Summary: Because everything we’ve known is from the world’s system, we have a hard time making sense of how the Kingdom of God operates. But the difference between a starfish and a spider helps us out. A spider is a centralized animal with a head with a brain, while a starfish is a decentralize animal with a neural network. The Kingdom of God is like a starfish.
Previously we learned that the Church is undergoing a revolution of its basic structure. It’s getting back to God’s original design for it – a decentralized network of individuals and churches. As our culture has begun to adopt it, so has the Church. These are not new, but ancient principles that allow Christ to lead how He wants to lead in a “though they are many, they are one” (I Cor. 12:20) sort of way.
It’s hard to make sense of the Kingdom
For some reason, us humans seem to always come back around to clamoring for centralized power. It happened with God’s people in the Old Testament when they wouldn’t be satisfied with an invisible king and clamored for a human one. It happened a few centuries after Christ when the Roman Empire made Christianity the religion of the state. The early church started off decentralized, but eventually the world’s centralized system was allowed to work its way back into the mix.
Let’s be honest. It’s hard to abandon the world’s centralized system for the Kingdom’s decentralized system. The world and all of its entities (government, religion, education, business, etc.) are what we grew up on; and they’re all centralized. It’s no wonder when people are exposed to a decentralized system, they can have a hard time making sense of it. We’re not used to being in a system where no one decides, but everyone decides. How the heck does that work? Don’t we all just go around in circles and get nowhere?
The starfish and the spider
Let’s see if we can make a little bit more sense of how each system works with physical metaphors.
In the book The Starfish and the Spider: The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations, Ori Brafman and Rod Beckstrom attempt to help us by comparing, you may have already guessed it, a starfish with a spider. A spider is designed with a head, legs, a body, and some eyes. It could survive without a few legs or eyes. But if you cut off the head, it dies.
Brafman and Beckstrom point out this about the starfish…
The starfish doesn’t have a head. It’s central body isn’t even in charge. In fact, the major organs are replicated throughout each and every arm. If you cut the starfish in half, you’ll be in for a surprise: the animal won’t die and soon you’ll have two starfish to deal with.
The starfish doesn’t have a brain. It’s a neural network. For it to move, there is no central command that tells the whole creature to move. Instead, one of the arms has to “convince” the others to move along with it. It’s a collaborative process that’s unlike the forced processes that systems with central commands operate by.
The Kingdom is like a starfish
This is what the Church was designed to be like. No, churches that operate in a decentralized system don’t go around in circles and get nowhere. They lay hold of the Life within and move collaboratively as they are led to, just like a starfish. The Life is spread throughout the system and the Life’s power is equally held throughout all parts.
It’s really not difficult at all to identify a spider church from a starfish church. Brafman and Beckstrom give these questions to ask…
- Is there a person or persons in charge? If there are chain-of-command relationships present, you have a spider.
- Are there headquarters? If there’s a central address, you have a spider.
- If you thump it on the head, will it die? If a particular person can leave for a year and things change, you have a spider.
- Is there a clear division of roles? If there are groups of people within that operate in silos independent of one another, you have a spider.
- If you take out a unit, is the organization harmed? If the church gets cut in half and can’t survive and regenerate, you have a spider.
- Are knowledge and power concentrated or distributed? If these are concentrated at the top, you have a spider.
- Is the organization flexible or rigid? If the church can’t quickly change and adapt to new circumstances, you have a spider.
- Can you count the participants? If its easy to count because there are records, you have a spider.
- Are working groups funded by the organization, or are they self-funded? If each unit needs to be given funding from the organization, you have a spider.
- Do working groups communicate directly, or through intermediaries? If groups can’t work directly together, but must get permission or approval from “headquarters,” you have a spider.
The Kingdom of God operates like a starfish. It’s a neural network where…
- no one’s in charge
- there’s no headquarters
- there’s no head to cut off (it’s invisible throughout the network)
- individuals and groups are interdependent
- units replicate and regenerate
- knowledge and power are distributed throughout
- quick changes and adaptations take place
- participants can’t be accurately counted
- self-funding takes place
- nodes in the network communicate and work together directly
If you want to live the type of church life God designed you for, you have to be a part of a group that functions like a starfish instead of a spider.
The rest of the posts in the A Decentralized Network series are here.