Is 12 a magic number?2
These are the twelve he appointed …
- from Mark 3:16
What’s so special about the number 12?
Jesus picked 12 Jewish men to be his first formal small group. To close observers of his ministry, this would have been a significant number. Jacob (who was later nicknamed “Israel”) had 12 sons who later went on to become the 12 tribes of Israel. Tribal identity remained important even millennia later, during Jesus’ life. Calling twelve disciples would have carried symbolic import. But is there more to it than that?
The Twelve Disciples (as they later became known) also believed that there was something significant about the number. After Judas Iscariot hanged himself, the remaining Eleven went through an elaborate process to select a formal replacement so that they would preserve their number.
Did Jesus and the Twelve know some secret to group dynamics and community structure? We can imagine that 12 is a magic number. It’s even, which would allow disciples to pair off on missions. It also allows for convenient groups of 3s, 4s, and 6s. It’s big enough to have some heft, but not so big that it’s unwieldy. Some ministries obsess over small group size, trying to land exactly at twelve.
But Jesus also had a bigger group of people who followed him and were considered his disciples (the 72, the band of women who funded his ministry, etc.); he didn’t limit his community to twelve. And although the Eleven chose Matthias to replace Judas, Jesus himself pulled in his brother James and his enemy Paul through powerful post-resurrection appearances.
There’s no one right size for a small group. Some small groups will thrive with 5-6 people. Others will be healthiest with 18-20 members. So much depends on personalities and group dynamics and participation rhythms.
What do you think the right-sized small group would be for you? What makes that a sweet spot? What will you do if you’re in a small group that’s bigger or smaller than that?