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Internet Nominated For Nobel Peace Prize

The Nobel Committee must be having a laugh, right? Nominating the Internet for the Nobel Peace Prize – they must have gone soft in the head this last year or two. Last year Barack Obama only had to breathe and suddenly he was a Nobel Laureate, at best on grounds of aspiration, certainly not on what he had achieved after a matter of months in the Oval Office.

Yes, there are plenty of good things on the Internet, and yes, a certain proportion of it is about ‘dialogue, debate and consensus’, but then there are the flame wars, the pornography, the terrorism and government monitoring, to say nothing of the dross, the mundane, the trivial and the narcissistic.

In any case, there is much more to peace than ‘dialogue, debate and consensus’. In Judaeo-Christian terms peace involves harmony, justice, healing and reconciliation just for starters.

And who would receive the award? Tim Berners-Lee, maybe? I can’t help thinking of the story that Rod Beckstrom and Ori Brafman tell in ‘The Starfish and the Spider‘ about being quizzed by French officials years ago with a persistent question: “Who is the President of the Internet?” Despite their frequent attempts to explain its decentralised nature, their inquisitors needed an answer. Only when one of them said he was the President of the Internet were they satisfied.

So, come on Nobel Committee – tell us you just wanted to give us all a giggle.

Sabbatical, Day 31: Links, Lent, Movies And Books

Before today’s news, here are some links. Let’s kick off with a survey. What kind of technology user are you? The Pew Internet and American Life Project has a quiz. I am an ‘ominvore‘. (Via the Comodo Monthly Insider email.)

The Evangelical Alliance has a resource launching on 5th March entitled ‘Square Mile‘. To quote their email:

Mercy: demonstrating God’s compassion to the poor
Influence: being salt and light in the public life of the community
Life Discipleship: equipping Christians for missional living as workers & neighbours
Evangelism: faithful and relevant communication of the gospel
Square Mile is an exciting initiative, designed to catalyse and equip the UK Church to take a truly integrated approach to mission in partnership with the Alliance and Community Mission.
Square Mile resources include a new DVD-based course designed for small groups, which explores these four areas of mission. Featuring insights from: Shane Claiborne, Mark Greene, J John, Tim Keller, Elaine Storkey, Jim Wallis and N.T. Wright, as well as examples of grassroots projects around the UK. A journal is also availabe containing daily readings, reflections and activities covering four weeks – ideally used alongside the DVD course.

Ruth Haley Barton has an article for the first week of Lent: Practising Repentance.


If it isn’t one, then it’s the other. Mark went back to school today, and Rebekah was off sick. She had diarrhoea in the night and this morning. I’ll spare you further grisly details. 

Thus today I have been a teacher and an entertainer. Not that far removed from ministry, is it? I helped her with her reading, her spelling homework and her Maths game.

As a reward, we allowed her to paint a mug. Not one of our existing mugs, one that came in a box with paints and brushes. She has decorated a couple before, but I put the last one in the dishwasher and the paint began to peel. If everything King Midas touched turned to gold, most things I touch shatter into several pieces.

Either side of lunchtime, Debbie, Rebekah and I watched ‘Chitty Chitty Bang Bang‘ on DVD. It came out in 1968, and I saw it at the cinema first time around. If I didn’t feel old enough already, what with the fact that tomorrow I enter the final year of my forties, I felt even more decrepit remembering that fact.

As I watched it, I mused on this thought. Today, we are used to discussing serious themes in films. Organisations like Damaris Trust and others produce first class material to help in that matter. Usually, the movies chosen are not children’s titles. Yet Chitty Chitty Bang Bang has some simple ideas that would bear some exploration. Here are just a few. 

Career-wise, do you follow your dreams, imagination and creative talent, even into penury that affects you and your family, in the hope it will work out in the end, or do you just take a routine mundane job? (Caractacus Potts)

How do you deal with the fact that evil is sometimes blatant and other times disguised? (The Child Catcher)

How do you hang on in the face of evil while injustice reigns? (The villagers keep their children underground, not seeing the sun, while the Baron and his forces seek to eliminate children.)

Can you have successful marriages and relationships across wide socio-economic barriers? (Caractacus Potts doesn’t propose marriage to Truly Scrumptious until he realises his invention of Toot Sweets is going to make him wealthy, just as she is.)


And finally, just a little tiny bit of sabbatical work today. Some of that was reading the terms and conditions for signing up to Survey Monkey. I’m glad I read these. I have to be very careful how I word emails in which I invite people to complete my survey, and include various items to avoid Survey Monkey deleting my account. Clearly they are protecting themselves against use by spammers. I have to include an ‘unsubscribe’ link and my snail-mail address. The problem with ‘ubsubscribe’ will be that I may not be using a mailing list full of individuals, so I’ll need to think of a way around that.

The other thing that has happened is this. You may recall my recent series of posts on The Starfish And The Spider. There was another similar book I also wanted to read. Well, at last, after several weeks on order and being number one in the queue to read it next, ‘Here Comes Everybody‘ by Clay Shirky found its way to North Melbourne Library today, and it is sitting on my desk at last. I had taken to reading something that is not sabbatical related, but which is thought-provoking on a general theme: ‘The God I Don’t Understand‘ by Chris Wright. I may need to return to that later now.

The Starfish And The Spider, Part 8: There Are New Rules To The Game

Here is the final part of the series. You will see a number of recurring themes here, in what virtually amounts to the book’s own summary of itself.

1. Diseconomies of Scale – small outfits with minimal overheads can bring revolutions. How the church needs to hear that, in place of megachurches, buildings, stipends and so on. I seem to be doing myself out of a job!

2. The Network Effect – adding one more person to the network costs little but adds value to them and the existing network. Assumes greater sharing by new network members – this won’t work if we treat people as pew fodder.

3. The Power of Chaos – standardisation squelches creativity. In a starfish, anyone can have a go. Churches think of newcomers as those who can be fitted into the currently vacant jobs. We don’t start with people and see what they can do and then shape church around that.

4. Knowledge at the Edge – not just from on high but the margins too. (Typically postmodern!) Body of Christ metaphor. God works from the fringes, too.

5. Everyone Wants to Contribute – people join a starfish for this reason. This requires reconceiving received models of church if we are to operate as starfish. Many wouldn’t join us for this reason.

6. Beware the Hydra Response – attacking a starfish organisation conventionally generates a many-headed response. Again, I think of persecution in the early church. As they were attacked in one town, they fled to another and more churches began.

7. Catalysts Rule – they inspire people to action rather than running the show, and they know when to let go. However, if one becomes a CEO, the starfish is in jeopardy. This is a radically different vision for leadership. How easy it is to default to CEO.

8. The Values Are the Organisation – ideology is the fuel of the starfish. In the church we have too easily defaulted to ‘institution’ as the definition of organisation, whether it’s seeing episcopacy as the esse of the church (as in Anglo-Catholic theology), or in seeing recruitment of new members as a matter of maintaining the institution rather than sharing the Gospel.

9. Measure, Monitor and Manage – measurement still happens despite ambiguity, but in different ways. It looks at the activity of the circles, how distributed the network is, the health of a circle, continued participation of members, etc. They are more dynamic measurements than static numbers and harder to quantify. Puts a new light on the October Count for Methodists. How would we go about assessing the spiritual health of our groups? How would we handle the inevitable subjectivity? It would also require sensitive handling when the assessment is negative.

10. Flatten or Be Flattened – the power of decentralisation is causing more companies to flatten or at least become hybrids. Decentralisation looks chaotic, even like entropy, but it is powerful. This sounds like an argument of the ‘You must move with the times’ variety. The real question is whether decentralisation is consistent with Scripture. In many ways it is. We have to be wary of where particular applications contradict Christian theology, whether it is eBay‘s ‘people are basically good’ creed (which they couldn’t completely live with, hence the hybrid with PayPal) or the use of the theory in support of violence (al Qaeda, Animal Liberation Front). 

Sabbatical, Day 11

First of all, a bit of techie stuff: late last night I finally succeeded in installing Ubuntu Linux in a separate partition on the hard drive of my laptop. Previously, I’ve managed to install it within Windows using ‘wubi’ on our desktop, but that PC always protested regarding a separate installation. Anyway, I saw a suitable hand-holding article in Computeractive magazine in a newsagent last week. I bought it and it came in handy yesterday evening. So now I can have some fun.

Or so I thought. Ubuntu doesn’t recognise the wireless receiver in the laptop, so I can’t connect to the Internet through it while I’m here. Windows Vista only for that task. I’ll be able to use it when connected via an Ethernet cable to our router at home. Not exactly the flexibility you hope for with a laptop, but at least there is an operating system that will to some extent substitute should Windows ever fall over or crawl in RAM.

Anyway, to change the words of Olivia Newton-John, let’s get spiritual. The lectures have been extraordinary today, right from the get-go. Phil Meadows could hardly read a quote from Samuel Chadwick at the beginning of our first session this morning without weeping. A lecture that began in prayer ended in prayer, with some overcome by the power of the Spirit. A constant theme today has been pain at people in church not receiving Gospel basics. It hasn’t been the judgmentalism of such people that can be found in some evangelical circles: it has more been an agony. And the recurring response has been that we are just as free to proclaim the Gospel as we always have been, but with it we are free to be persecuted. There is a constant historical thread that people who have initiated reform or renewal in the church have done so from the margins (how postmodern is that? If you’ve followed my Starfish and the Spider posts, you’ll have seen it recurring there) and have suffered for doing so.

After lunch we had the coffee and cakes I mentioned yesterday. I ended up sitting again with Stephen Skuce, talking about all sorts of things from family to church life to – yes, the question of a PhD again. I shared a particular misgiving I have about the idea. Not the money: we’ll pray about that if it’s right. But I’ve been deeply concerned about motivation. I don’t want to explore this if it’s just an ego trip to get more alphabet soup after my name. Stephen encouraged me that there might be a number of worthy reasons for pursuing one. I really wasn’t ready for these conversations. Suddenly these ideas are accelerating and I’m thinking ‘Oo-er’. Clearly, I shouldn’t have opened my big mouth on Monday!

Well, I’m going to draw this to a close in a moment. I’m typing this whilst taking part in a chat with three other students about children’s openness to God and other aspects of the Holy Spirit’s ministry. Also, someone wants to find the Lego Gospel on the web and have a look. There are a few possible sites she might mean: The Brick Testament, this YouTube clip

or maybe this site.

See you tomorrow.

The Starfish And The Spider, Part 7: The Hybrid Organisation

Part seven below – a bit shorter today.

Not everything about centralisation is bad. It is sometimes possible to hybridise spider and starfish philosophies in an organisation. There are two main types of hybrid:

1. A Centralised Company that Decentralises the Customer Experience – eBay is built on mutual trust between buyers and sellers – ‘people are basically good’ – but  PayPal operates on ‘no trust’. Amazon is centralised, but user reviews are read avidly. Some Christians are understandably nervous about the eBay creed that ‘people are basically good’, and rightly so, but a church will not function without trust. It also needs accountability.

2. A Centralised Company that Decentralises Internal Parts of the Business – e.g., make each section of the company independent and accountable on a profit-and-loss basis or use ‘appreciative inquiry’ to pair people from different parts of the company who share their ideas non-hierarchically. Methodist churches are not independent in this way, except for the schedules. Non-hierarchical sharing is probably something many would like, though, but may generally be resisted by some ministers.

The decentralised sweet spot is the point along the centralised-decentralised continuum that yields the best competitive position. It may change over time. This is a problem of agility for the church, an especially tricky issue for older churches.

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 5: The Catalyst’s Tools

Here is part five of my notes and summary. My comments again are in red.

Genuine interest in othersisn’t this simply what Christian love is meant to be about? Not knowing people because they can be useful, but for who they are.

Loose connections – catalysts know a lot of people, (but few of them deeply). This gives them more people to connect together. Does this mean they have to be extraverts?

Mapping – catalysts are constantly thinking who in their networks can help, but they are also making new connections and circles. Too few of such people in the church. Is this why a [named friend of mine] can’t survive in the ministry?

Desire to help – this is essential to the work of a catalyst, otherwise the circles are me-centred and will collapse. What do we want to help people with in the church, and what do people want help with? Do our answers reflect missional priorities?

Passion – this, rather than command and control, is the drumbeat. In the church, we have less command and control being a voluntary society, but whether we are characterised by passion is a question that would draw highly varying answers.

Meet people where they are – not a directive advice-giver, but an intent listener. Giving advice creates hierarchy. Non-directive counselling is controversial in the church,  because it seems to go against notions of ‘absolute truth’. There is a need to loose people from a dependency culture upon pastors and in that the non-directive approach is helpful, but it can become about people following whatever they conceive their own truth to be. The guard against this in starfish circles is presumably the ideology.

Emotional Intelligence – however intelligent a catalyst is, leading with emotions helps create bonds of kinship. This seems to be about the importance of creating relationships rather than just using people in service of the cause.

Trust – a catalyst trusts the network and consequent outcomes without controlling it. Quite a challenge to depend on trust, not control.

Inspiration – inspiring others to a goal that isn’t about personal gain for them or the catalyst: “This isn’t about me.” Plenty of Christian parallels here, seeking glory for God.

Tolerance for ambiguity – ability to cope with not knowing, and with chaos. Not always what we want to hear, but this could be viewed as living by faith!

Hands-off Approach – getting out of the way. The circles may be frustrated with lack of leadership, but asking ‘What are we supposed to be doing?’ stimulates action. Again, something very humble here. Not easy to do, counter-intuitive. But ultimately it’s what Jesus did with the apostles (notwithstanding the gift of the Spirit). One query would be the issue of entropy.

Receding – having inspired action, catalysts get out of the way and let the people they’ve connected get on with it. Again, humility, it’s not about me, enabling and empowering – deeply Christian and very far from how we often practise church.

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.

The Starfish And The Spider, Part 3: How Do You Tell A Starfish From A Spider?

OK, here’s part three of my summary. As before, my comments are in red.

1. Is there a person in charge? Yes = spider and classic traditional church approach. There is more to come later in the book about ‘catalysts’ and ‘champions’ in starfish organisations. Later I shall offer some thoughts as to how consonant such people are with biblical faith.

2. Are there headquarters? Yes = spider and classic traditional church approach. Definitely consistent with Old Testament faith, less so with New Testament, notwithstanding the rôle of Jerusalem in Acts 15.

3. If you thump it on the head, will it die? Yes = spider and although this would be true of centralised churches, especially where there is also a high dependency upon the leaders (including the local ones), you might argue this wouldn’t have happened in the apostolic churches, and hasn’t happened in persecuted churches in recent decades. Not that too romantic a picture should be painted, even of more decentralised churches, given Paul’s statement in Galatians that before his conversion ‘I was destroying the churches’ (softened to ‘I was trying to destroy‘ in some versions). But Jesus saw the church as indestructible.

4. Is there a clear division of rôles? Yes = spider. Does that make churches which practise clear delineations on talents, offices and spiritual gifts spider churches? However, the priesthood of all believers is most definitely starfish on this basis. It depends whether we are stressing equality or diversity.

5. If you take out a unit, is the organisation harmed? Yes = spider. How does this relate to Paul saying, if one part of the body suffers, all suffer? We feel the pain, but are we harmed? ‘The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church,’ said Tertullian – was he expounding a starfish church?

6. Are knowledge and power concentrated or distributed? Concentrated = spider, distributed = starfish. Most churches concentrate it in specialists like me. However, there is sometimes a co-dependent conspiracy on this one. Not only do we ‘specialists’ like to be the ‘experts’, congregations sometimes like us to be also, even when we passionately want to distribute knowledge.

7. Is the organisation flexible or rigid? Flexible = starfish, rigid = spider. Most of the church is the latter. This expresses a lot of the tensions commonly felt at ‘grassroots’ in the church, in contrast to the hierarchies. I’ve come across it in ecumenical churches where there is huge frustration that failure to agree by ‘the top brass’ (revealing description) hinders local work. It’s the same with Fresh Expressions.

8. Can you count the employees or participants? Yes=spider. Methodism is particularly obsessed by this, with the ‘October Count’, now renamed ‘Statistics for Mission‘. You can’t help wondering about that newer name: it is a form of branding to give it a respectable label, given the dislike of many ministers for the process? Counting numbers of people has positive and negative examples in Scripture: King David holds a census out of pride and a curse falls on the people, but on the other hand the Acts of the Apostles seems very interested in numerical growth. Note comments about ‘measurement’ happening in a different way in the final post of this series.

9. Are working groups funded by the organisation, or are they self-funding? Former = spider, latter = starfish. I find churches to be a mixture of both. Most stuff is self-funded at a local level, making us a bit more starfish-like, except that with anything major we have to jump through various hoops set up by the hierarchy. Particularly large projects will include applications for grant funding, and that increases the spider content. One interesting factor in Methodism is the issue of trustees. The local Church Council members are but the ‘managing trustees‘ of the property for wider Methodism who technically own the building, yet the primary responsibility for maintenance rests with them.

10. Do working groups communicate directly or through intermediaries? Former = starfish, latter = spider. This is a difficult one in church life. Formally, we tend to be spiders, with different committees reporting to the Church Council, with churches reporting to the Circuit, and so on. However, when we get down to a small scale, especially with church decline, we can be more direct in our communication, because we have become more informal and closer in proximity to each other.

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.