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Disorganized Religion - The Church Without Institutions (part 3)

Posted by thethousandmarch on February 16, 2014 at 6:35 PM

I suggest we refrain from using the term organic in relation to social institutions such as the Church. If we are speaking of gardening, organic means something very specific and measurable. But as a metaphor it can get rather tortured. So instead of stretching the metaphor past its usefulness, I think it is best to simply define organic as natural. But what would a natural community look like? When we ask this we may then discover that talking about being organic may not be very helpful. It can become a rather meaningless buzzword that can be made to describe whatever we want. I prefer to use the terms “emerging” and “spontaneous” – as in an emerging spontaneous order. This describes an order that comes about gradually and unexpectedly – it cannot be designed, preplanned or controlled. This type of order lacks central planning.


When a central planner attempts to design a society through command and control their planning is limited to the extent of their knowledge. The more they try to regulate the interactions of individuals in a society through legislation the more they limit the ability of individuals to use their best judgment in specific situations to do what’s best in their situation. The more the central planner’s judgment conflicts with the individual’s the more force will be required to enforce conformity. But no individual can possibly know what’s best for the group, or what’s best for each individual in the group. When each individual is allowed to freely make the best decision they can with the knowledge they have in their own specific situation a complex order will emerge unplanned and uncontrolled, but which will be the best possible result if people are making moral choices. Of course not everyone makes moral choices, so it is necessary to keep people from hurting others, but laws which protect peoples personal and property rights are very different from legislation which attempts to engineer social interactions. Only an emergent spontaneous order can harness the distributed knowledge, wisdom, and values of the group.


Applied to the Church what this means is that no institution can hope to command and control it. The Church is a complex organism, which has grown to an unruly size. It seems that at its inception the Church was small enough to be governed by a small group of Apostles. They appointed deacons as it grew beyond their capability to oversee the group’s daily operations. As the Church spread throughout the world, elders were appointed in each town – but it was still small enough to be spoken of as simply the Church in this town and the Church in that town. But today the Church has grown to such an extent that it has thoroughly outstripped the ability of any humans to govern it. No human designed institution can harness or guide the knowledge, wisdom, resources, and work of the entire body. Only Christ who is the head of this body can orchestrate its operation. “. . . [H]e holds the whole body together with its joints and ligaments, and it grows as God nourishes it.” (Col. 2:19) Let’s stop thinking we can shape it to our satisfaction. Christ has “been given all authority in heaven and on earth” (Matt 28:18). Let’s let him oversee his Church – he is the only one capable, the only one with the authority to do so.


And this leads me back to my statement, made in the first post of this series, about how the Church should act more like a starfish and less like a spider. There are two different types of organizational models which can be described as the starfish model and the spider model (I heard about this concept on Econtalk, and there is a book written on the subject - www.starfishandspider.com). The starfish represents an organization which has no central leadership; the spider is the central power whose web gathers information. Now it’s not that a spider organization doesn’t have its advantages; there are reasons that an institution may want to organize itself as such. A strong central power can be very efficient as long as it can handle the information. A starfish has no central intelligence guiding its movements, just thousands of little feet all with a shared mission; thousands of inputs pulling in whatever direction feels best. The starfish prospers without any centralized planning – it is a creature whose existence demonstrates spontaneous order. An organization which acts more like a starfish can more effectively harness all the resources of the group.


Another advantage of the starfish is that it is difficult to destroy – cut off a leg and you can end up with two starfish. Starfish organizations are decentralized, power is shared – participants are empowered to make decisions independently. In this way the organization remains flexible, it responds quickly to new problems and can innovate and change as situations demand. Attack can make it stronger. It can separate and spread without centralized direction.


The Church is a starfish organization, whether we like it or not. There is no centralized human agency giving orders to the entire group. No human institution is capable of processing the body’s knowledge, or controlling the body’s actions. There are billions of Christians each moving in the direction they feel is best – when we each pursue the shared mission given to us by our Lord a spontaneous order will emerge which will guide the resources of the Church to their most effective purposes. Will each Christian always make the best decisions? Certainly not. But each person in their own specific situations has more information about that situation than anyone else and can therefore do a better job of evaluating the wisest course of action. As leaders and members in the Church we need to be active in discipling each other – equipping each other to take part in the mission of the Church, encouraging each other to obey all that Jesus commanded, not trying to make peoples’ decisions for them.


It is for this reason that even the formal institutions that represent the Church in a localized context (churches) should try to act more like starfish organizations. Our formal institutions will always retain some spider-like organizational traits. But this can allow them to be useful tools. They just need to recognize what they are and what their strengths and weaknesses are, what they are most useful for and when to get out of the way. If the leaders of these institutions are willing to divest themselves of their systems of command and control, and they instead find more effective ways to equip and empower each member of the congregation to act independently when needed, they will strengthen their churches and the Church. These churches will not simply attract consumers, they will attract contributors. The members will not wait around for the central power to organize and lead, they will not look to the central power to provide for all their needs. This type of organization creates a group of self-motivated contributors, who build an anti-fragile network which can grow exponentially. Each member and each localized community will pursue intentional goals, but a much larger unintentional result will emerge. And no human can control, measure, or take credit for that.


Categories: Church Without Institutions, The Emerging Church , Being Missional