Summary: 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 cells. 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” sort of way.
My typical initial church conversations with people take on a distinct pattern that go something like this…
Them: “Where do you go to church?”
Me: “We do organic house church.”
Them: “Oh that sounds neat, who’s the leader?”
It’s at this point that I want to say “Jesus,” but as you can imagine it tends to be more productive to just say “leadership revolves as everyone leads in different ways and at different times.” Although this still typically earns me a look of suspicion that I may be involved in a cult, it’s less intense than the “Jesus” answer would give me.
The Fundamental Principles of Decentralized Networks
But this seems to be changing more and more in recent years because of what’s happened in our culture. Because of technological advances like the Internet, people are being exposed to and operating by the fundamental principles of decentralized networks that are absent of top-down hierarchical structure, leadership and organization. You see them in inventions that have created online networks like Napster, Craigslist, Wikipedia, and Bitcoin.
It’s no mistake that the church is undergoing a revolution of the same sort, and it seems to be mostly starting with my generation (I graduated high school in 1996, right about the time the Internet was starting to explode). It’s being awakened to it’s organic, decentralized nature and bands of Christians across the world are starting to live by these new, but really ancient principles.
So what happens when there’s no humans in charge? Our culture is learning that it unlocks more strength, more resiliency and more wisdom; while the Church is learning that it ultimately unlocks God’s design for itself.
Some Examples From History
In the culture, you’ve got examples like P2P (peer-to-peer) networks where people share files back and forth with each other. At the beginning, big record companies sued these entities for copyright infringement. It worked, but only for a little while. After each court decision, new networks would pop up all over the world. But they would evolve. At the beginning, they were more centralized. Companies like Napster had a founder and a server off of which everything was hosted. There was something and someone to go after.
But then networks started popping up where founders were anonymous, unable to be located, and participants’ computers acted as the servers. The more decentralized these networks became, the less big record companies were able to do anything about it. After all, who are you going to sue? In fact, they had the opposite effect. Every time the record companies would sue, it would just add fuel to the fire.
In another example of the power of decentralized organizations from history, Ori Brafman and Rod Beckstrom talk about the Apache tribe five centuries ago in their book The Starfish and the Spider: The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations.
It was a time when Spanish explorers were coming to North America to get rich. You may remember the names of some of them from your history classes in grade school. Guys like Hernando Cortes and Francisco Pizzaro attacked and took down entire societies of people like the Aztecs and Incas. The thing about it is, it only took them a couple years to do it. All they had to do was use their superior skill and technology to kill the leaders and disrupt their societies. They seemed unstoppable until they came upon a different kind of people – the Apaches.
The Apaches were just as primitive, if not more so, than the other societies that got taken down. But the results were the opposite. The Spanish lost. As Brafman and Beckstrom point out…
…it was all about how the Apache’s were organized as a society. The Spanish couldn’t defeat them for the same reason that the record labels weren’t able to squash the P2P trend…they distributed power and had very little centralization. The Apache’s persevered because they were decentralized.
Doesn’t This Lead To Chaos?
In decentralized organizations, there’s no clear leader, no hierarchy and no headquarters. People automatically hear this and jump to the conclusion that they must have had chaos. That it must mean they had no leadership, no rules, no norms, and no boundaries. But, this wasn’t the case. They had all of those. They just left out the command-and-control-style relationships that mark top-down hierarchical structures.
Leadership was persuasive, not coercive. Decisions were made all over the place. Everyone was free to choose for themselves. Organization was driven by their common commitment to their tribe and its common purpose.
And the Apaches didn’t even have the divine advantage that the Church does – the Leader lives inside of each member. Wow!
As I’ll be writing about more in the weeks to come, this is God’s designed structure for His Church. Sure, God can use churches that operate by the world’s top-down hierarchical structure. But they’ll never be as as effective as they could be. Having been a part of both, I can tell you – it’s like comparing eating fast food for every meal versus eating real, healthy food. The experience and the results just don’t compare.
The rest of the posts in the A Decentralized Network series are here.