A Church of Distributed Networks?

This week’s reading for the DMin GML1 cohort is processing through Rob Salkowitz’s  Young World Rising:  How Youth, Technology, and Entrepreneurship are Changing the Word from the Bottom up.   Rob takes a macro view of trends while referencing stories of how they are working themselves out in the real world.  He highlights 3 trends that will serve as powerful forces to the economy and organizational realities of the future.

“the aging of the developed economies, the spread of ubiquitous data networks across the globe, and the rise of indigenous entrepreneurism as an alternative path to economic development from the top-down economic assistance model that prevailed in the postcollonial period.”  (17)

Salkowitz takes a position of assumed idealism that the future world economy will have positive development and move away from the present latent recession slumps.  He asserts that the organizations and power structures of the old world ecnomoy would do well to pay attention to the leveling of the playing field through technology and the shared information networks of the world wide web.  Youth, particularly in population growth oriented nations of millenials, are playing a major role in the production and creation of new business initiatives and changing the rules of an entrepreneurial future.  However, if these organizations of the old world economy want to do more than just observe the trends then they will have to also change the way they conceive of employment, values and the distribution of information and relationship. 

Salkowitz sums it up this way:

  1. Youth, technology and entrepreneurship are reshaping the world
  2. Next-generation approaches are different from what came before
  3. Globalization unleashes talent without borders
  4. Demographic trends favor developing countries and severly dis-favor old world economy countries (US, China, Europe)
  5. Engaging and encouraging Young World growth is in the interest of the Old World
  6. We need to re-think development strategies in light of tech-driven global entrepreneurship
  7. Networked organizational models are the future  *
  8. Old divisions between public and private, social and commercial are blurring
  9. Commercial interests and free markets are helping to advance social and economic progress
  10. The new knowledge economy is multi-polar

These wired, young entrepreneurs operate on a different value system and it won’t fit the wineskins of old.  I’m going to focus on #7 and the power of organizations of distributed networks as a way of understanding a future for church planting. 

I am not a Millenial, I am a product of Generation X.  We don’t get a descriptive term like Builder, Boomer or Millenial; we get the nondescript “X” label.  I have longed believed this is just a kind way of saying, “we don’t get you people”.  We have the consumer entitlements of Millenials without the work ethic of Builders/Boomers, not a good combination.  We are labeled as the generation of disallusioned underachievers.  Well, I’m not one for labels.  I find them intellectually lazy and pragmatically despondent.  I prefer savy and hopeful.   In 1999, I approached some denominational leaders I found through networks online about an idea I had for a new kind of church planting that would be a church of distributed networks.  The church planting theory of the time was a uni-modeled approach of a 3 year business plan for a hierarchical attractional church that is financially expensive, emotionally exhausting and physically had a very low sucess rate.  The road to becoming a self-sustaining church was a trail of tears that a small percentage were fortunate enough to traverse without losing friends, family or their faith altogether.  Given the holistic expense of this model, in combination with the acute problems of consumerism and individualism as discipleship barriers and the postmodern distrust of hierarchical structures, I tried to imagine a new way forward.  At the time I was completely unaware of the history of house church structures/networks in church traditions.  I was introduced into the idea of micro-churches by reading of St. Patrick organizing the Irish within their clan structure, instead of the parish model of Europe in the 5th and 6th centuries. 

Reading Salkowitz’s description of global millenials thinking, breathing and working within the native framework of networked organizational models reminded me of the dozens of napkins and note-book pages I would sketch similar model figures like the one showed above.  I was trying to get my own mind around what this could look like if we were willing to be less centralized, less defined by structure and times and more focused on speed, adaptability and connected relationships. 

“Top-down and command-and control style management, whether from governments, non-governmental organizations (NGO’s) or private companies, is increasingly inappropriate for solving 21st century problems.  Young people raised on networks have better ideas that we should listen to.”  (166)

What if the viral power of the Kingdom gospel could be dispersed exponentially within local communal networks without the overhead of physicial structure, paid staff or limitations of meeting times?  I have learned a lot over the past ten years of working at this very end and I believe we are still just getting started into the reality of what this kind of distributed model can look like moving into the future.  There are legitimate concerns and questions that are still being worked out in practicality.  Here a few I’m always conscious of:  1) How do you protect against false teaching?  2) How is leadership developed and sustained?  3) Are the kinds of spaces used for discipleship same or different than those used for evangelism?  4)  How is money treated?  5) What does church discipline look like?  And there are many more.  I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts/questions. 

My dream/vision has not changed.  I still long for not a house church, but a house church network that is part of network of house church networks.  Technology will certainly define some of that for a way forward, but being within an open source community of new thinking of organizational models will be neccesary as well.  We need to listen and learn from our bright youth, from other cultures who are not distracted or limited by old world thinking structures and to the voice of the One who governs all of our futures.  Being innovative only matters if it is in response to obedience.  The future will not take Yahweh by surprise, the Kingdom will translate itself into the coming generations with or without us.  The question is if we can be faithful to follow and listen to the voice that speaks it all into being.  If that means change, the kind of change that rearranges our praxis but not our faith, could we listen? 

22 And no one pours new wine into old wineskins. Otherwise, the wine will burst the skins, and both the wine and the wineskins will be ruined. No, they pour new wine into new wineskins.”  – Mark 2:22 (NIV)


Empire and Flesh colored band aids


Whose flesh? 

And there it is, in 1952 advertising, the assumptions that Jehu J. Hanciles is shouting to us in Beyond Christendom:  Globalization, African Migration, and the Transformation of the West.  The industrialized and modern West has been shaping and exporting assumptions about the way things are, the way things should be and the way things will be moving into the future without much thought of unintended consequences.  The longheld assumption is that this a process called “globalization”, a kind of homogenizing of trends, ideas, cultures, powers and future relationships into a ‘one world’ order of sorts.  Hanciles, himself an African immigrant from Sierra Leone, has lived and studied the realtiy of this kind of globalization.  His claims are that the West is not prepared for the next wave of globalization that will happen on its own soil.  The next stage of globalization will be led by the non-West. 

His point is not that there has been a globalization, but 1) ‘whose’ globalization is it?  and 2) What are it’s consequences?

Hanciles suggests that the reality of the West influence into the non-West, in particular Africa, was not a homogenization but rather hegemony.  Intentional or ignorant, through migration, trade, business development and religious expansion the West has transferred its culture and worldview onto non-Western cultures from a position of strength, dominance and charitable assistance.  In turn the world seemed to get smaller, the ideas of progress were the same everywhere, it would look like the kind of development the West brings for future peace.  It was a new kind of hellenism, a thought that the future could be one culture.  In this smaller world, our nations are not separate and distinct, but rather interdependent upon one another on the globe.

“The increased velocity of human interaction and growing global interdependence means that an increasing number of events simultaneously impact distant parts of the world or leave few aspects of daily life untouched.”  (26)

This new globalization however was not equal, there were clearly power players.  The West had the education, resources and assumptions that their ideas were the right ones and that their social/political experiments (democracy) could and would work anywhere, regardless of culture, worldview or history.  Hanciles states that:  “it is a fact that economic globalization creates winners and losers, or more precisely in a world in which few win and many lose.” (30)  The groups, societies and peoples that do not cooperate in the western globalization find themselves excluded and marginalized. 

I found these statistics staggering and I will be adding them to the undergraduate course I teach on Comparative Worldview:

  • The richest 15% of countries account for 60% of world GDP
  • These top 15% use 70% of world’s energy, 75% of its metals, 85% of its wood and consume 60% of its food (@ RUSS HELP!!)
  • The 100 poorest countries, 1/5 of world population receive 1% of global economic flow
  • 20% of the world’s people receive 83% of the world’s income
  • Walmart, the world’s largest retailer, has revenues as large as the economies of 160 countries combined  (30)

The spread of western culture through modernization has ‘eroded local cultures and indigenous identities around the world.’ (48)  There has been a marked pushback with some nationalistic fervor.  Marginalized and excluded people groups tend to harness a kind of resentment at their exclusion.  Combine that with unilateral international decision-making as the U.S. did with its invasion of Iraq, Hanciles says is what caused unintended consequences of western globalization.  The West is resented for its dominance, ignorance of other modern or even pre-modern constructs and its insistence that it is in the right in all things.  This is Hegemony, this is Empire.  

If the West wants to be a player in the future, it needs to learn and cooperate with the non-west for migration will force that issue whether they prefer it or not.  65% of world Christians live outside the west.  If every Christian migrant is a potential missionary, the culture, understandings, assumptions and ideas of the non West will be the future of American Chrisitanity. (378)  Are we ready for such a shfit if the central power systems of our present structures are tied to the worldview of secular rationalism?  Perhaps these new migrant Christians, who have been born within pluralism can show Western Christians a way forward amongst that milieu they are foreign to.  (380)  

Of particular challenge is the centralized construct of western Christian organizations and mission agencies.  This is not what the dispelled future of non-western influence will look like.  “Western missionary action and thinking have been secularized to some exent, at least insofar as it reflects overdependence on material resources, emobodies structures of power, and confuses quantifiable measures of growth or human development (modeled on Western values) with missionary success. . . . .The old mental maps and conceptual wineskins simple will not do.” (383)  I find this very hopeful for a house church community like ours, perhaps we are designed well for such a change.  We are naturally dispersed, communal and migratory.  Perhaps we won’t be so weird or heretical moving into the future.  😉

On a final note is a reflection on Empire.  As Christians, our Empire is truly not of this world and yet it is the very truth and reality that this world is built upon, that is the Kingdom of God.  We live and serve in our empires, while remaining rooted in the Empire, where Jesus is Lord and not Ceasar.  Westernism is not our empire, the non-West future is not our empire.  Our Empire is the Kingdom of God that exists within and around any earthly empire on earth at any point in history or the future.  We need not fear, but rather in humility, take root in the Empire that matters as we work and serve in the one we are sent in exile to.

If Paul’s answer to Caesar’s empire is the empire of Jesus, what does that say about this new empire, living under the rule of its new lord? It implies a high and strong ecclesiology, in which the scattered and often muddled cells of women, men and children loyal to Jesus as Lord form colonial outposts of the empire that is to be: subversive little groups when seen from Caesar’s point of view, but when seen Jewishly an advance foretaste of the time when the earth shall be filled with the glory of the God of Abraham and the nations will join Israel in singing God’s praises. From this point of view, therefore, this counter-empire can never be merely critical, never merely subversive. It claims to be the reality of which Caesar’s empire is the parody; it claims to be modelling the genuine humanness, not least the justice and peace, and the unity across traditional racial and cultural barriers, of which Caesar’s empire boasted.

– N.T. Wright  Paul’s Gospel and Caesar’s Empire , from the Center of Theological Inquiry

We need Kingdom of God colored Band Aids.  😉

We may be the world, but we are not One

“The world as one”??

Really?  What if we don’t speak the same language? Share the same history? Perceive reality and relationships the same?  Have varying worldviews on urgency and the future?  What are the conditions of this exchange? 

In 1985, famously the West attempted to change the world in Africa with an explosion of consumerism with its Live Aid concerts to raise money in particular for those starving in Ethiopia.  There were varying reports by the BBC and others as to if the $250 million in aid raised through the generous giving inspired by the concerts ever got into the hands of the ones it was intended for.  That either rebels or government officials kept the money and aid for more pressing needs or priorities that they deemed neccesary took precedence.  From the West, this was perceived as a monumental gaff.  (The reports were retracted, but the rumors remained if they were retracted under great political pressure.)  David Maranz may just say, “Welcome to Africa”.  That perhaps it was not corruption nor a misappropriation of funds, rather it was just Africa operating under a completely different set of assumptions and rules as to how any aid given could be used.  We may be the world, but we are not one. 

Reading through David Maranz’s “African Friends and Money Matters” , you see a great dichotomy between the habits and customs of money and relationships between the West (Europe and North America) and Africa.  In preparation for our GML1 advance to Kenya and Ethiopia, we are reading through books to help us grasp the gap in cultural differences and perspectives each one is carrying to Africa. I have never been to Africa but I resonated with much of what Maranz reported from my time in Latin American and Indian cultures.  Concepts of time, money, relationships, assumptions, customs etc. can vary greatly from culture to culture.  Without some set of awareness, frustration will undoubtedly follow. 

I found myself reading Maranz’ description of African assumptions against my own context of the past ten years trying to pastor a community model of church in American suburbia where individual property rights are at their height.  Where I live there are only 2 kinds of spaces that architects build, private and consumer.  The American dream is built upon the tenets of rugged individualism, what you earn, you hoard and keep.  The world is designed for consuming, whatever else you desire, you can have and keep as well with enough individual effort.  Happinesss is being a secure, self-reliant rock of fulfilled desires and wants.  When it comes to Church, seek:  comfort, excitement, warm feelings, cultural relevance, good coffee, cushy seats, pretty people, savy stage performance, highly produced experiences, total agreement, ministries geared for every demographic and adequate parking.  (This is certainly an exaggeration, but perhaps not too much so)  The suburbs are the belly of the beast of consumerism and individualism and this is where God called my wife and I to plant a communal model of church that started with a completely different set of assumptions. 

With our neighbors, we are speaking a completely diffferent language and it’s a challenge.  After 10 years of weekly meetings at our home on Friday nights, our neighbors rasied all kinds of questions.  Any American hosting this many people ongoingly must be a cult and certainly to be seen as suspect.  It took some of them a few years to have the courage to ask us why our house was always having so many people over, they didn’t have a category for this kind of church.  Over time, I hope through loving our neighbors, they now see us as a house of peace.  But we are not acting in the value system of our culture, it causes confusion.  As Maranz puts it, living in community rather than living in social or spatial isolation are conflicting ideas.  (13) 


Hey brother, can you spare a dime?

Observation #5 – Africans are very sensitive and alert to the needs of others and are quite ready to share their resources (20)

” . . . in the industrialized world, there is a greater tendency toward consumption as a way of life, so the sacrosanct requirement of hospitality becomes more difficult to uphold.”  (21)

Within OCC we take our definition of community from the sociologist, Will Samson, who states that community means ‘there is enough for everyone.’  We start our meetings with a shared common meal, not just for sustenance, but as a visual symbol that our life is shared.  What we eat is what we share together, everybody has a part and we make sure there is enough for all around the table.  It took years for us to come to some of these conclusions because this was not the culture we grew up in nor the culture we live around.  We got here by intentionality and still have a long way to go to get to a place of Kingdom community where we are less American and more Chrisitan. 

When it comes to hospitality and giving, we talk in terms of margin.  We seek to intentionally live on less than what we earn as individuals so as to have more to share as a community.  We have decided to this point to not have any paid staff or buildings so that we could be availalbe to give 100% of our shared giving to misisonal needs.  Without bills to pay, our conversations around money tend to be fun, playful and spurs more generosity.  But it has also been a challenge, the consumer culture is seductive.  We sense that we are just now learning, some ten years later, how to better leverage what we have towards where greater need is.  Just this week, one of our families put their house on the market, not because they couldn’t afford it in the burbs, but because they could live with a lot less.  With the margin they hope to gain, they dream of supporting a children’s safe house in a guatemalan ghettto we are involved with that much more.  They want to live on less to have more resources to help kids get off the streets to a safe place somewhere else.  These are the kinds of decisions ten years ago I dreamed a Chrisitan community in the burbs could come to, but it’s been a long process of stripping away from a culture that creeps in all too easily. 

In our liturgy before our meetings, we speak vows of 1) Availabillity 2) Vulnerability and 3) Simplicity to one another.  These are Rules we want to live by and be intentional about.  It is what our hearts want and we are learning and growig in them all the time.  I have found, much like an AA meeting, stating what you are about and why you are gathering every time you meet helps bring definition to the community’s intentions.  As I was reflecting on this observation #5 by Maranz, I was thinking about what this looks like in our hyper-busy, manic pace of a consumer culture.  What resource is most valuable to my neighbor that I need to be intentional about keeping a margin of so that I can share it?  For years, my conclusion has been that the highest commodity in my suburban culture is time and attention.  What feels like ‘handing cash’ to my neighbor is simply paying attention to them.  Keeping margin in my life and not filling it to the brim with all my productivity allows me to listen, engage and connect to those I live with and around.  By simply paying attention it may be like a cup of cold water on a hot summer day.  This may mean what it looks like to save and give to my neighbor in my context.

So we may not be one, our needs are perhaps vastly different than our African counterparts.  But the principles are the same.  Being incarnational in our context means going against the values of our culture and nature and setting aside what is needed just with the intention of giving.  It is not my Chrisitanity, it is our Christianity.  The Kingdom is shared, always. #dmingml