© Jeremy D. Nickel 2012. All Rights Reserved.
Mission Peak Unitarian Universalist Congregation
February 5, 2012

Listen to Audio Version of Whole Service (mp3)
Listen to Audio Version of Sermon (mp3)

For the past week or so my Facebook friend total has sat at 999. It is not in tribute to Herman Cain and his 9-9-9 plan that I have left my total there, but rather because I feel like I should add someone really fun as number 1,000. Ridiculous, I know, but what about Facebook is not ridiculous? Because, let me be perfectly honest with you, I do not have 1,000 friends. I have no idea how many friends I do have, but anyone who has been on Facebook for long knows that your friends list is a product of many things, and few of those are related to how many people you have a meaningful relationship with, which for me at least is an essential part of any relationship that would be worthy of the term "friend."

I have for a long time used the built-in feature within Facebook that allows you to group your friends on lists in order to keep track of who is actually populating your friends list. And because of that, I actually know a thing or two about who those 999 people are. For instance I know that 91 of them are fellow Newton North High School grads, 175 are people who I went to college with, and 156 are people who like me graduated from the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley. So that is well over 400 of the 999 right there. My biggest list is simply called UU, and it has 212 people on it. This is one place where a huge percentage of people I truly barely know come on to my list. When you are a UU minister, people from other congregations just start requesting to add you on Facebook. The next biggest list is Clergy, that is, different religious leaders I know across faiths and denominations, and that list has 181 people on it. So that is another 400 right there, so we have accounted for 800 of the 999 already.

And of course I have a Mission Peak list, which has 46 people on it. I am guessing after this sermon it will be a little higher in a few days.

One of the interesting things I noted as I was surveying my lists preparing to write this message, is that my smallest list is family, which has only 12 people on it. Included in that 12 is my daughter Eliza's great-grandfather Bill, who is 91 years young and living in Maine. He loves to keep in touch with the goings on of his far-flung family through "the Facebook."

And so I have come to understand that the truth about Facebook is that it is both a blessing and a curse. It simultaneously fosters the illusion of relationships with a preposterous amount of people, but also allows for the possibility of real connection as well.

As the title of today's message declares, at least one man believes that the number of people you could possibly maintain real, meaningful relationships with is only 150, just 15 percent of my friends list total. I ran into the work of Robin Dunbar, a professor of evolutionary anthropology at the University of Oxford, when I heard him interviewed for an NPR piece from which I stole the name for this message.

He began that piece by telling the story of Bill Gore, the inventor of Gore-Tex. Gore-Tex is now a worldwide brand, but Bill started it in his backyard. Slowly he grew the company from his house, to a larger building, and eventually to a big factory. And things were just going great for Gore-Tex. Sales continued to grow. They had all kinds of new ideas of things they could do with their unique product. Then one day Bill walked into his factory and realized that he didn't know everybody anymore, and he didn't like that. He made a decision that day to cap his factories at 150 employees. And that is what Gore-Tex has continued to do since then. Anytime they hit 150 in any location they would start a new one nearby.

Professor Dunbar has found that this is also a magic number for the few remaining hunter-gatherer tribes around the world. They tend to keep their tribes to 150 people. When they get very far above that, they calve off and form a new smaller group and leave behind 150 people.

His research has led him to believe that since a lot of the deep programming of our brains happened when all humans were in smaller societies, this has left a deep impression on the way our brains function to this day. Thus we are literally hard-wired to hold in our minds about 150 relationships of meaning. As coincidence would have it, just as people began to get overwhelmed on Facebook with their ever-expanding friends lists, Dunbar's research was one day posted and then re-posted and re-posted, and a term was born: The Dunbar Principle.

But his research does not stop there, he went on to say that we are obviously in a time right now where those 150 relationships we hold, rather than being largely concentrated in a group that we live near and interact with physically every day, is stretched across the country and world. Just as my grandfather in Maine needs Facebook to keep up with his far-flung family, most of us have important people who live all over the place - a best friend in Chicago, a favorite cousin in Tampa, parents in Seattle, a brother in Taiwan, and so on.

It turns out, whether you have a Facebook account or not, that deep programming in your brain is being challenged to cope these days. Luckily we are not simply captives of our brain's deep programming, we also have a lot of collected wisdom from our own experience and have learned a great deal about how to keep people connected, no matter the size of the community they live in.

Which is exactly why this is relevant to all of us. As we have been noticing recently, Mission Peak is growing, and we are beginning to talk about how we want to respond to and plan for that continued growth as more people discover what a special place this is. But we also love our connected culture. We like looking around on a Sunday and seeing many familiar faces, which represent meaningful relationships.

Dunbar concludes by noting that many organizations have learned tools to help them retain a community feel even as they grow well beyond the magic number. The military is the organization that he notes does this the best. Even as they form ever-bigger units of troops, all soldiers remain part of small groups that are consistent and that they regularly check in with. It is the same tool that faith communities utilize to retain their essential culture. That tool is what we in Unitarian Universalism call Small Group Ministry.

Mission Peak is about to start another season of Small Group Ministry. We already have about a third of our membership signed up to be in a group, which is awesome. But as we continue to grow, we need to increase our participation in these Small Groups. This is truly one of the most important tools we have to stay connected. I cannot recommend enough how important I think it is that each and every one of you join a small group either now or sometime soon.

In case you have missed the newsletter articles, pulpitorials and sign-up sheets, let me just spend a minute describing what Small Group Ministry is: It is a group of people, generally between 6 and 10 in number, who meet every other week for the next 10 months. Every meeting has a topic for discussion and these topics range greatly. Some upcoming topics are: Compassion, Thick Stories, Trust and Boundaries. Each topic attempts to get you to share meaningful pieces of your life, and to hear the stories of other people so that you may develop new relationships of meaning within our larger community.

Small Group Ministry is truly a revelation for many that sign up. Despite our hundreds of Facebook friends, despite all the tweets we receive from celebrities and old college roommates, despite this incredibly interconnected world we live in, we have so few opportunities in our daily experience to be invited intimately into the lives of those we share this earth with.

Because, unlike Gore-Tex, we can't just build another congregation every time we hit the magic number. That number is one we are not too far from right now, so I ask you to really consider this. Mission Peak is growing, and we are being blessed with the presence of all kinds of new people checking us out. One way you can embrace this new energy and help us to retain that connected culture that we so cherish, is to join a small group.

And send me a Facebook friend request, I'm looking for number 1,000!

May it be so. Ashe.

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