Ori Brafman and Rod Beckstrom wrote a thought-provoking book entitled, The Starfish and the Spider: The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations. It was a business book to teach leaders how to better manage their teams. The driving question of the book was, “How does a decentralized organization/network work?”
Since it seems like decentralized organizations are beginning to rule the world, maybe church leaders should ask that question, too. These two authors make their case for the strengths of decentralization by comparing the biological examples of how spiders and starfish are built.
A spider has a central nervous system that is triggered by a centralized brain. If you want to kill a spider, all you gotta do is cut off his head. Another unique dynamic about spiders is if you cut off one of their legs that usually contributes to its early death. Apparently, it becomes easy prey for other predators. Also, a limping spider cannot function as intended, and dies young.
A starfish does not have a central nervous system. All the DNA of the starfish is in every cell of the starfish, with no centralized brain. If you cut off one of the legs of a starfish — because of its unique design — it would regenerate the lost leg. Amazingly, the one leg that was cut off will grow four more legs. Suddenly, you have two starfish. Even more amazingly, if you cut off all 5 legs, you would get 5 new starfish. Out of tragedy comes triumph.
The advantages of the starfish revolve around its system where the DNA of the whole starfish is located in every cell of the organism instead of one single spot in the organism. Hhhmmm?
Spiders are kind of like churches who have all the DNA centralized in an Executive Leadership Team. One accident could take out the whole church if it is organized like a spider. If it is a starfish organization — the tragedy might actually speed the advance of that organization.
I know – strange thoughts, right?!
Like all organizations, every church has some level of central organization. We are going to be a combination of the spider and the starfish. Still, there are things for us to learn from the starfish. What if we got the DNA of the initial church planting architect and catalyst into the lives of all the church leaders, dare I say – even all of the church members?
The church has a major advantage as we think through the starfish and the spider analogy. In fact, the church should be the most powerful “organization” on earth. Why? Because in Jesus, the church is both centralized and decentralized. The church is centralized in the sense that Jesus is the head. Unlike the spider, however, the head of the church cannot be cut off. Christ has overcome death once and for all.
But the church is also decentralized. After Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension he sent the Holy Spirit in order that all who repent of sin and follow Jesus would be indwelled and empowered by the Holy Spirit to carry out the mission of making disciples in all nations. There is no other organization on earth where each of the people are able to hear from their leader, and also carry their leader within them wherever they go.
This truth has huge implications when it comes to reaching college campuses. College ministry can often become centralized in its leadership. For some college ministry staff, it can be difficult to give leadership away to students who are still very unformed in their faith and skills. Consequently, the staff shoulder the majority of the ministry. If the gospel is going to be shared, it is because of the staff. If follow up conversations and discipleship is going to take place, it is because of the staff. These strategies are so centralized that from a distance it seems the only individuals empowered by the Holy Spirit to do ministry are the “professionals”.
College ministry not only can become centralized in its leadership, but also in its location. This can become a major issue, particularly for those leading college ministries that don’t have a dedicated space on or near campus. For instance, T.J. leads the college ministry at First Baptist Church Woodstock. The church building is located approximately eight miles from Kennesaw State University. He cannot afford to sit eight miles from campus and tell students to, “come and join us.” It won’t happen. Sure, a few may come out and see what’s going on, but not many will stick.
So how do we fix that problem? If you are able to decentralize your leadership and get the disciple making DNA of Christ into the students, the location problem will take care of itself. As we help students leverage their ability in Christ to make disciples, the gospel moves from the church building to the dining halls, classrooms, and dorms on campus. We must give our ministries away to the students and mobilize them across campus. No matter how young, old, educated, or popular, to believe the gospel and follow Jesus is to receive the Spirit of God. Our students are empowered by God to lead a movement on campus.
In John 14:12 Jesus says something that will quickly catch your attention. He says, “whoever believes in me will also do the works that I do; and greater works than these will he do…” Really? Greater works than Jesus? This doesn’t make much sense until we get to the book of Acts and see the “starfish-like” movement of the gospel to the nations through Jesus’ disciples. What if we as leaders had the same heart and mindset of Jesus? Our students can do far greater things on the college campus than we could ever imagine doing alone!
And within every believing student could be the DNA for a new movement of the gospel to new peoples and new places. Let us close by drawing your attention to the words of Alan Hirsch:
I believe that every believer has the potential for world transformation in them. If you think that is such an overstatement then think of this … a seed is a potential for a tree and a tree is a potential for a forest but it is all contained in a tree; all the potential of a forest is contained in the one seed. In the same way every believer has the potential for world transformation. There is an “ecclesia” in every one of us and in every “ecclesia” there is a potential for a movement. When we begin to see the church this way, everything changes. It is a massive shift in the way we see ourselves as God’s people.