The Starfish and the Spider: What Craigslist and Burning Man Teach Us

[Editor’s Note: If you’re just joining us, we are in the middle of reading through “The Starfish and the Spider” by Ori Brafman and Rod Beckstrom. Each Monday and Thursday I’ll summarize a few important principles from a chapter in the book. Each Tuesday and Friday, I’ll apply those principles to the starfish-shaped church I believe the Lord is building in the Earth.]

“A Sea of Starfish” was the book’s attempt to give us a number of contemporary examples of starfish organizations to better get our minds around the possibilities of decentralized organizations.  Skype, Craigslist, Apache, and the Burning Man festival were all profiled in order to highlight how decentralized organizations can operate without being chaotic. While all of these are “secular” organizations1, the underlying lesson this chapter teaches has much to say about how we can be faithful to how God designed the church.

The one key principal that allowed for these groups to thrive without a centralized leadership is what the authors call an “open system.” In an open system, an organization is established where everyone is allowed to participate. There is an implicit trust in the participants that they will mutually care for the group and participate in its health.  Many of the decisions for open systems are decided by the participants themselves and not by a leader or an executive committee.  In an open system, care for the members isn’t directed by a leader, but by other members as they see needs.

Imagine a church that operates like this. A church as an “open system” would have meetings where everyone who came could and should participate (1 Corinthians 14:26). It would trust the ministry that is often expected of one person to the whole body (Romans 12:4-8). I have to believe that such a church would continually emphasize the “one anothers” of Scripture. It would put the church in the hands of the church and in so doing, put it in the hands of Jesus.

This church wouldn’t necessarily exist without leadership. First, and primarily, each member would be individually submitted to Jesus and operate out of that submission. He will act as the true leader in the midst of such a church, orchestrating a grander plan than any of us could imagine.  Because the church is an open system, mutual accountability to each other in light of Christ’s Lordship would be practiced (Ephesians 5:21). Any time a believer began to operate outside of submission to Jesus, one member within the church would correct the other. Members within this open system that are known for their submission to Jesus over time would even be given authority to protect the system but not control it (1 Peter 5:1-5, Acts 14:23, James 5:14).

This type of church is possible, but it is also messy. We get skittish the first time someone who isn’t “trained” addresses the group or they speak for way too long. The first time heresy is taught by someone within the group, we start to want to go back to the good old days. People with messy lives will be seen more often and those who are a bit more mature may be seen less.  Over time, however, a church like this would grow together. They would learn how to love each other, bear with one another, correct each other in love, and everyone would gain a greater appreciation for the lordship of Christ and the truth of the Bible.

This type of “open system” church is possible, but we need to be able to embrace “the mess.” God is a God of order, for sure, but His order looks more like a forest or an ocean than like graveyard where everything is in rows.  The life it produces is infinitely more valuable than predictable “meetings” with very little life. We have to trust that Jesus is able to lead every member of His body, not just a select few.

Open system churches are possible. They are biblical. They exist. What’s stopping you from being part of one?

Or even better, what’s stopping you from starting one?

1The Burning Man festival is especially not known for being a center of righteousness. While I can’t endorse everything that goes on there, I want to point out that Jesus specifically found examples of the Kingdom in every sphere of society, especially in places the religious elites never would have assumed it could be found.  This is where we have to be very careful to eat the chicken and spit out the bones.

Other Entries in this Series Include:

The Starfish and the Spider: Introduction

The Starfish and the Spider: Introduction II

The Starfish and the Spider: On Napster and Apache Leadership

The Starfish and the Spider: P2P Networks and Spiritual Nant’ans

The Starfish and the Spider: The Spider, the Starfish, and the President of the Internet

The Starfish and the Spider: Centralized or Decentralized

The Starfish and the Spider: A Sea of Starfish


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About traviskolder

Travis Kolder is a follower of Jesus, a husband, a father of five, an organic church planter, and a writer. He lives in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, where he serves as part of the Cedar Rapids House Church Network.

3 responses to “The Starfish and the Spider: What Craigslist and Burning Man Teach Us”

  1. Barton Jahn says :

    Travis…I read your post this morning…you described the house church of about 125 people where I became a Christian in 1970 at age 18…years before “house churches” became popular as smaller and more intimate pieces of a larger sized congregation.

    I won’t go into details on to say it was “open” yet structured and ably led.

    The point I want to make here…which is very important…it that Protestantism has morphed slowly towards what it broke away from in the 1500’s. One of the key issues in the Reformation was the translating and printing of the Bible in the languages of the common people…English, French, German, etc…which allowed people to read for themselves what was in the Bible…rather than relying upon the priests to interpret for them…

    …which produced indulgences, pilgrimages, and the veneration of relics…none of which is in the Bible and completely fabricated by men in order to make money and have political power.

    In organized Christianity we have a “sit down, be quiet, and pay your tithe” attitude…with the only participation occurring every week by those leaders “ordained” to be acceptable.

    This is the opposite of the “open” system where each Christian feels a responsibility to the Holy Spirit to come to the meeting “prayed up” and willing to be used…according to the spirit of humility and unselfish giving in love.

    This sense of personal responsibility and self-worth generated by trust being placed in us by God…98% of the time causes people to rise to the occasion. The few times when mistakes occur they become lessons to avoid in the future.

    By limiting all participation to the pastor and the few church leaders week after week…we have created a dependency again upon people rather than God.

    Orthodoxy and correct doctrine can be integral in an open system.

    In warfare, the soldiers and sailors and airmen have to shoot the bullets, fire the cannons, and fly the planes. How can Christians learn to do this in a public setting of church if only a very few people are allowed…considered…to be capable?

  2. Tim Aagard says :

    “Members within this open system that are known for their submission to Jesus over time would even be given authority to protect the system but not control it (1 Peter 5:1-5, Acts 14:23, James 5:14).”

    The scriptures you give speak about elders but none of them speak of “authority”. Elders are given responsibility to guard and warn the system but that does not include authority as far as I can find. Jesus said, “…exercising authority…, not so among you…”, and “all authority has been given to me, there for go…”. We all know how the current authority system uses corrupt translations like “obey those that have the rule over you” or “Let the elders who rule we’ll…” to set up a pecking order or chain-of-command. We should observe that when men have authority it goes to their head and heart to elevate which ends the mutual submission. It includes an identity change from servant to boss. This is little different than the sexual identity exchanges going on in the world since Noah and Israels rejection of God as their King. I admit I have an authority problem in the household of faith. I don’t like bogus authority, even when it is portrayed in nice and sweet terms.

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