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The Starfish And The Spider, Part 6: Taking On Decentralisation

Notes etc for part six below.

Going after the catalyst or the circles won’t work – cf. attempts to destroy Al-Qaeda. Instead, those who want to counter starfish groups must use different tactics:

Strategy 1: Changing Ideology – rather than go after terrorist circles (cells) or catalysts (bin Laden, etc), change the ideology in areas where they thrive, e.g., bringing hope to hopeless, poverty-stricken villages. Has the church at times been crippled by subtle changes to her ideology? Missional Christians would probably answer, ‘yes’. If church members are asked what the main priority of the church is and frequently reply, ‘worship’, then the ideology may well have changed. It will have become a much more internalised organisation.

Strategy 2: Centralise Them – when a catalyst gains property rights (Apache Nant’ans being given cattle by the ‘Americans’), centralisation happens and the catalyst’s power moves from their example to their resources. Is this why issues of ‘the building’ are so crippling for churches and their mission?

Strategy 3: Decentralise Yourself – if you can’t beat them, join them. This could be where traditional Christianity needs to be dragged, kicking and screaming. Church decline and increasing age demographics are already causing a crisis; what if the current recession lingers for a few years? Might we need some radical rethinking? For a few years now, the Church of the Nazarene has been talking about bivocational pastors: might we? It could be a development of no-stipendiary ministers in local appointment. And that’s just to deal with the biggest expense on the average church.

The Starfish And The Spider, Part 2: Eight Principles Of Decentralisation

Here is part two of my summary of The Starfish And The Spider. Of the eight principles of decentralisation enunciated here, six fall together fairly early on in the book, but numbers seven and eight are separately scattered later on.

First principle of decentralisation: when attacked, a decentralised organisation tends to become even more open and decentralised.E.g., killing of Apache Nant’ans, suing of P2P networks. Decentralisation is not new to Christianity with the emerging church. Not only did it exist in movements like the Brethren, it has surely also been a reason for the flourishing of underground churches in countries where Christians are persecuted for their faith. If persecution of the church broke out in the west, Brafman and Beckstrom’s theory suggests our spider structures would leave us vulnerable to decimation, but a move to starfish decentralisation could help us survive and thrive. If this were to be true, what steps should we take now?

Second principle of decentralisation: it’s easy to mistake starfish for spiders. Whatever the advantages of centralisation, distributed power can make for quicker decisions and adaptation. No-one’s in charge, yet everyone is. No-one owns the group. Each can do what they believe is right.

Third principle of decentralisation: an open system doesn’t have central intelligence; the intelligence is spread throughout the system. Information and knowledge naturally filters in from the edges, where the action is. This is about working from the margins, a typical postmodern theme, but also one that resonates with the Gospel. God uses a small, insignificant nation like Israel; the Messiah is born into obscurity, salvation comes through the Cross, etc.

Fourth principle of decentralisation: open systems can easily mutate. Note the spread of AA. Those of us who work in centralised churches will appreciate this point, given how long it can take to get permission for action. It would be interesting to hear the perspectives of Christians in more federal or independent traditions.

Fifth principle of decentralisation: the decentralised organisation sneaks up on you. Fast mutation means rapid growth and with it, the quick takeover of an industry. Brafman and Beckstrom cite the changes in the music industry, from the dominance of individual performers, to the power of the record labels in signing artists, and then the P2P networks, the last phase taking only five years to cause damage. However, they might want also to bear in mind the way things generally happen faster today, due to improvements in communications technology (on which P2P depends). One might think of the progress made by the early Church as a parallel, but it doesn’t entirely work. What began in a largely decentralised form became more and more centralised (‘catholic’) and eventually achieved a takeover through Constantine, which meant considerable centralisation. So a Christian equivalent is difficult to find.

Sixth principle of decentralisation: as industries become decentralised, overall profits decrease. The record companies lost profits, and the P2Ps hardly made any. For a church based on megachurches and stipendiary clergy, ‘profit’ is an issue. Well, income is. Decentralised churches have lower running costs: they have fewer buildings and programmes, and their leaders are far more likely to be bivocational. Rather, they concentrate on community and relationships, qualities that are not absent in traditional churches and indeed are ascribed high value there, but which do not always get the concentration they deserve because centralised structures get in the way.

Seventh principle of decentralisation: put people into an open system and they’ll automatically want to contribute. Apache software, Wikipedia, etc – no profit for contributors, just the pleasure of contributing and helping others. There may be chaos, but there will also be creativity. And we wonder about the problems of getting people to participate in church life. Is it because we are too centralised and there is little incentive, only a sense of obligation and moral pressure we put on people we are trying to persuade to help out? Do we prefer orderliness to chaos and this miss out on creativity? Cf. keeping ‘good order’ at communion is biblical but wrongly centred on a person and an office, not on teaching (1 Cor 1 & 11).

Eighth principle of decentralisation: when attacked, centralised organisations tend to become more centralised. Obvious examples w.r.t. Islamic terrorism and centralisation of US ‘Federal’ government. This could be life and death for the church, though, when persecution comes. 

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’.