Tag Archive | Christianity

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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The Starfish and the Spider: A Sea of Starfish

[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.]

Today’s chapter focuses on five very different types of organizations that operate as decentralized entities. These organizations thrive by “checking” the decentralized side of the questionnaire we looked at yesterday, even though they are all very different.

Brafman and Beckstrom looked at Skype, Craigslist, Apache, Wikipedia, and the Burning Man festival. Each of these has a little different story: Skype started as the brainchild of one of the peer to peer file sharing site creators. He decentralized calling long distance. Craigslist started as a community of people looking to help, trade, and sell to one another that ended up shaking the newspaper industry. Apache began as a group of like-minded computer engineers who began to build patches for the Internet. As they began to take themselves more seriously, everyone else did as well and they began to create open-source technology that challenges the spider-like tech companies of the world.  Wikipedia began as a failed online encyclopedia that turned the role of content creation over to its users. Lastly, the Burning Man festival is the example of a real world (albeit temporary) community with no rules and no exchange of money that somehow maintains some sense of cohesion.

Each of these organizations have an interesting story of how they arrived at being starfish-like organizations, but they all have one trait in common–they put people in an open system.  Open systems are systems where each member of the community can interact and contribute others in the community.  No intermediary or expert is needed, simply a willingness to contribute and a trust in others within the system to similarly contribute.  Craigslist, Wikipedia, Apache, and even those at the Burning Man festival all trust that others around them will help fill in the gaps that others missed. It’s what makes something that should be chaotic somehow work.

There are tremendous implications in this for the church. We’ll look at those tomorrow…

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: Centralized or Decentralized

[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.]

First, let me acknowledge that today is not Tuesday. Sorry folks, work and time with Jesus were priorities. Now, on to the breakdown of Monday’s chapter…

Chapter Two was really about the fact that we’re studying two different creatures: Spiders and Starfish. We mostly live in a world of spiders and because of that we find it difficult to spot starfish when we see them.  They are so far out of what we consider normal that we miss them frequently. So the authors gave us a handy set of questions that show us the differences between decentralized organizations (starfish) and centralized organizations (spiders).

Within the chapter, the authors gave us a chart that showed the answers to these questions for two different organizations: One was a Spanish army, the other were the Apaches.  As you might guess, the Spanish army functioned like a spider (it was highly centralized) and the Apaches functioned like starfish (they operated in a decentralized manner).  It’s important to note that even these two groups weren’t pure starfish or pure spider, but they were certainly more of one than the other.

So, since today is the day where we look at how we apply these principles to the church, I thought I would take two different churches and place them in the matrix the authors designed. The first church I built a profile for is the first century church (or what we can observe of the first century church from Scripture).  The second church I built was the modern institutional church. I’ll say this ahead of time: I was trying to be generous with both groups and not bring my bias into the equation. You will most likely disagree with me, but realize that I was trying not to over-generalize.

First up is the First Century Church:

First Century Church

The first century church was very clearly a decentralized structure. There certainly was apostolic leadership, but it was only centralized for a very short period of time in Jerusalem and then through persecution and mission, it became difficult to find all of its leaders in the same city, much less the same room. Even then, there was no hierarchy or one individual who lead the church. There was no centralized headquarters for the early church. People often cite Jerusalem, Antioch, and Rome as the headquarters of the church, but the fact that it shifted throughout the span of the book of Acts tells us that there was no headquarters in the way we think of it today.

You could thump the early church on whatever you thought was the head, but the church wouldn’t die. Eleven of the twelve original apostles plus Paul were all killed for being witnesses, but the church only grew in their absence. You can try and argue there were clear roles, but Paul says he’s an apostle, a teacher, and evangelist/preacher (1 Timothy 2:7). Peter claims to be an apostle and an elder. Timothy, who is actually an apostolic worker was told by Paul to do the work of an evangelist. The roles certainly weren’t always clear.

Certainly you could take out a unit of the early church and the early church would still survive. The church in Jerusalem, for example, was devastated by the persecution that arose after Stephen’s stoning. The almost extinction of the church in Jerusalem (Acts 8:1) didn’t spell the end of the church. In fact, it marked the beginning of a great transition.  Knowledge and power weren’t consolidated into the hands of the many. The New Testament is filled admonitions that we have the Spirit who will teach us (1 John 2:27) and that we all can be a part of the ministry of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 14:26).

Obviously the organization is flexible. What Jesus started in Act 1 has grown so much by the time we reach Acts 6 that there is the need to raise up other servants. The persecution that begins with Stephen forces not just location changes but also the beginning of ethnic diversity.  Obviously Luke struggles throughout the book to keep up with the numbers. At a certain point after the growth of the Jerusalem church, he just stops trying and starts using phrases such as “multiplied” or “many people were added to the church.” And we obviously see the various parts of the church directly corresponding to each other and not having to go through some kind of official channel.

The one area where I see the church acting somewhat more like a centralized organization within the New Testament is in the area of finances. There seemed in Jerusalem to be a common place to give (the apostles’ feet).  Even later in Paul’s letters, you see him collecting money from the Corinthians and Philippians for missions work in other areas. This isn’t good or bad, it just is. There is rarely a pure starfish or pure spider and we see that playing out in front of us.

Now let’s look at the Modern, Institutional Church:

Institutional Church

I’ll be brief here, because I think most of us are more familiar with this expression of the body than the prior example. I think there are times where the modern church has had it’s head thumped (a prominent leader dies or falls into sin, for example) and the people are invested enough in the church for it to survive.  I think there are times where modern churches lose an arm or two and they survive.  Very few churches control communication between members and between other churches.

As you can tell, though, there are large parts of the church that have become much more centralized.  There is a clear human leader (usually called a pastor), a clear headquarters, ultra-clear roles, a high concentration of knowledge and power (seminary, ordination, etc.), rigid organization, a funding of the units by the organization (think cell groups or life groups, for example), and it’s very easy to count participants (they’re called members).

Many will argue that our times require us to be more centralized. I would disagree. I believe our times and the times we are about to move into require us to be more decentralized. It was this decentralized nature that allowed the early church to thrive even under the persecution of the Roman Empire. It’s the decentralized nature of the church in China that has allowed it to thrive as the Communists try to destroy it.  Our centralization makes us a bigger, easier target. Our decentralization makes us leaner, harder to kill, and easier to spread.

I believe the church that Jesus founded was designed to spread and multiply and because of that we need to become more decentralized. We need to be more like a starfish and less like a spider…

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

[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.]

The second chapter of the Starfish and the Spider introduces us to the book’s two main analogies: The spider and the starfish. These two animals will represent throughout the book to vary different approaches to organization. The spider represents a very centralized, controlled network. The starfish will represent a decentralized organization. This chapter will serve to highlight how you determine the difference.

Before we jump into spiders and starfish, there’s an amusing story at the beginning of the chapter worth highlighting: The President of the Internet. Dave Garrison was a newly hired CEO of an internet service provider (think AOL) named Netcom. Dave’s job as CEO was to pitch his company and recruit new investors. Remember in 1995 the internet was barely known about, let alone understood.

In one particular visit, Dave was in France explaining the concept of the Internet to a group of French investors. The conversation stalled when a question was posed: “Who is the President of the Internet?” This wasn’t an illegitimate question at the time. It was troublesome to invest money into an entity that had no system of accountability. We all know now that there is no president of the Internet, but at the time, the Internet was a risky gamble.  Who would make decisions? Who would be held accountable? The investors assumed that the question kept getting lost in translation. Dave, on the other hand, knew better. After going around and around on the question, he finally gave up: “I am the president of the Internet.”

The story highlights a difficult problem when talking about Starfish and Spiders. Often it feels like we are living in a world full of centralized organizations. The world runs on a system of accountability and hierarchy, so much so that it can be difficult to spot a decentralized organization when you see it. The French investors mistook a starfish organization for a spider.

Within the book, Spiders represent centralized organizations. They may look like starfish in that there are legs that extend from a body, but that’s where the similarities end. The big difference between the spider and the starfish is the spider has a head. Cut off or crush the spider’s head and the spider dies, end of story.

Starfish on the other hand have what’s called a “distributed neural network.” There is literally no head nor is there a brain. You can’t behead a starfish. In fact, quite the opposite. Many types of starfish can be cut into pieces and the pieces can completely regrow into their own separate starfish.

The rest of the chapter spends time exploring the difference between these two types of organizations and there’s plenty that could be included. But for today, I want to sum up with a list of questions that Brafman and Beckstrom give us to understand whether we’re dealing with a starfish or spider organization:

Is there a person in charge? (Yes = Spider, No = Starfish)

Are there headquarters? (Yes = Spider, No = Starfish)

If you thump it on the head, will it die? (Yes = Spider, No = Starfish)

Is there a clear division of roles? (Yes = Spider, No = Starfish)

If you take out a unit, is the organization harmed? (Yes = Spider, No = Starfish)

Are knowledge and power concentrated or distributed? (Concentrate = Spider, Distributed =Starfish)

Is the organization flexible or rigid? (Rigid = Spider, Flexible = Starfish)

Can you count the employees or participants? (Yes = Spider, No = Starfish)

Are working groups funded by the organization or are they self-funding? (Funded = Spider, Self Funding = Starfish)

Do working groups communicate directly or through intermediaries? (Intermediaries = Spider, Directly = Starfish)

The important thing to remember is that no organization will typically answer all of these questions with the corresponding starfish or spider answer. There is a continuum where organizations fall. They do tend to be “more like a starfish” or “more like a spider” but it’s rare to be all spider or all starfish.

What does this mean for the church? We’ll look at that tomorrow…

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: P2P Networks and Spiritual Nant’ans

[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.]

Yesterday we spent some time looking at peer to peer (P2P) file sharing networks and how they were able to not just take on but thrive under opposition from large corporations like MGM. The secret, as Brafman and Beckstrom point out, can be found in the decentralized nature of the movement. They learned this from learning the history of Apache’s long fight against the Spaniards, who were a larger, more centralized army. The key to remember here is that decentralized movements, when attacked by larger and more centralized opponents, spread further and grow stronger.

So…how does this apply to the church?

First, the church of Jesus Christ is a peer to peer network. What does that mean? It means that Jesus encouraged us to look at each other as never being above another. He calls us in Scripture to mutual edification, mutual submission, and mutual sharing in ministry (1 Thessalonians 5:11, Ephesians 5:19-22,1 Corinthians 14:26). Jesus Himself told us that we should see ourselves as equals, not superior to each other (Matthew 23:8). Paul wrote the book of Romans to a group of believers who needed to hear his message, but also hoped to grow by receiving from their spiritual gifts (Romans 1:11-12).

This equality in Christ creates a peer to peer network that we call the church. As the church lives its life together and meets together for encouragement, giftings emerge that help form the body into the image of Christ (Ephesians 4:11-16).  This happens on a micro level within individual churches but also on a larger level between churches. Each individual church relates to other existing churches as peers that help each other and encourage each other into the ways of the Kingdom. We see this in Scripture in the way the Antioch church takes up offerings for the church in Jerusalem (Acts 11) or the way in which the Philippians partner with Paul for the advance of the Gospel in other places (Philippians 4:14).  All of this can and should happen without a person directing it, but by the leadership of Jesus through the power of the Holy Spirit.

Am I saying there’s no human initiative or leadership that happens within the church? Absolutely not. However, I think where we see leadership in Scripture, it is much more like the Nant’ans of the Apaches than the CEO of Starbucks or Walmart.

Who were the Nant’ans? They were spiritual and social leaders. They had the respect of those around them for their spiritual lives and for the wise choices they made.  Apaches weren’t told what to do by the Nant’ans. Apaches decided to follow Nant’ans based watching their lives and seeing the outcome from it.

Who are the leaders in the body of Christ? It’s not those with a title that tell people what to do. It is those that have a true walk with Christ. They are those who give their lives to serving the body of Christ. Over a (short or long) period of time, the body sees the wise example in their lives and give themselves to following the examples of these believers (see Hebrews 13:7-8, 1 Timothy 3:2-7, 1 Corinthians 11:1).

Why is all of this important? Centralized leadership can cause a society to thrive. It certainly did for the Aztecs and the Incas and to a certain degree, it has worked for the legacy church. But take out a King or an Emporer and often the whole society falls apart. Over-dependence on centralized structures can look like a blessing until it’s not.  How many mega churches have been devastated by the fall of their charismatic preacher? How many denominations with bishops and seminaries have fallen into grave heresy?

Most importantly, the testimony of our brothers and sisters in other countries tells us that a decentralized church not only survives under persecution–it thrives. Leaders can and are often jailed or killed. The decentralized nature of the church in those places allows for new leaders to step up into their place immediately. House churches that are split up because the threat of persecution multiply into more house churches and reach more people. They stay small enough to be undetected which means they stay small enough to care for each other like a family.  Like a starfish torn in two that becomes two starfish, a church ravaged by persecution often multiplies into more than one house church. It’s why we say the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.

This decentralized nature of the church will take on more importance as we begin to understand the difference between starfish and spider organizations. These two are often at war with each other.

More on that on Monday…

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: On Napster and Apache Leadership

[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.]

The first chapter “MGM’s mistake and the Apache Mystery” starts off the book describing a problem that started to plague the music industry around the turn of the century. Tired of paying for music and having to drive down the street to pick up the next movie, enterprising technologists began to develop peer to peer (P2P) sites that allowed users to trade music and movie files.  This essentially allowed people acquire music or watch movies for free and it began to hit production companies hard. Compared to a company like MGM, these P2P sites were small potatoes, but they were responsible for a 25% loss of revenue to the recording industry.

So what did MGM and its other corporate counterparts do? They decided to sue. And they sued big time, taking their cases all the way up to the Supreme Court. They hired the best attorneys to pursue not just those who were pirating the music, but also the sites that were allowing the pirates to trade music between each other. The goal was to stop the practice altogether, but a curious thing happened–the more MGM won cases against the thieves and the P2P sites that operated on them, the more widespread the problem became.

Why? Brafman and Beckstrom find the answer in the history of the Spanish conquistadors. Hernando Cortez was sent to Mexico to acquire land and resources. When he came to Tenochtitlan, he met with the Emporer, killed him, and took over the Aztec nation.  A similar conquest of the Inca’s was enacted several years later by Francisco Pizaro. This continued until 1680’s when the Spanish headed north and encountered the Apaches. Upon reaching the much-less-civilized-looking Apaches, the conquest of the continent stopped and remained at a stand still for hundreds of years.

The secret, according to Tom Nevins, an anthropologist who has lived among the Apaches, was the way in which their community was formed. Instead of a centralized government where power is held by very few people, the Apaches were lead by Nant’an. These were social and spiritual leaders who led by example. No one could be elected a Nant’an. Apaches would follow Nant’ans based on the wisdom they saw in their lifestyle.  This made the Apaches incredibly hard for the Spanish to fight. There were no Emporers to kill to take over the Apaches. Kill one Nant’an and two or three more would rise in his place. The decentralization that characterized the Apaches made them immune from the attacks that worked so well in a centralized society.  Surprisingly, not only did attacks on the Apaches not destroy them, but it made them stronger. The more they were attacked, the more decentralized they became.

And here is where our authors teach us the first major principle of decentralization: “When attacked, a decentralized organization tends to become even more open and more decentralized.” They go on to explain how this has happened within the music industry. MGM and other companies continue to sue P2P sites. Every time they win, the P2P site close down, but the community becomes more grass roots and more decentralized, effectively making them harder to track and bringing more attention to the “cause” of free music.  While the music industry is winning court cases, they are shelling out massive amounts of money. The glory days of making the money they were once used to are over. Meanwhile, the P2P sites get more decentralized and harder to track down…

What does all of this mean for the church? Well, there are some profound implications that we’ll look at tomorrow…

The Starfish and the Spider: Introduction Part II

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.”