I just finished a book called The Starfish and the Spider, by Ori Brafman and Rod Beckstrom. This is basically a business-management-futures kind of book, and most (but by no means all) of the examples in it come from the business world. The message is that decentralized structures are becoming more normal, successful, and definitive in today’s culture. Any organization still following the old model of top-down centralization is likely to be in big trouble soon, if it’s not already.
Phyllis Tickle includes this book in her bibliography of Emergence; that is how I found it and why I read it. We in the church have a great deal to learn from books like this one. We have been suffering from the same obsolete ways of thinking and organizing ourselves that are now crumbling and passing into history. Hence the present situation of main-line denominations.
The image of the starfish is of a life-form that is so decentralized that, if you cut off a leg, both pieces grow into whole organisms. There is no “head” which, if cut off, causes the animal to die. The cells of a starfish are able to make their own decisions without waiting for instructions from a central brain.
Brafman and Beckstrom (B&B) also use historical examples, such as why Cortez easily toppled the centralized Aztecs, yet never was able to best the decentralized Apache. The internet makes decentralization even more powerful. They explore the now classic battles between record companies and Napster to show how and why this works.
Anyway, in the church this has great resonance. Jesus’ original movement had a starfish quality. Pilate thought he could kill it by cutting off the head… but the movement simply spread.
Under Christendom, the imperial take-over of the church, lasting from the 4th through the 20th centuries, the church rejected Jesus’ organizational model and adopted a top-down, centralized, authoritarian one. This persisted even through the Reformation in different ways. But now it is failing us. (It failed Jesus long ago, when it allowed and rationalized violence, exclusion, and greed.)
Today, with Christendom evaporating, the church can be open to ways of doing things that are resonant with the Starfish ideas of Emergence, and, more importantly, the very similar values and practices we receive from Jesus and Paul in the New Testament.
B&B give 5 legs of a Starfish organization:
1) Circles. Peers gather in groups for conversation. Sometimes these groups are small. But they can be extremely large when we’re talking about a group on the internet. The point is not size so much as the equality of participants.
2) The catalyst. There is usually one person who has the original idea and sets it free in the circle for development, elaboration, expansion, and growth. For Christianity, of course, the primary catalyst is Jesus Christ. For the ongoing church, the catalyists might be low-profile leaders in small groups. More on catalysts below….
3) Ideology. Basic organizing principles, norms, and goals that unite and focus the circle, usually articulated by the catalyst. Christianity might think of this as a doctrinal foundation, but that has the danger of making it too rigid and intellectual.
4) Preexisting network. Circles don’t work in a vacuum. They take advantage of preexisting relationships, technologies, and organizations. Jesus was a Jew working in a Jewish context. Paul was a Greek Jew who worked within the larger context of the Roman Empire and took full advantage of it.
5) The champion. The idea is spread by an energetic, enthusiastic “evangelist.” If Jesus is the original catalyst in Christianity, Paul is the champion. (They don’t say much more in the book about the champion, which is curious.)
The role of the catalyst is important enough that B&B spend a lot of time explaining it. They give 12 characteristics of an effective catalyst, which I reproduce here with some explanation for the ones that are not self-explanatory.
a) Genuine interest in others.
b) Loose (and very broad) connections. (Ie. a substantial “rolodex.”)
c) Mapping. (An understanding of social networks and how individuals fit into them.)
d) A desire to help.
e) Passion. (Cheerleading for the ideology.)
f) Meets people where they are. (Not demanding that they change as a condition of participation.)
g) Emotional intelligence. (Knows how to forge emotional bonds.)
h) Trust. (For the network and the people in it. Non-controlling.)
i) Inspiration. (Being a good example of the principles in your own life.)
j) Tolerance for ambiguity. (Not needing to have everything defined and nailed down.)
k) Hands-off approach.
l) Receding. (Able to turn the agenda over to others.)
As a further clarification, B&B give this helpful contrast between the catalyst and the CEO:
command and control trust
rational emotionally intelligent
in the spotlight behind the scenes
The church needs to cultivate catalysts. It also needs to ditch its CEO’s. Many great and effective pastors have functioned as catalysts in this sense. These are the folks we need to lift up and learn from.I am beginning to envision a “Starfish Christianity” that emphasizes being local, decentralized, flat, distributed, networked, and integrated into the culture. This means that some common elements of Christianity become more problematic: clergy, buildings, hierarchies, bureaucracies, and so forth. The Starfish Christianity of Emergence will be small groups, spread out, relating to each other in mostly informal connections; they will gather around the Word in the power of the Spirit, and seriously help each other to follow in Jesus’ way of healing, liberation, peace, justice, forgiveness, and love.