The exponential power of a decentralized church movement
Throughout the past year of pandemic, forward-thinking church leaders have speculated about a new future for the church. Now, as vaccines are distributed and we begin to see the light at the end of the COVID-19 tunnel, these conversations are intensifying. There’s widespread agreement that we should not count on in-person church attendance alone, and that the attractional model that built many American churches is not the most effective or viable way forward. So, how can the church innovate, not just to survive, but to thrive in the new normal?
Rob Wegner, Lance Ford and Alan Hirsch propose a way forward in their recently released book, The Starfish and the Spirit: Unleashing the Leadership Potential of Churches and Organizations (Zondervan), encouraging us to return to our early-church roots as a decentralized, disciple-making, gospel movement. The kind of movement that turned the ancient world upside down and is leading to flourishing church multiplication movements in many parts of the world.
In fact, the concept behind the book had its inception when Rob Wegner, then a megachurch pastor, took part in a disciple-making movement in India that generated hundreds of thousands of new disciples. As he was trying to make sense of what he was witnessing, he stumbled upon two paradigm-shifting books: The Starfish and the Spider by Ori Brafman and Rod A. Beckstrom and The Forgotten Ways by Alan Hirsch. The first ignited his imagination about the potential of decentralized organizations. The book contrasts “spider” organizations, where if you cut off the head (the leader) the organism dies, and “starfish” organizations, where the DNA for reproduction is in every cell—if you cut a starfish in half, both halves have everything they need to grow a complete starfish.
The second book drew his attention to the fact that the seed of a Jesus movement is in every disciple, just like the potential for a forest is in every seed. Wegner was captivated by the idea of a decentralized movement made up of a network of everyday disciples starting microchurches right where they are. In this free-flowing conversation, Wegner and his co-authors Lance Ford and Alan Hirsch unpack the power of a decentralized starfish movement for the church as we innovate for the future. —J.S.
With the current reality of the pandemic, why is the starfish mentality, approach and model so compelling?
Lance Ford: Well, the pandemic has forced us into a place of liminality, to an adapt-or-die scenario where if we don’t change, we’re not going to exist. There’s been a lot of options of ways to be and do church that have been on the table for a few years. Well, those options have shrunk in light of the pandemic. We’re not going back to the way it was. Everybody agrees that this is a permanent change. And it’s not such a bad thing. I see the hand of the Lord in it. I think of Hebrews 12:27, which says that the Lord will shake everything that can be shaken so that the things that can’t be shaken will remain. And I think that’s what we’re seeing.
We’re having to learn to do church in a different way. We can’t be reliant on big buildings. We can’t be reliant upon huge budgets. We have to be more nimble. And that’s what a starfish entity is—it’s reproducible to movements.
Alan Hirsch: We’ve been working hard the last 20 to 25 years to try to get the church into a dispersed modality, but it’s been very, very hard. Because even people who like the idea of it, the whole system they’re leading is built around a completely different understanding of the church. The metaphor is fundamentally different: an institutional metaphor. And right now we’re seeing just how incredibly fragile that really is. We can’t even survive a few months of non-events. It’s very, very fragile.
So there’s now, all of a sudden, this newfound interest in these forms of church: microchurch or whatever you want to call it. It’s a missional movement for the moment. Everyone’s now saying, “Ah, so that’s what they were talking about.” I think God has shown us and we have to see God’s ways.
“It’s not about an organizational chart. It’s about family trees.” —Rob Wegner
One of the challenges that will always be with us is getting people to understand that what they’re seeing is actually a form of church. Actually, it’s the most original form. It just doesn’t look like church as we know it. We’ve just come to assume that our form of church is the biblical form. It’s not. It’s a form of church—it’s not that God isn’t here—but it’s not the original one. The more original one, and the more dynamic and the more mentally powerful one is definitely what we’re seeing now as the dispersed, starfish form.
Rob Wegner: That’s how we’ve reorganized in the Kansas City Underground. We don’t plant microchurches. We equip ordinary people to live as missionaries and disciple makers. They make new disciples in a new context. A microchurch emerges. Then microchurches begin to emerge in a particular geography or affinity group and we form them into what we call a collective, a network, and elders emerge over it. We’re trying to get back to that original design where it’s really the church as a decentralized network, and the nodes of power keep going farther and farther out as the reproduction continues to happen.
Hirsch: And everything we need to get the job done is already given to us. The church in China demonstrates that against the odds. And that’s got to teach us something.
It reminds me of the story of a Ghanaian pastor in England. The biggest churches in Great Britain are immigrant churches. And African immigrant churches are huge, and they’re the most dynamic within Christian churches. So his church got to be large and a number of his friends said, “Oh, the churches are closing. What are we going to do?” And he says, “No, no, no, the church isn’t closing. It’s opening up in a thousand other places.” And he saw.
“Can we see that this is the moment when the church can actually begin—like the Jerusalem church under persecution—to spread?” —Alan Hirsch
Can we see that this is the moment when the church can actually begin—like the Jerusalem church under persecution—to spread? You can’t put the flame out. You just spread it. In every neighborhood you’ve got a little church forming if you just see it differently. The power is in seeing it and naming it and legitimizing it and organizing ourselves to support it. So it’s a movement, not an organization.
What’s the difference between “hard hierarchy” and “organic hierarchy”? And why does it matter?
Ford: There’s one caveat within all this that will make or break this thing. And it has to do with unleashing leaders’ heads from the way of leading through hierarchy. I like to call it “hard hierarchy.” Now we propose hierarchy in the book, but it’s a different hierarchy. It’s an organic hierarchy. But why is hierarchical leadership a clog in the works for movemental …
Hirsch: The short answer is that it’s not easily reproducible, and it’s very expensive. It can’t be easily reproduced by the average devoted disciple. So we’ve got to create a model of church that a devoted disciple of Jesus can actually operate. It doesn’t need super technicians that have done years in Harvard or in seminary. It doesn’t need that. Jesus never needed that. Those things have their place—they’re useful. But if we’re able to see that the average disciple has in them the potential for world transformation—if we could see it and organize around that—then we are working with what Jesus himself started.
“We tend to be about the business of building churches and starting churches rather than creating disciples.” —Lance Ford
Wegner: We have to begin to reimagine church. Most church leaders are still on what you could call an old power model where power works like currency and it’s held by a few, and once it’s gained you jealously guard it.
The new power model is different. It’s like current and it’s made by many. It’s open and it’s participatory. It’s peer-driven. It uploads. It distributes. It’s like electricity. Church leaders can begin to see that their job is to activate and unleash that missional current in every single person, helping them get to their maximum influence in terms of missionary formation, disciple making, gospel planting. The bottleneck, I think, is most pastors are still operating on that old power mindset instead of the new power mindset. If we could begin to see our churches as equipping hubs to empower ordinary people to lead simple expressions of church …
Hirsch: Dee Hock, founder and former CEO of Visa, wrote a book titled One From Many. Basically, what he was saying was, when you’ve got purpose and principle—and I would say, a sense of covenant relationship and then clear operational principles—you create a culture. You can then let go of command and control because people operate because it’s meaningful to them. So you have a lot of creativity in how they might apply those principles. There’s no forced way in which anyone should go.
“We have better line of sight and much greater relational influence on our microchurches than most churches do with their small groups.” —Rob Wegner
Vision is the management of meaning. If you are clear about a set of operational principles that everyone adheres to, let it go. Let them do their thing—and reward it. And they’ll want to succeed like anyone else will.
Ford: And that’s all part of that organic hierarchy that we talk about. There’s a hierarchy, but it’s a hierarchy of agreements and systems and structures that allows people to be fluid that way. People always wonder about accountability. We argue in the book that there’s much more accountability in this system than in traditional systems.
Hirsch: It’s kind of like Jesus, isn’t it? He’s still the Lord. He’s still the master. But he inverts the power so the greatest shall be the least. So, yes, there is power. It’s just a different kind of hierarchy.
What impact does a different kind of hierarchy have on the burden of leadership?
Ford: Jesus said that his burden is light. His yoke is easy. If you were to ask most leaders and most pastors, “Do you feel as if you’ve got a light burden?” most of them would say, “No, man, I’m worn out with this thing.” And it’s because we’ve inverted the pyramid, and as leaders we are the ones who are at the point with all that weight on our shoulders. And not only should it not be that way, it doesn’t have to be.
Wegner: One of my favorite sections of the book is what we call the collective intelligence starfish. And this is about how you begin to see your entire congregation as a learning system. And that every single person, when you begin to look at the potential of the collaborative wisdom, skill, talent … so little of that gets tapped in the average church. And we want to give some very practical ways to help leaders unleash the maximum influence and wisdom of every single person who’s in their influence. Because that’s how God designed the body to actually work.
“As leaders, we are the ones who are at the point with all that weight on our shoulders. Not only should it not be that way—it doesn’t have to be.” —Lance Ford
When you strangle down the genius of the body to the gifts and the experience of a handful of people who are the leaders at the top, that means you’re leaving out about 98% of the collective intelligence and wisdom that’s at the table. We have to create systems and ways for everybody to participate and be co-creators with us.
Hirsch: I’m not a paid leader of any organization. So I have no real power over anyone. None. But I have more influence now than I ever had. It’s the weirdest thing. It’s a different kind of authority. And it feels very freeing. It’s just been wonderful to lead by influence and not by using other levers. If you put the power at the center of the organization, then all the hands reach out to want to grab it. So, just don’t put it there. Distribute your power.
What encouraging shifts are we seeing?
Ford: Alan, in your interactions with churches and with leaders in general, what shifts are you seeing that you’re encouraged by in relation to some of the things that we’re talking about here?
Hirsch: I think the digital thing is big. And whether we like it or not, you can’t put that back in the bag. And I do think it’s going to change the game. The other thing I’m seeing is APEST (apostle, prophet, evangelist, shepherd and teacher from Ephesians 4:11–12) kicking off in a big way. And partly because it’s about the distributed intelligence that Rob was talking about that Jesus has already put into the church. I would say it’s the most fruitful conversation globally at the moment for a missional way of thinking. And it’s powerful because everyone gets in on the game. It’s much bigger, and much more intelligence is brought into the equation.
“The average disciple has in them the potential for world transformation—if we could see that and organize around that—we work with what Jesus started.” —Alan Hirsch
Ford: Alan, when you talk about APEST—and we all agree on this—one of the things I’ve heard you say a thousand times is the biggest mistake people make is approaching Ephesians 4 as a leadership text. And you’re saying it’s not a leadership text.
Hirsch: It’s a ministry text. Because it’s addressed to each one of us—that’s the whole church. And I think that changes the game because it’s all in the body of Christ. The whole body has the intelligence. And that’s a huge game changer. You’re absolutely right.
Ford: It’s beautiful.
So, what about safeguards and oversight?
Hirsch: Lance, talk to us about how you keep this from going wrong. How do you oversee the system? With all these people running around decentralized, how do you keep it from going off the rails?
Ford: Well, the core of it all is disciple making. That’s one of the things that we just don’t do. Jesus said, “I will build my church, now you go make disciples.” And we say, “OK, Lord, I’ll build you a church.” And he says, “No, no, no, no, I’ll build my church, you go make disciples.” And we say, “OK, I’ll go build you a church.” And so we’re about the business of building churches and starting churches rather than creating disciples. If we make disciples who are obedient to Jesus’ words and actually do what he said, I believe that’s the key to it all.
“When you strangle down the genius of the body to the gifts and the experience of a handful of people who are the leaders at the top, that means you’re leaving out about 98%.” —Rob Wegner
Everybody gets worried about schisms and about heresies, and all that stuff is going to come and go. But if you have a core of real disciples, they’re going to self-filter that stuff out and be able to walk strong and work their way through it. Of course, that’s what we see throughout the epistles. Paul was dealing with that kind of stuff. And his whole aim was to try to raise up a mature body that could deal with it.
Hirsch: You have teachers given, who are actually good at clarifying truth and coaching and training and instructing. You also have the apostles who are correctors of DNA ideas. And then of course you have prophets. If you’ve got genuine prophets, disciple prophets, they’ll keep you aligned, right? If you switch off the radar and you’re in a plane, you’re gonna hit the mountainside. So, you need your prophetic voices. All five of the APEST roles are needed to be healthy. If you plan on the APEST thing, you won’t go wrong. Jesus is still Lord of his church and he will instruct us, and he will lead us in his way. We can trust that.
“Vision is the management of meaning. If you are clear about a set of operational principles that everyone adheres to, let it go.” —Alan Hirsch
Wegner: It’s also where simple, organic structures come in. What started as one microchurch here in my part of town is now up to seven. That’s a formalized network now that we’d call a collective. And then we raise up governing elders that provide hyperlocal oversight for that network of seven microchurches. And then we have an ongoing coaching team. Every microchurch leader has a coach who’s a successful practitioner. So if your microchurch is in our collective, you’re going to have governing elders who are caring, guiding, providing oversight, and a coach from the equipping team. I’ve led in large churches my whole life. We have better line of sight and much greater relational influence on our microchurches in our decentralized network than most churches do with their small groups.
And Lance, what you said is true. If we build a direct dependency on the Word of God and then we begin to help them read the Bible through a set of questions that helps them focus on the gospel, who Jesus is, their identity in Christ, and then basically hearing and obeying, it’s amazing when you have a culture of discipleship in a microchurch. They’re going directly to the Word of God, responding to the Holy Spirit. The Spirit and that community under the Word of God can be trusted.
Where to from here?
Ford: This is the time in our lives when older guys start moving from the drive for success to significance. Which is really a happier, lighter load. But what would it look like for the church? After 45 to 50 years of the church-growth movement, which was all about success and growth, what would it look like if our church moved to significance in these days?
“We have to begin to reimagine our churches as equipping hubs to empower ordinary people to lead simple expressions of church.” —Rob Wegner
Wegner: It’s not about an organizational chart. It’s about family trees. It’s about seeing multiplication happen first out of your life into the life of your 12. Do you know your 12? Can you name them? Are you laying your life down for them, and then helping them do the same? So now you have your 12. And then you see the multiplication of those circles. We call them microchurches. And eventually you’re multiplying disciples and leaders and microchurches and networks and hubs, and when you’re multiplying at all five of those levels and it’s reached four generations branching out into multiple strands, that’s a genuine movement. And if, by God’s grace, I could disappear in something like that, where most of the people wouldn’t even know I were there, that would be significance for me.