From Organization to Ecosystem

December 7, 2022
Future Church
Article Series:

In this series about the Phoenix Church Plant that we are just on the edge of setting off on (please be praying, we're looking at actual houses to get out there at the time of this writing!!), we are going to attempt to cross what I'm calling the 4D Chasm: the theological, structural, technological & cultural gap that I believe we need to find our way to the other side of if we are going to find an expression of the church that feels more 21st century native. The situation may be feeling grim in the church in the West, but I'm not willing to consign us to diminishing effectiveness in reaching our culture with Jesus; there have been many times in the past when the context seemed darkest and when God broke through in incredibly powerful ways (though not without a disruptive change in church expression).

One of the layers is structural, and what I mean by that is the way we organize and coordinate as people in the thing we call a local church. Structure is one of those things that is most often in the background; invisible when it is working well and only something people give a lot of thought to when somehow the gears are grinding. For that reason, structural issues are difficult to see and to diagnose, and we often have a limited imagination of the set of options we have as it comes to organizing our collaboration. Nevertheless, I believe this is an important part of iterating the design of church as there are new forms of structuring collaboration that are creating disruptive change in a number of different sectors and industries. That disruptive change isn't simply "use this structure instead of that one", it is a different kind of structure altogether. That shift could be described as moving from an organization to an ecosystem.


Most of us have extensive experience in collaboration structured as an organization. We have a job or participate in a church in which there are defined lines of decision making and responsibility that are integrated together in a pyramid shape. At the top is a leader (or maybe a small group of leaders) who take responsibility for the entire organization and delegate layers of that responsibility to a team which they lead. Those team members may in turn have teams they lead in which they do the same with the specified scope of responsibility that team has to carry and so on until the bottom layer of the organization. Whether we are talking about a situation where someone is paid to do this work (a "job"), or whether this happens through volunteer efforts (as it often the case at some level in a church), the overall approach is the same: cascading layers of responsibility that all integrate into a "head leader" who has responsibility for the whole organization.

Now before I go any further, let me say that I don't have any ax to grind with organizations. I think this is important to mention because sometimes people do! The reason why is that organizations create a fundamental power imbalance. The person above another person in the "org chart" does have more power than the other in a given conversation, and at times that blows up on the person with less power in some way. Correspondingly, sometimes people get hurt by this–and it seems to happen more frequently in the church than in business–and start faulting the whole system. Given how popular (semi-marxist) deconstructionism is right now, it's not uncommon for people to take the anti-establishment stance and be anti-organizations. Personally, I find this stance unhelpful. I mean most of the good things that we have in our lives are the results of the collaboration that the organization-pattern enables. The computer I'm writing this article on is the result of an organization that is organized this way. The computer or phone you're reading it on is as well. As is the food you buy at the store, and the store you buy it at. So is the vehicle you use to get there. And on and on and on. What this pattern has enabled us as humans to create and bring to the world really is remarkable. Organizations are pretty remarkable all things considered.

"Organization", as I use the term here, refers to a pattern of collaboration between the efforts of people. It defines responsibility and communication lines in an effort to create productive synergy. This pattern has worked to incredible effect, but it isn't the only way we can collaborate, nor is it guaranteed to be the most effective form in all contexts. I don't see anything innately superior or inferior about this particular pattern: what is being accomplished and in what environment to a large part determines how well this pattern works. For as much positive as there is in this pattern, there is potential negative as well. Organization as a pattern of collaboration doesn't do a great job in creating space for most people to grow into everything they may desire. What is given room is the overlap between what the worker has and what the organization needs (with limited exception). There is good reason for this, but it sets up a challenging pattern that can feel oppositional if someone ever feels the need to grow into something that doesn't align with what the organization is doing. Organizations aren't very adaptive either: it takes time for communication to work up and down layers of the pyramid–sometimes a lot of time, and things are often lost in translation or processed very differently at the different layers of the structure as well. There is also an increasing burden-bearing weight that leadership at the top of the organization feels. This is something some bear better than others, but it is difficult on all.

The last few decades in the Church in the West have leaned more and more into the organizational model as the pattern of collaboration to use in local churches. This has resulted in massive megachurches and waves of multisite churches. These are church-as-an-organization at a scale that probably transcends anything that has come before in the history of the church. There has been both good and bad fruit of this trend in that timespan.

Changing Context

The last few decades have seen a growing interconnectivity that is creating a more complex and faster moving environment in many contexts. In some of these contexts, this change in environment has resulted in overwhelming the organizational pattern of collaboration and forced exploration into different patterns of collaborating and interacting that aren't bound by the constraints of the pyramid-shaped organizational model. The result has been an emerging branch of leadership literature that is working to explore a very different pattern of collaboration. Here are a few books that I've found very interesting in that regard:

Adapting to Fight Al-Qaeda: Team of Teams

In this book, General McChrystal tells the story of leading the special forces collaboration (JSOC) during the war on terror in Iraq. Fascinatingly, one of his first discoveries was that the US forces, though trained and resourced at levels Al-Qaeda couldn't even fathom, they initially suffered tremendous loses and made very little progress because of their organizational shape. This book tells the story of learning to "become a network to beat a network" and how it was the change in organizational paradigm that was really the heart of the matter in becoming an effective anti-terrorist force.

Among many other interesting and profound lessons in this book, McChrystal says that the role of leadership needs to change from "chess-master to gardener"–by which he means that effective leadership in a decentralized (ecosystem) model requires a different set of skills: primarily skills that cultivate the collaborative synergy in an organization while having a structure that pushes information and empowerment all the way through the team (rather than reserve it for the top).

Case Studies of the New Shape: Reinventing Organizations
(The Illustrated version is a lot better than the non-illustrated version)

In this book, Laloux surveys a dozen businesses and nonprofits that he sees to be case studies of a new pattern of organization. He explores the three fundamental breakthroughs that drive this new model of collaboration: self-management, the pursuit of wholeness, and a continually evolving purpose that emerges in a bottom-up way. Laloux walks through the often radical-feeling application of these principles to things like decision-making, goal-setting, hiring, onboarding, organizational structure, and more. He has some conversation about how to move towards these practices, as well as how it changes the function of the CEO and board.

A New Shape

What are the features of this new pattern of collaboration? Well, let me first suggest it's worth considering reading these books (the images are links if you're interested) and doing a deep dive yourself. If you do though, know that this is a total system overhaul you're looking at here; this isn't something you can integrate with the pyramid you already have in place. To really implement a new pattern requires ceasing to implement the old one.

Two of the major features that comes out in both of these books (along with some others in the same field) are:

  1. Decision-making is opened up to every member of the system. There is no permission-granting hierarchy in play; each person is fully empowered to make whatever decision they need to in order to pursue the collective mission subject to the set of shared rules everyone in the system has agreed to play by.
  2. The direction of the whole system isn't steered by the leadership as much as it emerges from the system itself.

Now if you're like me even with just those two things you may already be skeptical. Things can't really work that way! What will prevent things from just degrading into incoherent activity? Something like that doesn't go anywhere as a whole. Maybe you're more optimistic than I am, but that's what I thought when I first started engaging these ideas!

But the further I go in, the more I'm convinced there is something real here. If for no other reason than this is how nature organizes things–which means it's a pattern that God as Creator uses.

As an example, one fascinating natural phenomenon we've all seen at one time or another is flocking: the way that birds or fish group themselves into a coherent group. For a long time this behavior was rather mysterious to scientists. How can animals with such small brains create such complex behavior together? How is that being coordinated? It actually only began to become clear as computers became powerful enough to do simulations of groups of animals that it began to become clear: flocking is the natural result of each animal following three simple rules:

  1. Cohesion: Move towards where the others are.
  2. Alignment: Aim the same direction the others around you are aiming.
  3. Separation: Move away from others if you get too close.

With each animal following nothing more than these three rules in real time, birds with tiny brains are able to travel in these vast and complex patterns. Want a deeper dive? Check this video out:

(Link to the simulator here)

It's fascinating, right? Distributed decision-making with a few simple feedback loops that everyone uses results in this complex emergent phenomenon. And the more I think about it, the more it seems some version of this is nearly everywhere nature organizes. Another great example of this is the metaphor I like to use for what we want to build: an ecosystem. Who is the boss of the forest? Nobody! Every plant and animal in an ecosystem is acting in a decentralized way–there is no permission granting in a forest, and yet the natural feedback loops create synergies that give the forest a defined existence and coherence.

This is, in essence what McChrystal and Laloux are advocating in their books: rather than organizing in a way in which some people's decisions limit others in a permission-granting pyramid, what if we focused on creating the right feedback loops and information flows and turned people loose? Rather than force all the information processing into one centralized place, distribute it throughout the system in such a way that people have to face the real consequences of their decisions. Turns out they'll make better ones than you would expect if you make them feel the pain of making poor ones and don't protect them from that (another function bosses usually do). On top of that, now you've got more of everyone working on things. The processing power of the system just went way up because people aren't ever shutting their brain off and turning a whole set of problems over to their boss to figure out.

This kind of decentralized shape is becoming more and more prevalent in our world. One of the canonical examples of this is Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia generated nearly entirely by volunteers and whose accuracy rivals (or bests) the standard, Encyclopedia Brittanica. I bet you've visited wikipedia in this last month. Maybe today. Its traffic ranks among the top ten websites in the world. And it was built in this strange shape. This strange pattern of collaboration might feel like it bends our minds, but it definitely is real and it definitely can work.

Church as a Kingdom Activity Ecosystem

So here is the question all of this leads me to: why can't we create a local church along this pattern of collaboration? Why can't a local church be organized as a kingdom activity ecosystem? Maybe we're not used to it yet, but that doesn't mean we can't do it. In fact, as I read the New Testament, it sure looks to me like this kind of ecosystem-pattern is what the writers of the New Testament imagined when they thought about the church:

you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. 1 Peter 2:5
For as in one body we have many members, and the members do not all have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another. Romans 12:4–5
Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love. Ephesians 4:15–16

The body is supposed to grow itself as it is connected to the head. We are members of one another and collectively make one body, one temple. To me this sounds much more like a decentralized and emergent ecosystem than a tightly organized structure.

How exactly does that work? I've got a bunch of ideas–and some things we're learning in our pilot group that has already begun to experiment with in Chicago before we head out west. The long and short of it is that I've worked it on the whiteboard as much as I can; I need to be battletested in the trenches, and that's precisely what we plan to do. I believe it's possible and I believe if we can crack that nut it will be a game-changer for how church appeals to this present generation.

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.

Putty founded the School of Kingdom Ministry and spent eleven years as a pastor on the staff team of The Vineyard Church of Central Illinois, followed by a year and a half as an interim pastor at The Chapel. In February 2023 he moved to Phoenix, Arizona to church pioneer by planting a new "kingdom ecosystem." Putty is the author of two books, and lives with his wife and three children in Tempe, AZ.

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Read the whole series:

The Phoenix Adventure

Future Church
Future Church
September 2, 2022
The 4D ChasmRead More
Future Church
Future Church
November 9, 2022
Why PhoenixRead More
Future Church
Future Church
Life Update
Phoenix Church
Future Church
Life Update
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