Rule of 150

Start of the Humber Half- Marathon June 29th
Creative Commons License photo credit: cwarkup

“The Tipping Point” by Malcolm Gladwell describes the concept of the “Rule of 150.” I’ll try to give you a summary, but I’d recommend the book too.

In anthropological literature the number 150 shows up again and again. Out of 21 different tribes, the average number of people in their villages is 148.8. Military planners have arrived at a rule of thumb which states that no more than 200 men should be in a fighting unit together. Over the centuries they have discovered that you simply cannot get too many more than 150 men to know each other well enough to function well in working together. The human brain has even been tested and it’s based upon the neocortex ratio, estimates have been made that the maximum group size for humans is 147.8. A religious group called the Hutterites who have lived in self-sufficient communities together for hundreds of years have a strict policy that every time a community reaches 150, they split into two and start a new one. “Keeping things under 150 just seems to be the best and most efficient way to manage a group of people,” says Bill Gross, one of their leaders.  A group of 150 can be knit together, but more than that and we become strangers. Fellowship gets lost.

Gladwell goes on to describe Gore Associates, the company that makes “Gore-Tex” fabric. At Gore, no one has a title. The idea is that everyone is on the same playing field – everyone matters. (Kind of reminds me of 1 Corinthians 12 and how the Body of Christ works.) People don’t have bosses, but mentors and sponsors. Salaries are determined collectively. There are no corner offices. Instead they use those “nice” spaces for conference rooms and public areas. They have a rate of turnover in their company that is a third the industry standard. “Bill” Gore, the founder of the company stumbled into the principal, but once said, “We found again and again that things get clumsy at a hundred and fifty,” and he made it the company goal to have no more than 150 employees at each plant. Long term planning is described as “put[ting] a hundred and fifty parking spaces in the lot, and when people start parking on the grass, we know it’s time to build a new plant.” Sometimes they build plants right across the parking lot fom one another, but it still kept the people separated enough to build their individual communities.

The Rule of 150 describes the kind of relationships where you know someone well enough that what they think of you matters. Robin Dunbar says that in a group of 150, “orders can be implemented and unruly behavior controlled on the basis of personal loyalties and direct man-to-man contacts.” Formal middle and upper management structures are not needed at a company like Gore ’cause in groups that size, informal personal relationships are much more effective. Peer pressure is much more effective than a boss. Another benefit is that when the sales guys know the manufacturing guys, he can go directly to them to discuss how best to serve their customers.

Imagine the implications of this theory. I wonder what the “break room” looks like at Gore? Probably doesn’t have all the little cliques like I remember seeing in the last break room I was in. I wonder how the church could benefit from these ideas? What happens to the community within a church at 150? What kinds of structures could we do away with if we worked towards multiple churches with no more than 150? Would things be more healthy and sustainable? Would we have the same kind of petty arguments? and if so, could they be handled differently, under this type of system? How would accountability be affected? I’m just wondering about some of this stuff, and thought I run it past you guys. Anyone else have any thoughts? How ’bout you Hans?

2 Replies to “Rule of 150”

  1. Steve-o,
    I think what you’re saying (or reading) works pretty well. But is this much different from the small group model that so many churches have adopted? If so, what is the main difference? Perhaps the difference is when you start the process. If you start a church, it gets big, and then you try to go small, you are going to have backlash. If you start with an understanding that a certain size is admirable, then you have to be able to reproduce that size.

    Lately, I’ve been thinking about this: let a church get as large as you want (within reason, I suppose), but make your elders oversee (hey, now that’s biblical!) a certain number of people in your congregation. Not sure how you’d break it up (geography, rapport, needs, etc.), but that keeps your church connected within communities that are a (roughly) pre-determined size. However, this would likely make your community SMALLER than 150.

    All this to say, yes, I think the rule of 150 is pretty good. But is that each church? Is that groups within a church? Can a church be bigger than this and still remain sustainable in the realm of personal relationships? Do people oversee those larger groups? How often would you want your larger groups to meet (if there were any)?

    A lot of questions, no answers. . .

  2. Thanks for responding Hans. Like you, it seems the more I learn, the more questions I have. If this idea holds true based upon relationships that matter to a person, then breaking people up in by any hard-and-fast rule, seems wrong. How could it be done in a natural way – it makes sense that a company (like Gore) can do it based on what is being produced, but does that work in the church? Can you have the youth ministry community and the missions community and the . . . – where do they cross paths? By encouraging them to intermingle, do you disrupt the rule of 150 and start to see division? Or worse yet, do the structures actually encourage divisions at that point?

    Sorry – I could ramble a while ’cause it’s all so interesting to me.

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