The authors compare and contrast centralised (spider) organisations like the US government and record companies with decentralised (starfish) organisations like the Apache tribe and Kazaa.
In a battle between a centralised organisation and a decentralised one, history shows us that the decentralised one will always win. In fact, historically, attacking a decentralised one makes it stronger. Which is why killing Osama bin Laden was not the answer to stopping terrorism from al Qaeda. The 'war on terror' was doomed to failure from the day it started.
The attributes of a centralised/spider organisation are characterised by having a person in charge, some sort of headquarters, a clear division of roles, with some or all people funded by the organisation. An attack on headquarters or even a single unit can or will significantly impact the organisation.
A decentralised/starfish organisation is structured differently. A starfish has five legs, and the authors contend that decentralised organisations have five attributes: The first is what they call, autonomous 'circles' -- with the circles also being leaderless. The members are part of a community with a core ideology spelt out by one or more catalysts. They are part of one or more pre-existing networks with one or more champions nudging it along. In a sense they are pure chaos flowing in a common direction.
The first part of their definition is broadly similar to Katzenbach and Smith's description of teams in their book 'Wisdom of Teams: Creating the High Performance Organisation'. The concept of leaderless structure might seem counter-intuitive but if the group has a high sense of ideology or faith then observably they outperform 'working groups' which have individual accountability every time.
Re-reading the book I was immediately struck by how the early church was appeared to be a decentralised/starfish type organisation. It was one of the reasons why it was unstoppable against the might of the Roman Empire. But isn't there a person in charge? Isn't Jesus the 'boss'?
It is true that Jesus is head of the church, but in a completely different way from the human head of an organization. God is accessible to all people everywhere simultaneously. Attacking or destroying one circle in the church by throwing them to the lions may eliminate one circle, but the organisation continued and grew stronger. Killing a catalyst or champion like St Paul will not impact the overall organization as did, for instance, the death of Hitler to the Third Reich.
The authors used the example of the ongoing battle between the Apache native Americans and the US government, which continued into the first quarter of the 20th century, as an example of how strong a leaderless/decentralised organisation can be. The question they then asked was how the US beat the Apache. They answer is simple and somewhat terrifying: They empowered and personally benefited the champions/catalysts in the Apache tribal groups. Then infighting resulted in loss of interest in anything other than self-interest.
Why it's concerning is that is reminiscent of what happened to the church. From my reading the early church elders were catalysts and champions rather than leaders. By that I mean they encouraged rather than dictated what should happen. When Constantine issued the Edict of Milan in 313 AD and property taken from Christians returned it was the start of institutionalising Christianity.
Two thousand years later and we have a whole hierarchy structure in different confessions and denominations, frequently resembling the anatomy of a large multi-national conglomerate. Pastors have changed from gifts or a 'living' to a salary. Leaders speak for the whole body. Negative publicity affects the whole church. Even the 'circles' (churches or fellowship groups) tend to be hierarchical with a leadership, a regular location and time and an agenda.
In a discussion with Rick Dugan, a friend who pastors a church in Cyprus, he said:
Every expression of church is institutionalized. Once we have a meeting place, a meeting time, a leader, and some type of structure we have an institution. The scale of institution may differ, but the essence is still the same.
We end up designing our corporate [church] life primarily to convince people to come. This makes it very, very difficult for a local congregation to be disciplined in doing those things that produce mature, fruitful followers of Jesus. Attracting and discipling are often competing agendas.
My contention is that this is because the church has changed from starfish to spider, from decentralised to hierarchical.
Does this mean they have rejected the remainder of the church as the rest of the church seems to think? In my experience this is completely the opposite. They are comfortably in fellowship with structural church, but are seeking fresh expressions of the Body of Christ in an informal rather than formal way. They are using church as a verb rather than a noun. Where do you go to church? Wayne Jacobsen is one of the catalysts in what I'm calling the fresh expressions movement and answers that question:
I have never liked this question, even when I was able to answer it with a specific organization. I know what it means culturally, but it is based on a false premise--that church is something you can go to as in a specific event, location or organized group. I think Jesus looks at the church quite differently. He didn't talk about it as a place to go to, but a way of living in relationship to him and to other followers of his.
Wayne & Sara Jacobsen
Asking me where I go to church is like asking me where I go to Jacobsen. How do I answer that? I am a Jacobsen and where I go a Jacobsen is. 'Church' is that kind of word. It doesn't identify a location or an institution. It describes a people and how they relate to each other. If we lose sight of that, our understanding of the church will be distorted and we'll miss out on much of its joy. [Why I Don't Go To Church Anymore!]
I was in Beirut last week and was churching with a couple of other followers of Jesus - sharing, learning and encouraging each of us in our journey of faith. There was no leader, no structure, no set time or place. It was organic, relational and family.
Almost continually I am finding the Lord bringing more and more relationships together and some becoming deeper and deeper based not upon what we do together on a Sunday or any other specific time during the week, but upon the depth and the freshness of this expression of the Body of Christ.
Does this mean the rest of the church is wrong and needs to change? Some sort of 'house church'? I would say 'No', you are totally misunderstanding me.
Wayne Jacobsen again:
I think following a model for 'church' is a step away from being the church. If we're going in relationship to God and looking for ways to share that with others, it is not so difficult a thing to do. And God has an infinite variety of ways to do it among his people. I've seen so many different ways for people to share God's life together, that trying to force it into a one-size-fits-all package really is impossible. [House Church]
These fresh expressions are working themselves out in so many varied and disparate ways. In the West, in the Middle East, in Africa, in Asia... all over the world we're seeing autonomous new expressions of the church grow up.
Some people are worried about the theology of these new 'circles' and clusters of circles. Rightly so. I have seen some very syncretistic groups. However, Bishop Alan Wilson also reviewed the book and warns us:
There's a hilarious tale in the book about some beefy Aussies who charged off down the beach in their tiny speedos to go deal with the starfish on the reef. When they got the machetes out they had 300 starfish, and by the end of the day they had 3,000. That's the power of starfish, and to tap it you have to be a radically decentralised network, but strongly held.
So there are other groups charging round trying to cut off these syncretistic groups. Which is proving about as ineffective as the war on terror. My concern when I hear about many of these activities it that they appear to believe God is dead. By that I mean, since God is omniscient, omnipotent and omnipresent, doesn't He have the capability of doing something about it if it's really a problem?
In their charging around attempting to chop off limbs that are not really part of the Body of Christ they appear to also chop off some of those that are. And I'm not too worried about that either since in true starfish fashion I'm seeing them regrow and the overall body strengthened. The fear that I do have is for the spider parts of the body of Christ which don't have that resilience.