And after this manner he did baptize every one that went forth to the place of Mormon; and they were in number about two hundred and four souls; yea, and they were baptized in the waters of Mormon, and were filled with the grace of God.—Mosiah 18:16
Over the last eight years, my family has belonged to three different wards. We didn’t move; the ward boundaries moved around us, but we had very different experiences in each ward, which I am convinced had something to do with the size of each congregation. The narrative arc follows, albeit not sequentially, the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears: one ward was too big, one was too small, and one was just right.
The “too big” ward had an average Sacrament Meeting attendance of more than 250 people. We always opened up the curtains and went halfway to the back of the cultural hall. We spent nearly two years in that ward without really getting to know anybody very well. Neither my wife nor I had a calling, we rarely did anything with people outside of church, and I am pretty sure that the bishop didn’t know my name. In the “too small” ward—with an average sacrament attendance under 100—everybody was too busy to have relationships with each other. Most people had multiple callings. People burned out quickly. And the Same Ten People ended up doing everything.
And then there was the “just right” ward, with an average Sacrament Meeting attendance of between 150 and 175 people.–one of the most nurturing and supportive wards I have ever been part of. People became good friends with each other. We became involved in each other’s lives to an extent that I have never before experienced. We raised each other’s children, had Family Home Evening’s together, and I even went to my first and only “Super Bowl Party” after church one day. I watched all seven innings. It was that good.
How much did these experiences have to do with the number of people in the ward? There is no way to tell for sure, but a lot of fascinating research has been done on the ideal size of human communities. In the 1990s, the British anthropologist and primatologist Robin Dunbar proposed that human beings can maintain stable relationships with about 150 other people in non-coercive communities. He estimated that this was the ideal size of the hunter-gatherer communities in which we evolved. Subsequent research has pushed the “Dunbar Number” as high as 250, with most scholars settling somewhere between 150-200.
The Dunbar Number works works on the principle that every extra person in a community doubles the cognitive resources necessary to be a part of it–since being part of a community means keeping track of all of the different ways that every member of that community interacts with every other member. The cognitive power to keep track of 150 or 200 other people in this way is staggering. Some believe that this is the main reason that humans evolved such big brains in the first place. And communities that exceed this number necessarily become coercive, top-down, and rule-governed–there is simply no other way to keep track of everybody.
So all of this was going through my mind when I noticed that Mosiah 18—which is the pivotal chapter about the founding of the Nephite church—not only names names; it numbers numbers: ”they were in number about two hundred and four souls.” First off, who says, “about 204”? People say “about 200,” but 204 is more like an exact count. And it is an exact count that is exactly in line with what modern scientists believe about the ideal size of a human community.
And it is roughly the size of most of the LDS wards that I have belonged to. I can’t help but think that this says something about what a ward is supposed to be. We are not simply called to worship alongside one another. In the very same chapter of Mosiah, we are called to mourn with those that mourn, comfort those that stand in need of comfort, and bear one another’s burdens that they may be light. We are called, in other words, to be part of each other. There are rigid cognitive limits on how many people we can know that well.
Loving everybody in the world is easy because it is an abstract love. We can’t be part of everybody in the way that the Gospel calls us to be. We don’t know how. Our wards are the places that we learn how to do this with a manageable number of people—most of whom (if the system is working) aren’t very much like us. This is not quite Zion. But it is a training ground for Zion, which we can only build when we have learned the lessons that are available in the local communities that we have covenanted to build.