Unglued Church

Shake the dust off your feet

When it’s time to move on in ministry

By Mark Roth


British anthropologist Robin Dunbar suggested 20 years ago that most human beings’ social groups number about 150 people, which matches the typical size of ancient hunter-gatherer tribes.

The idea behind the Dunbar number, as it came to be known, was simple: 150 might be about the maximum number of people we can know well, and the minimum size for a group to have a functional mix of different skills, personalities and roles.

Not coincidentally, the Dunbar number is not so far removed from the median size of Presbyterian congregations, which was about 150 in the 1980s, but has now declined to the low 90s.

We are also not unique in the reasons for this decline. As the Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam has noted, many post-WWII institutions have been dwindling, from bowling leagues to fraternal groups like the Elks and Moose.

And while large social forces are responsible for much of this trend, the fading organizations also share many of the same internal characteristics. When these groups turn inward, when maintaining their traditions and friendships are more important than taking risks and welcoming new people into the fellowship, then even the evolutionary power of Dunbar’s number won’t sustain them.

Into this situation walk those of us who want with all our hearts to help these congregations revitalize and regain their vigor. Unfortunately, we often enter this challenge with a savior complex. We believe that our ideas, our energy and our call to innovate will carry the day.

Yet our real Savior gave us a sober caution.

In Matthew 10, Jesus tells the 12 to go out into the world by traveling light, asking the people they encounter to take them in, and if those communities will not welcome them, to  “shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town.”

And remember, these apostles were sent with the power to heal the sick and raise the dead  — and yet our Lord anticipated the certainty that some people would reject them, that the desire to cling to what was comfortable and familiar would rebuff even the life-giving message of these strangers in town.

We who wish to come alongside struggling churches must learn to abide in the same spirit. We can offer our best ideas, our strongest encouragement and our most faithful advice on discerning God’s will.

In the end, though, a church’s sense of new life will depend on the people in that congregation and their sense of holy call, which can come only from God.

We can plant the seeds, but the Holy Spirit must water them. In that we must trust, and sometimes, be prepared to move on.



Mark Roth is a retired journalist and freelancer who specializes in writing about health and science issues. He is a Ruling Elder based at East Liberty Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh. He serves as an Adaptive Change Adviser for Pittsburgh Presbytery’s Unglued Church Project.