The Starfish And The Spider, Part 1: Some Introductory Notes

As reported in recent posts, I have been typing up some quick notes on The Starfish And The Spider as part of my sabbatical work. I have split them into several parts. They will appear over the next few days, one part per day. You will find certain themes recurring, not least those of humility and trust.

I am following a convention in that my comments should appear in a different colour from the rest of the text.

I would be very interested in your comments.

So here goes with some introductory words.

The main thesis of the book lies in the metaphor to which the title alludes. Historic organisations are like spiders, with a central control point of a brain. If the legs are progressively removed, the organisation is crippled more and more. Starfish are different. There is no central nervous system. Neural characteristics are distributed throughout their body. Cut a starfish into two and they will both grow into new, separate creatures. Today, we are seeing similar changes in companies and organisations in society. On the Internet, P2P networks, eBay, craigslist and others all exhibit this starfish characteristic. Similarly, political campaigning organisations such as the Animal Liberation Front and terrorist groups like al-Qaeda operate like this.

Historically, tribes like the Apaches were able to survive the attacks of Cortes because they were decentralised and ‘leaderless’, unlike the Aztecs and Incas, who were simply weaker spiders than the Spanish spider.

The book examines the characteristics of starfish groups in more detail, considers how they might be countered and looks at hybrid companies that combine elements of starfish and spider.

My interest in the book comes from it having become influential in emerging and missional church circles. I want to consider how far its models are consonant with a biblically rooted faith, and how far it is simply a business management model that has been as uncritically adopted in these parts of the church as the consumer corporation approach, where the senior pastor is the CEO, has in megachurch and other post-Enlightenment style churches.

Centralised organisations have a coercive structure and they need this to function well. Decentralised groups have an open structure. Leaders have influence through their example but not power. Rules exist, but they are not enforced from the top, they are distributed across the network. Decisions can be made anywhere. How does this compare with apostolic ministry? Paul has authority, but he has to plead and exhort; he also calls people to imitate him as he imitates Christ. It is not completely decentralised, although Paul himself pops up separately from the original apostles. However, it seems far from later and contemporary authoritarian or centralised models of church and leadership. There is a question here about the biblical appropriateness of much church leadership. 1 Thessalonians 5:12ff talks about ‘leaders’ in the church who ‘are over you’, but the basis for their receiving respect is their ‘hard work’.


  1. Andrew,

    Thanks for dropping by to comment, especially as I love your blog. I finished the book a week or two ago, but only got to type up the notes earlier this week when my sabbatical began. It’s ended up as eight parts. Parts two to eight should each appear at 9 am on successive days over the next week.


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