Levels of friendship

I shall never forget visiting an elderly couple and asking ‘Who are your friends in the church?’ They began to reel off name after name, until suddenly I realised that all they were doing was telling me who they knew by name in the church. Few, if any, were ‘real’ friends:  or if they were friends, then they were just ‘casual friends’ – acquaintances, but no more.

A recent article in The Times suggested that there are four levels of friendship:

  1. Casual friends – friends – acquaintances – people whose names you know
  2. General friends – people you might invite to your home for a party
  3. Good friends – people with whom you can begin to be open
  4. Close friends – our best friends – people with whom you can be completely ‘real’

I discovered that Robin Dunbar, an Oxford professor, has developed a theory (‘Dunbar’s numbers’) about the maximum number of ‘friends’ we can have at each of these four levels:

  1. The maximum number of casual friends is 150
  2. The maximum number of general friends is 50
  3. The maximum number of good friends is 15
  4. The maximum number of close or best friends is 5

How does this relate to church?  I would suggest the following:

  1. A church with 150 members tends to be the limit for effective ministry by a solo pastor
  2. Most members are not able to relate well with more than 50 church people
  3. The maximum number for an effective home group is 15
  4. The maximum number for an accountability group is 5.

Clearly these are generalisations – there are always exceptions. For instance, when I was the pastor of a church with 400 members plus a large fringe, I worked hard to ensure that I knew the names of some 800 people.   I’m told that some pastors of mega-churches can know up to 1,500.

From the same article in The Times I discovered the work of Jeffrey Hall, a professor at the University of Kansas. In a survey of adults who had moved home in the past six months and were looking for new friends, he came up with the following results:-

  1. It takes two people 50 hours to become casual friends
  2. It takes two people 90 hours to become general friends
  3. It takes two people 110 hours to become good friends
  4. It tales two people 200 hours to become close or best friends

Although I am not convinced by some of his estimates – I think the numbers for the first two levels are too high – I do agree that “You can’t snap your fingers and make a friend”.  It takes time, energy, and commitment.  I also agree that “maintaining close relationship is the most important work we do in our lives”. Or to quote David Winter, “Friendships don’t just ‘happen’. Friendship has to be sought, welcomed and built”.


  1. I certainly agree that relationships are what make life meaningful and close relationships in which there is deep sharing are of inestimable value… we need to give grateful thanks for our friends.

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