Tag Archive | Jesus

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.”

The Starfish and The Spider: Introduction

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?