The University of Liverpool did a simple study with profound consequences. They looked at monkey brains.
You see, monkeys hang out in groups. First is the social group, which is the tribe size where you work collectively for resources, ask for monkey favors, and defend each other when attacked. Then there is the social clique, which is the posse of monkeys who let you eat bugs out of their hair.
Researchers observed several kinds of monkeys and the size of their social groups. They also looked at the size of the neocortex in the brain and found a correlation to group size. The largest chimpanzee social group is about 50, with a small group size of 3. Then comes the important part, they looked at the human brain and asked the question, "What is the group size of this animal?" The result: a social group of about 150, and a small group of about 12.
In other studies of human happiness, it has been confirmed that humans are happiest with 6 to 12 good, close friends. Less than 6 is not as fulfilling, and more than 12 makes it hard to make those relationships meaningful and intimate. A study of 1,700 Facebook profiles found that most people had 6 "picture friends" - friends who tagged them in photos.
This analysis of the human brain seems to line up with everybody's experience. Camps, churches, schools, and offices all already passively acknowledge the ideal size of small groups and large social groups. Most people in my experience guessing at how many loose friendships can be maintained by an individual have come up with a number close to 150.
This is really quite significant. It provides clarity of purpose in establishing goals, especially for religious communities. It has long been known that big churches try to think small and personal, while small churches try to think big and focus on growth. In a congregation of 6 thousand, like some mega churches have, adherents often feel less connected to the church and feel isolation. Churches studying the dynamics of growth have shown that if they receive a new member, and that person does not get involved in a small group, they will no longer be in attendance when 2 years have passed. In small churches, everyone tends to feel welcome and important, with a sense of ownership of the processes of the church. The personal relationships get diluted as the group grows past 150 people.
As to the Baha'i Faith, most communities outside of a few large metro areas are less than 150 people. I grew up in a town with about 80 enrolled Baha'is, and I always got the impression that bigger was better. Someday people dreamed of having enough funds and attendance to buy a Baha'i Center to use for meetings. That would be the sign that success was being achieved. Then I moved to Portland where enrolled Baha'is exceeded 300. Feast was held at the Baha'i center, which was an hour's drive from certain parts of the city, and where attendance was usually between 50 to 80. A microphone had to be used to speak to the group. My perception of success quickly changed, and I realized that the challenges existing in Portland would soon come upon every other Baha'i community out there, given enough time.
Just a few years before I moved to Portland, the community there began to change. Groups of Baha'i communities were formed into clusters, but Portland remained a single cluster. This introduced some initial confusion, but it was quickly understood that the intention was to break it up into smaller pieces. Very soon some experimental Feasts were held in about 5 areas, with some initial complaining from those who enjoyed the camaraderie of large groups. The overall attendance went up, and with it so did contributions to the Baha'i Fund. People met in groups of about 15, made much more personal connections with those that they lived near, and saw opportunities for service. Those small groups began to act like the small churches, they began to focus on growth. Pretty soon Portland was making every other Feast a centralized area one, then after a few years every third Feast was centralized, and all others decentralized. Other cities like New York and Phoenix have already moved to only neighborhood level Feast and Holy Day gatherings, only using the Baha'i Center for Cluster Reflection Meetings every 3-4 months.
The Baha'i summer schools in Oregon are experiencing a similar phenomenon. For the last 30 years Badasht has been a one-week family summer gathering of 150 people. That number happens to be the maximum attendance for the grounds being used. Less than that would have not been enough people to feel like a community, and more than that would have made it increasingly difficult to make any personal connections with fellow campers. Through a fluke, Badasht was forced to keep its attendance to the perfect number of people, and the camp has been an extremely successful tool for the Oregon Baha'i community.
Baha'is all over the world are trying to figure out the dynamics of growth. To that end, a training institute has been put into effect to systematically consolidate and train seekers, new agencies have been developed to facilitate cycles of growth that include expansion and consolidation, and overall the results have been positive, not just in numbers of people accepting Baha'u'llah and joining the community, but in their participation in training and service. These activities being encouraged have focused on small groups, ideally 6-12, where more intimate personal relationships can form.
Now back to monkey brains. Baha'i communities all over the world are going to hit the same challenge at about the same time, but if the dynamics of social groups is understood, there won't be much of a problem. Success will not be achieved by always getting bigger; we have a monkey brain that can only handle being in a social group of 150, and finds true happiness in a group of 6-12 intimate friends. Success will be achieved by growing communities that continually divide as they grow, while encouraging small groups.
With that in mind, Baha'i Centers really don't play much of a part, at least not right now. In all the major cities that have them; San Francisco, New York, Phoenix, Las Vegas, Bellevue, their use has significantly dropped off as the focus has changed to neighborhood activities, decentralized children's classes, and sector Feasts. The cost and liability is huge for a building that is only used once or twice a week. It would be much more economical to just rent a facility a few times a year for the large gatherings of Cluster Reflection Meetings and annual elections. In fact, having a Baha'i Center has been a curse to many communities, who have difficulty decentralizing because they feel they need to get use out of a building that they just paid hundreds of thousands of dollars for.
It seems funny now that my image of success went from having a Baha'i Center, to not having one.