Basically, it all comes down the 2 Timothy 2:22.

2:22 Principle

The apostle Paul passes on wisdom to a young pastor named Timothy. We have two of his letters. 2 Timothy 2:22 says, “And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable people who will also be qualified to teach others.” If a church planter can effectively pass on his vision to others, who are able to pass that vision on to others, this will increase his chances of breaking the Dunbar’s Number ceiling, helping the church plant get past 162 congregants.

Adding these all together and equation for church plant success with this information would look like this:

This obviously isn’t the whole picture and more research definitely needs to be done. But, anything that can help a church planter increase their chance for success is worth considering. In the end, church planters need to think about vision/leader multiplication and not only about congregant addition. You can read more about multiplication by reading Dave Ferguson’s new book Hero Maker.  

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