Yesterday I spent some time looking at the introduction to “The Starfish and the Spider,” an organizational book written by Ori Braffman and Rod Beckstrom. It’s a book full of stories of decentralized, messy movements that are more resilient than top-down organizations. The goal is to draw some insights from each chapter that we can apply to the church in order to make her more resilient and reproducible.
The point of the introduction is to expose us to the idea that seemingly chaotic ordering has a wisdom to it. The brain is our first example. Memories stored across different cells and not in a file-cabinent-like manner help protect memories from being eliminated. While the process is not organized by our standards, the storage method is incredibly resilient.
“This book,” write the authors, “is about what happens when no one is in charge.” I’d like to turn that phrase on its head a bit for the sake of our study in relationship to the church. This study is about what happens when Jesus is in charge–not just in name only, but when we actually live as if He is the true leader of our churches. We’re not advocating anarchy in the church. We’re advocating a true submission to Jesus that works its way out through the whole body…resulting in a healthier, more resilient church.
Last year I had the chance to read a book called “Anti-Fragile.” In almost all respects, it’s not a Christian book. It defines three types of people, systems, and organisms. Some of them are fragile. They break in the face of adversity. Some of them are robust, meaning they hold up under adversity. But there is a third category that isn’t robust or fragile, but anti-fragile. Anti-fragile things not only weather adversity but they grow stronger because of it. Starfish churches–churches that are lead by Jesus and not by hierarchy–are anti-fragile. They not only survive pressure, they thrive and grow under it. It not only makes them hard to kill but easy to replicate.
Our goal in understanding the “starfish-shaped church” is just that–to understand how to structure the church to grow and thrive even under pressure. The days ahead will require it in ways that we’re not prepared for. Our job is to prepare now for those days that are coming.
Thursday, we’ll take a look at Chapter 1: “MGM’s Mistake and the Apache Mystery.”
The church that Jesus built was simple, reproducible, and flexible. You could kill one of its leaders and more would pop up in his or her place. Often times the persecution that came against the church would serve to strengthen it instead of kill it. This strengthening happened because in the way the church was structured, it was more like a starfish– You can rip of the arm of the starfish and not only would the arm grow back, but the starfish’s ripped arm would become a starfish of its own. There was power in being a simply structured organism that others fail to see.
This is where the book “The Starfish and the Spider” comes in. The authors begin the book detailing the quest to find the “Grandma Cell.” The quest for the Grandma Cell was one scientists went on to find which cells stored certain memories in the brain. They believed they would find that the memory of your grandma would be stored in every brain in a very specific place in multiple people’s brains. But what they found shocked them. Instead of the Grandma cell being stored in one place, they found memories stored in chains of cells distributed haphazardly across the brain. Not only were memories stored in more than one place, but more than one type of memory was stored in the same cell. It was a mess. The question was, “Why?”
The answer, as it turned out, was resiliency. Storing memories across different brain cells seemed inefficient in light of how we build computers, but memories stored this way across the brain protect it from memory loss. There’s not just one cell in the brain you could eliminate to take away someone’s memory of Grandma. You’d have to eliminate all the cells in the pattern. We think there is great safety in hierarchy, but sometimes simple, flat, even messy structures are the wise way to build something.
The book “The Starfish and the Spider” is about what happens when no one is in charge. Often times the hierarchy we think protects us makes us more vulnerable. It takes a look at a broad range of businesses, movements, and organisms that have no formal leadership structure and looks at how they succeed, even though no one believes that they will. As we’ll see, the things the authors learn as they go on their journey will have broad implications for how we “do” church.
More on that tomorrow…
Recently I’ve been writing about the book of Acts and Christianity’s tendency to treat it like a history book and not a roadmap. A brother stopped by and asked a great question: How has the book of Acts informed how you live your life? It’s a really important question because we can spend so much time talking about the book but not really living out what it’s instructing us. On Friday, I wrote about how Acts convinced me that God’s power is for today and how Acts has helped me understand apostolic passion. Today I want to take a look at a couple more ways Acts has helped me and our house churches.
Acts Informs My Evangelism- It’s hard to read the book of Acts without understanding the primary goal of the church was to carry the Gospel to every man, woman, and child they could. Jesus starts the book by commanding the apostles to take the gospel to Jerusalem, Samaria, and the uttermost parts of the Earth after they’ve been filled with the Holy Spirit. When the Holy Spirit comes, the apostles take the Gospel first to Jerusalem (Acts 1-7), then to Samaria (Acts 8), and then begin the process of taking the Gospel to the ends of the Earth. Once the Holy Spirit indwelt the church, moving the Gospel from one place to the next became the priority of Peter, James, Stephen, Phillip, Barnabas, Paul, Silas, Timothy, and many others. They were intentional. They were committed. They were unapologetic about the message of Jesus and His claims, even to the point of being threatened with death and killed.
While I am not the world’s leading expert on evangelism, I can tell you that Acts has informed the way I approach evangelism and the way in which I train others to approach it. We are following a resurrected Jesus that has been given all authority over Heaven and Earth and has commanded us to go and make disciples. The degree to which the apostles were willing to lay down their life for the Gospel speaks to the critical nature of it reaching people. We’re not apologizing for bringing our message or trying to hide the fact we want people to know about Jesus. We follow the examples of the apostles who were lovingly forward about the Gospel because they believed it changed men and women now and saved them for eternity.
Acts Informs My Church Planting- Ever since a faithful friend of mine in college challenged me to build a church planting strategy out of the book of Acts I’ve been mining my strategy (at least in part) from this book. Almost every single page is full of churches getting started and then being supported by the apostles. Peter preaches the Gospel in Acts 2 and a thriving church is born. Phillip shares the Gospel with Samaritans and a new church is born. Every city Paul walks into almost inevitably has a church started because lost people have come to Christ. While there are definitely other parts of Scripture that tell us what the church should look like (Ephesians, 1 Timothy and Titus spring to mind) Acts shows us how the apostles planted and watered the churches in real life, not just in theory.
Because of the book of Acts, our practice here in our house churches has been to see church planting happening in the context of men and women turning to Christ. This is the reason church planting is needed–churches are birthed where people are born again. Any other type of church planting is just moving existing Christians from one meeting to a new one. We don’t plant churches for new believers to come to. We lead people to Jesus and start churches when they do. When new churches are started, we follow the methods of discipleship and church formation we find in the book: We teach them to devote themselves to the Gospel, to fellowship together, to eat together, and to pray. We don’t always set up elders immediately for every church, but we do believe shared eldership is necessary. We try to maintain a healthy balance between serving the body and proclaiming the Gospel. Though we’re not great at it yet, we have a high value for continuing to move and plant new churches, believing that the harvest is plentiful and we need more laborers. If the moving the Gospel is the priority of the church, how we start churches should be impacted by that priority.
These are just a few of the ways Acts has impacted how we live out our lives on mission. I could write for days about how Acts has informed what we do. But what about you? How has Acts impacted how you do what you do?
Recently I’ve been writing about the book of Acts and Christianity’s tendency to treat it like a history book and not a roadmap. A brother stopped by and asked a great question: How has the book of Acts informed how you live your life? It’s a really important question because we can spend so much time talking about the book but not really living out what it’s instructing us. So in no particular order, here are some ways the book of Acts has informed my life and practice.
Miracles Didn’t End with Jesus or the Apostles- This is an easy one to understand. Miracles and the gifts of the Holy Spirit are found on nearly every page of this book. In fact, the more I read it, the more stunned I am that the supernatural ministry of Jesus was really continued in the Early Church instead of ending with Jesus. Now most people are okay with believing that the apostles did miracles, but we see all throughout Acts that other people did them as well. Stephen, Phillip, Ananias, and Agabus are all non-apostolic figures who where powerfully moved upon by the Holy Spirit. Some of the people who the Holy Spirit moved through were so ordinary, we don’t even know their names. Peter’s promise at the beginning of the book of Acts is as true today as it was then: “This promise is to you, to your children, and to those far away—all who have been called by the Lord our God.”
For me, seeing the continued activity of the Holy Spirit working in the life of the church and for the expansion of the Gospel constantly pushes me to believe God wants to do more miraculous things through me. God will still heal, deliver, and speak into situations in order to encourage the church and point the lost towards Christ. I’ve seen these things happen with my eyes, but Acts always forces me to believe for them to be a reality in my own life.
Apostolic Passion- I don’t know about you, but when I read through the book of Acts, I feel my heart rekindled in the area of apostolic passion. What is apostolic passion, you ask? It’s being gripped by God for the things He called you to, specifically in the areas of reaching the lost, making disciples, and planting churches. Obviously the greatest example of this in the book of Acts is the apostle Paul. I always marvel at this man because he would go into a city, preach the Gospel, lead many people to Christ, and then, after doing so would get stoned by the other half of the city. Most people wouldn’t survive this, but Paul not only survived: He went back in to the town that stoned him. While he left the next day, he would return and his missionary activity would speed up, not slow down. There was a passion in Paul to be faithful to what Christ had called him to even in the face of difficulty. We, especially as Americans, have a lot to learn from that.
In my life, I remember early on being taught about Paul from the book of Acts. The teaching wasn’t from his apostolic travels, but from his defense before Felix and Festus where Paul would tell the story of his conversion. When he was completely done, Paul would say “I obeyed that vision from heaven,” (Acts 26:19). I remember older believers encouraging me to model my life after Paul and give myself completely to being able to say at the end of my life “I obeyed the vision Christ gave me for my life.” More specifically, as I began to understand Christ’s call to reach the lost, make disciples, and plant churches, Paul’s persistence has taught me much about enduring for the sake of the Gospel. Reading Acts again and again has in a sense been like having a brother from another age cheering me on to be faithful in the same way he was.
That’s enough for today. Tomorrow I’ll write a bit more. Until then, what has the book of Acts taught you about following Christ?
What specifically does the book of Acts reference that may be easier to leave in the past?
A church focused on the Great Commission (Acts 1:8)
A church that encounters the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:3-4)
The church is a community calling people from sin to a focused, communal lifestyle (Acts 2:38-47)
Healings happen (Acts 3:7-8)
Untrained men are vessels for the Gospel (Acts 4:13)
The church had a supernatural unity that manifested itself in economic care (Acts 4:32-35)
God had high standards for his church (Acts 5:1-11)
Unusual miracles like the apostles’ shadows healing people (Acts 5:12-16)
Faithfulness to Jesus doesn’t save Stephen’s life (Acts 7:59-60)
The Holy Spirit doesn’t fall immediately at salvation (Acts 8:16)
God directs the harvest in crazy, supernatural ways (Acts 8:26, 39)
God chooses a murderer as a leader (Acts 9:5)
Trances (Acts 10:10)
Tongues (Acts 10:46-47)
Prophets predicting events (Acts 11:28)
The angel of the Lord striking people (Acts 12:23)
God sending blindness on someone (Acts 13:11)
Persecution (Acts 14:19-20)
“We must suffer many hardships to enter the Kingdom of God.” (Acts 14:22)
Elders appointed long after a church was established (Acts 14:23)
Demons being cast out (Acts 16:18)
Rapid church planting (Acts 17:2,10)
Tent-making apostles (Acts 18:3)
Visions that direct mission (Acts 18:9-10)
Unusual miracles like handkerchiefs healing people (Acts 18:11-12)
Paul providing for his own needs (Acts 20:34)
“It is more blessed to give than receive.” -Jesus (Acts 20:35)
Personal prophecy and the difficulty with interpretations (Acts 21:10-14)
Visions of Jesus directing people (Acts 22:17-21)
“…all must repent of their sins and turn to God—and prove they have changed by the good things they do.” -Paul (Acts 26:20)
Angels directing people (Acts 27:23)
“Then all the other sick people on the island came and were healed.” -Acts 28:9
What did I miss?
…I believe its an instruction manual.
There’s a big swath of Christianity that would disagree with me. Acts is history, they say. It’s meant to describe the earliest days of the church. It’s meant to link Jesus to the work that was carried on first by Peter, then by Paul, they’d argue. In some circles the book of Acts is just an inspired record, having more in common with the book of 1 Chronicles or Judges than something containing instructions to be learned from.
I have a few problems with that line of reasoning…
First, Luke clearly sees the book of Acts as a continuation of the Gospel of Luke. Go ahead and read Acts 1:1-2. Week in and week out the same people who teach that Acts is just inspired history will teach the book of Luke without issue. Granted, Jesus was perfect, the apostles weren’t. I get it. While not perfect, Luke clearly paints the apostles as changed men when the Holy Spirit has come upon them. They are the continuation of the work that Jesus started. The Bible is also fairly good at pointing out in historical narratives good examples to follow or bad examples to avoid. Acts clearly paints the apostles as an example to follow.
Secondly, I believe Paul when he says that “All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful to teach us what is true and to make us realize what is wrong in our lives.” No one arguing that Acts is divinely recorded history would argue that it isn’t Scripture. Many will argue that Acts is Scripture in one breath and argue that we shouldn’t draw conclusions from it in the next. If Acts is Scripture (it is), then Acts is both inspired and useful for teaching and correction.
Lastly, Paul argued in several places throughout the New Testament that we are to follow him as he followed Christ (see 1 Corinthians 11:1, for example). For the first century believers, Paul lived a life for believers to see and pattern themselves after. For us, post-Paul’s death, Acts is one of the only places we can actually see his life lived out as an example to follow. We need to make better use of it.
Why is this such a big deal?
The book of Acts is crazy. It tells a story of a people who had their lives turned upside down by the resurrection of Jesus and then were radically filled with the Holy Spirit. These people started as a small group of people hiding and went on to become a missionary force that would convert the Roman Empire. Acts should convict us about what is possible when God is central and convict us about the places in our hearts where He’s not.
Not only that, but there are truths about the nature of the church that are designed to show us how the church should operate. Acts is a record of a missionary church planting movement that multiplied at incredible speed with minimal complexity. While we want to balance the truths found there with the truths found elsewhere in Scripture, we’d be foolish to ignore the tremendous story of the expansion of the church just because it was presented to us as a historical record and not as a systematic teaching.
We have to learn from the book of Acts. We have to sit at the feet of the apostles as they are presented to us and learn how to follow the risen Christ by the Spirit like they did. We cannot keep believing Acts isn’t for us. It’s for us and our children and people in the far future (Acts 2:39). If we believe that we can learn from Acts, we will begin to live like the apostles and early church did then, following Jesus by the Spirit.
If we can believe it is an instruction manual and not history, we can begin to enter into the lifestyle of apostolic Christianity and not just relegate it to the past.
I’ve been combing through the book of Acts lately trying to understand what made the early church such a dynamic movement. This isn’t the first time I’ve done it, nor will it be the last. It’s a bit of an obsession with me. You’ll have to deal with it.
A few days ago I stumbled across something that I had missed in other translations. Acts 2 describes the coming of the Holy Spirit in the upper room and the message Peter preached in an attempt to explain it. When Peter finishes declaring the Gospel, many, many people come to Christ and the first church is born. This infant church begins practicing what I’ve taught as the four essentials of church for a long time (devotion to the Gospel, fellowship, eating together, and prayer).
What gripped me, though, was the next verse. It wasn’t the description of what the church did–it was the description of what the church had. Here’s what Luke records:
And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles.
What struck me as I read it was the translation of the word “awe.” I’m used to that word being translated as “fear.” Whenever the word is translated as fear in relationship to God, we often understand it as “the fear of the Lord,” which Scripture over and over again defines as a healthy spiritual reality, despite what modern teachers tell us. Here in the English Standard Version, the translators chose the word “awe.” I like this translation because I think it clearly states what Luke is trying to describe. In those early days, everyone was in awe of what God was doing.
As I started to dig into this word, I found that it was translated from the Greek word “phobos” which is where we get the word phobia from. This word is used across the New Testament to describe two seemingly different realities. One is the fear of something that is dreadful, but the other is a fear of God that spurs Christians to grow in proper relationship to Christ. So while I don’t doubt that fear is a proper translation, as I’ve thought about “awe” as it’s translated in Acts 2, I’m wondering if awe might be a closer English word to what Luke was trying to describe.
Why else would the New Testament say the following:
- So the church throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria had peace and was being built up. And walking in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it multiplied. (Acts 9:31)
- Therefore, knowing the fear of the Lord, we persuade others… (2 Corinthians 5:11)
- Since we have these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit, bringing holiness to completion in the fear of God.
- …submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ. (Ephesians 5:21)
- …work out your own salvation with fear and trembling… (Philippians 2:12)
- And if you call on him as Father who judges impartially according to each one’s deeds, conduct yourselves with fear throughout the time of your exile… (1 Peter 1:17)
Now go back and look at each of these passages and in the place of fear, replace it with awe. It’s not that fear is the wrong word, so much as it doesn’t touch the depths of fascination and respect that our English understanding of fear communicates. Imagine the church multiplying because it walks in the awe of God, persuading others about the reality of Christ because our hearts are awestruck by who He is, purifying ourselves because we’re so caught up in awe of God. Imagine a body of believers who conduct their lives in awe throughout their time on Earth…that is so awestruck by what God is doing in other believers that they submit to the Christ they see in each other! Living in the awe of God has a powerful influence on the way we live our lives.
I still believe that the church needs to return to the practices of Acts 2:42, but I’m starting to wonder if the church doesn’t desperately need to recover the “awe of God.” What if instead of just repeating the practices of the early church, we did them out of the awe of God and what He is doing?
Now awe is a funny thing. We can’t produce it in ourselves. God produces awe of Himself in the human heart, but we can learn to walk in it. We can hunger after the kind of experiences the early church had. We can seek to encounter the same Christ that worked miracles among the early church. We can lay aside our lesser fascinations and begin to fix our hearts again on the one we are supposed to live in awe of–Jesus. As we do, awe will grow. We’ll encounter Him more. As we encounter Him, our awe will grow.
When we have this awe of God glowing white hot in our hearts, it’s terribly easy to declare the goodness of Jesus and stand against persecution. Others will see it and turn to the Lord as well, especially as God shows up in the midst of those circumstances. In some crazy sort of way, as we experience the awe of God in our hearts, it whets the appetites of those around us and quickly others become hungry to encounter Jesus.
Friends, I’m writing today to encourage you to get an awe of God. If you’ve lost it, if you’ve never had it, or if you just want more of it, go back to God and ask Him for it. He will give you more awe if you ask.
Who knows? It may even be the start of a church planting movement like we see in the book of Acts.