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The Starfish And The Spider, Part 4: Decentralised Organisations Stand On Five Legs

Here is part four of my summary and notes.

1. Circles – independent and autonomous groups. Different levels of ease in joining, different sizes and thus different levels of intimacy, but not lawless – they share the ‘norms’ of the organisation and grow in trust. Cell church, base communities and the like would probably be the Christian equivalent.

2. The Catalyst – an inspirational figure who initiates a circle but then fades into the background, handing over leadership to others and disappearing. Steve Chalke with his various initiatives? In Scripture, John the Baptist is a classic catalyst – ‘he must increase, but I must decrease.’

3. Ideology – the core beliefs are what keep a circle together. How strong the beliefs are and how strongly they are held will give indications of how long the circle will stay together. There may again be some broad parallels with churches here, although they may not completely hold. Circles with weak ideology hold while there is support in wider society for Christian values, but less so when the latter fades – to that end, this is true. Churches with stronger ideology and commitment probably do largely survive longer than others, but sustained opposition may affect that.

4. The Pre-Existing Network – a catalyst stands a better chance of building a circle if a platform can be built on a pre-existing decentralised network which functions as an infrastructure. Granville Sharp did this with the Quakers in the anti-slavery movement. The Internet makes decentralised organisations easier to start and to find. Christianity began from the pre-existing network of Judaism. Rarely does a group spring up in Christianity that has not been based on something else. (Although sometimes it is a reaction against it.) Fresh Expressions certainly do this – to the point that one URC minister friend called them ‘parasites’.

5. The Champion – catalysts need a charismatic, hyperactive person who will implement their vision and take it to the next level. For the anti-slavery movement it was Thomas Clarkson. However, he was not concerned about securing recognition for himself, and this last quality is the most obviously Christian of this approach. I find it hard to think of combinations of catalysts and champions in the Bible, but not worrying about recognition is deeply biblical, and not always what is wanted in a CEO-led, personality-driven church.

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Don’t Stuff The Dog

Angie Ward has an excellent piece at Leadership Journal entitled Don’t Stuff The Dog. She talks of how pet owners have deceased animals stuffed and left in the house as a sign of denial and also sometimes to scare off strangers. She makes this telling comparison:

Churches seem to have a special proclivity toward “stuffing the dog,” maintaining programs, buildings, and even members in an attempt to forestall necessary change. In the short term, it’s sometimes much easier to stuff a church’s pets than to acknowledge their death, grieve their loss, and give them an appropriate burial.

These pets may take the form of programs that are tied more to history than to current effectiveness; they may be personal favorites, the “pet projects” and ministries of influential leaders who don’t want to let go of them; or they may just be familiar mutts that everyone agrees have passed their prime, but are more familiar (or maybe just cheaper!) than a new animal.

… stuffed animals might bring temporary comfort to those inside the organization, but they may actually turn off or even frighten newcomers who aren’t familiar with the history and meaning behind them. Whether it’s a particular worship style, a ritual, an outdated program, or even a powerful clique within the church, visitors will usually be quick to notice that something’s not quite right. They may not stick around to find out what, or why.

It’s so hauntingly familiar. How often as church leaders we are called to exercise spiritual terminal care over a church group that does not realise or want to contemplate that it is dying. For all my interest in contemporary ministry, the classic meeting that fits this idea wherever I go is the Women’s Fellowship. The formula is predictable. They meet on a midweek afternoon for an hour. There are always three hymns taken from a long-superseded hymn book, an opening prayer that remembers the sick who cannot be present, and a speaker who may be religious in theme or not. It meets a genuine need mostly for elderly widows who would not otherwise see many people from week to week apart from Sunday morning.

However they often cannot understand why the women in the congregation who have more recently reached retirement age don’t want to join them. There has been a culture change, and these women generally prefer the home group. It’s more informal and in the best ones more opportunity for vulnerable openness and mutual support.

But while it’s easy to look down on outmoded Women’s Fellowships, we may miss the likelihood that the home groups may themselves soon need terminal care. A Bible study where the challenge of the material is dissipated by a quick closing prayer and the opportunity over tea and coffee afterwards to move onto less uncomfortable topics of conversation, anyone?

In truth, all such new formulations are prone to this danger before too long. It isn’t just about culture change, it’s about losing the vision and the passion. What am I doing, both to give outmoded activities terminal care and a decent funeral, but also to help ensure that our whole focus remains on life and discipleship? Jut introducing something new as if ‘cell’ or ‘base communities’ or whatever were the answer is to miss the point. To change the metaphor, what am I doing to promote new wine and new wineskins?