Centralization, Decentralization and the Future Church
November 2, 2020
Recently I wrote an article where I asked some early questions about the future of the church, and proven to be an interesting experience. In general, I've gotten a bunch of great feedback. Most of it has pointed me to either books or people who are working to explore the same general space, the content or people I wasn't familiar with already I'm in the process of looking into. I've also gotten a fair bit of encouragement from people saying they believe God is leading me to invest and share in this area (thanks everybody!) Consider this post the first along that general lines.
Sometime in the last few years, I read a really interesting book called The Starfish and the Spider. This falls into the category of "business leadership books" and explores how the pattern of organizations influences the way they behave. Much of the book involves a conversation about centralization vs decentralization. (If you're interested, here is a good summary article.)
As a primary example, the authors contrast the music recording and distribution industry (centralized), with online networks of music sharing like Napster (decentralized).
Centralized structures use the centralizing of decision making to keep alignment within the organization. You can spot a centralized organization because there is someone clearly designated as "in charge", and resources such as a headquarters and money is centralized around the leader. Information flows through the center of the organization and decision making power is more concentrated there than anywhere else.
Decentralized structures at first glance often seem very confusing to us, because there is no clear leader and no clear headquarters. Instead, knowledge, power, and resources aren't centralized anywhere but distributed through the system as people participate autonomously in the ways they deem best at the moment. If you're like me, to imagine that things can operate in a coordinated way that way seems to stretch the imagination, but there are countless examples of organizations that function in this counterintuitive way (examples in the book include Wikipedia, Skype, AA, and more).
What Shape is the Church?
This book really prompted me to give some careful thought as to how the church fits in this picture. How is the church organized? How should the church be organized?
As I've turned it over, I've concluded that over the course of history, the church lives in different places on a centralization-decentralization spectrum at different times and in different contexts. In the west, local churches are usually centralized structures that share a decentralized relationship among each other (actually, the degree of that depends on the denomination). Each local church has a well-defined leader and leadership team, and the senior pastor of a local church works to steer the centralized organization. Once you cross the boundary to other churches, each church is treated as an autonomous unit that operates under the calling of the local leadership. In the west then, local churches are centralized and intra-church relationships are decentralized.
I add the caveat of "in the west" though because the church isn't organized that way everywhere at all times. Consider, for example, the church in persecuted contexts. The house church in China or the church in the middle east in general doesn't operate in nearly as centralized a shape; the more you do that, the more you put everyone at risk. I would suggest that viewed structurally, persecution is a force that acts to decentralize the shape of church. Centralized organizations are obvious, visible, decentralized ones seem to float beneath the surface, the structure feeling hidden. Does anyone know how Wikipedia articles show up? I have no idea where they're coming from, I just know how to find them when I need them.
Is there a "right" shape for the church then? I would suggest probably not; there is only a shape that fits the context and empowers missional living most effectively. It's not a matter of right vs wrong; it's a matter of effectiveness. Each shape has advantages and disadvantages.
One of the biggest advantages of a centralized approach to church is that it gives the benefit of consolidated resources. If gifts are roughly evenly distributed through the body of Christ (which seems fairly consistent with my experience), then odds are, a house church doesn't have access to super-high levels of gifting in the areas of teaching, discipleship, or mobilization for mission. Your financial resources are also likely rather constrained; you have plenty to keep the house church going, but you probably don't have enough to deal with community-sized problems like poverty. Centralized church doesn't have those problems: by centralizing, a larger portion of people get access to higher-level speakers and ministry leaders. By pooling their money together, the church has enough funding to begin to allocate bigger amounts of money to ministries as to problems in the community.
Decentralization doesn't have the benefits of consolidating resources, but it does have the advantage of shared ownership and a sense of everyone feeling connected to each other and to the mission. One challenge that centralized church has is that the consolidation of resources and decision-making capability creates a two-tier dynamic; you have the people who are ministering, and those being ministered to. The people steering the budget, and those just contributing to the budget. Nothing wrong with that, but a consistent experience of that shape tends to position people in a passive mode. If our experience of church constantly sends the message "let others do the work for you", it's a bit of a gap to expect to live on-mission in the rest of our lives. Decentralized church doesn't share that same threat as the expectation of a decentralized organization is the opposite: everyone is expected to contribute and carry the thing together.
This, I would suggest, is why we have decentralized churches in the contexts we do; decentralized church wins when (1) you need to hang out "out-of-sight-out-of-mind" like in persecuted contexts, or (2) when people are desiring to orient church around more joint-ownership and a stronger focus on relational connection (think house churches).
Having experienced both the centralized church (working for a decade in a megachurch) and the decentralized church (interacting with churches in China, and all sorts of churches through School of Kingdom Ministry), my impression is that both of these are good and both have their place. I think we probably want churches that live at all different points on the centralization-decentralization spectrum. What I can say is that more often than not, where churches land on this spectrum is usually processed as more of an issue of right/wrong than it is the effectiveness of any given structure. Often both centralized and decentralized churches think as if their approach is either theologically more true to the Scriptures, or universally more effective than the other options. Having participated and seen the advantages and disadvantages of both, I would process making this choice more as a missiological one (for the sake of effectiveness of mission) than a theological one (trying to discern which one is the true church).
Technology: Where are we Heading?
Here is an interesting question to ask at this point: how does the introduction of the technology that has been shaking up industry-after-industry in the last 25 years change the situation? Will that pull us along in one direction or the other? My projection is that we should probably anticipate seeing movement in both directions.
I believe the trend will begin with more centralized churches, because they generally have access to more resources, and hence can explore technological options more easily. (And indeed, have been forced to in this COVID season). It seems most likely to me that the first trend is that technology will drive increased centralization first. In fact, I'd suggest that we've already seen the beginning of this trend as more and more churches have adopted a multisite model. Most multisite churches are structured to leverage technology to allow a level of centralization that couldn't easily exist before. 20 years ago to have one preacher share at a number of venues, they'd probably have to hop in the car and drive between locations; now it's much more practical. In fact, according to Wikipedia:
In 1990, there were 10 multisite churches the United States. In 2014, there were 8,000 multisite churches
I believe that this trend is actually just getting started. With the COVID season pushing more people to interact with their churches online, I believe we'll see a shift in the relationship many people have with their church as they adopt a more digital relationship with church. Many believers won't shift their expectations for what church is and will eagerly return to involvement in physical congregations as soon as they're able to, but another slice of many believers will find they like experiencing church more in the less involved digital-delivery fashion.
The trajectory this sets a portion of the church on is increased consolidation and centralization. With the a-la-carte fashion of content consumption that's not ubiquitous with streaming services and podcasting, it is inevitable that this renegotiation with church results in some people conceptualizing church as a kind of Christian version of Netflix. As this becomes stabilized, the trajectory of increasing centralization is nearly guaranteed. There will be a small handful of churches and preachers who are world-class and dominate the church-content-delivery scene. These will inevitably grow into digital "gigachurches" that have potentially millions of followers, most of whom never contact a gathering of their church family in any meaningful way.
As the "gigachurch" settles in, much of the rest of the church will continue to evolve its relationship with technology. Some of this will be driven by market factors - where is there a meaningful contribution to church if we cannot compete with the world-class production of the gigachurches? Some of it will be more theologically driven as leaders wrestle with their conviction that church needs to include a higher level of life-on-life than gigachurches will be able to facilitate. In any case, I propose the next wave will be actually swinging back the other direction, towards more decentralization. It is this wave that I'm much more excited about.
It's important not to underestimate the participatory nature of the internet and the way that shapes our minds and our expectations. Experiences online are about democratization of participation; we expect to be able to participate ourselves, and many of the most successful technologically-driven products are platforms that democratize participation in ways that were no longer possible. Google democratizes finding information on the web. Social media democratizes being able to create your own online platform. Uber democratizes being able to give and receive rides, Airbnb democratizes being able to book or host unique and interesting places to stay. Everything is trending towards the personal, the unique, not the mass produced.
As this kind of experience of life becomes more and more normative, the idea that church does not operate this way will feel increasingly dissonant. The idea that church does not work this way will feel increasingly foreign. If the rest of the world operates by decentralized structures facilitated by technology-assisted connections (which is what is happening in the examples above), the church will need to find its way into that space as well if it wants to remain relevant and effective. This means decentralization, and it may begin to mean the definition of what a "local church" is even begins to change (remember, a local church is usually the label we attach to the unit of centralization in the global church).
In the long run, I suspect we'll see a shifting away from large centralized churches and towards more tightly connected groups of smaller groups of people who share their journey of faith with each other, and use technology to interact and connect with each other in new ways that we haven't been able to yet. Consider, for example, what would happen to the way the church interacted if, when you walked into a coffee shop you got a notification on your phone that so-and-so, who you don't know, but here is their name and profile picture is also a Christian and just got baptized last week? Or if you got pinged that your neighbor down the street just had a prayer request answered? Tech could facilitate these kinds of interactions incredibly easily, and this kind of interaction would remap the relationship profile of the global church. We would continue to share our experience of the family we're on the faith journey with (which technology would also redefine in new ways), but we'd also be much more conscious and connected with the global body of Christ as well.
Will it look precisely like this? I have no idea. What I do believe is that a swing towards a technology-driven decentralization is probably inevitable, and although that will mean a lot of difficult things with respect to how to navigate that journey, I suspect that in the long run that will be a good thing. I think it will result in a more engaged, more missional experience of faith, and one that matches the shape of the world better as well.
Putty Putman's Spirit-inspired innovative insights come from his wild journey with Jesus from physicist to pastor to entrepreneur to author and speaker. His three main passions are the Holy Spirit, effective communication, and journeying toward the future God has for the church and the world.
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