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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

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