Of Spiders and Starfish

The book, Spider and the Starfish, begins with the story of Cortez and his conquest of the Aztecs. He was able to quickly take over the majority of what is now Mexico, simply by killing King Montezuma. But, he never conquered the northern regions because of the Apache Indians.

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The government of Montezuma was a like a spider—cut off its head and the spider is dead. But, the Apaches were more like a starfish—kill one leader and another will rise up to take his place. Throughout the book, the authors differentiate between organizations that are centralized (spider) and those that are decentralized (starfish). The final point of the book is not that one style is better than the other, but rather that the most effective organizations are structured with a “sweet spot” blend of both centralized and decentralized control policies.

What does this have to do with church planting? A lot, actually.

Prior to the 1990’s, almost all church planting efforts were decentralized, pioneering efforts. In fact, church planting wasn’t typically called “planting.” Church starters were called “pioneers” or “home missionaries.” They were sent out with little more than a pat on the back and a promise of prayer. Church starting was mostly a “Darwinian” endeavor—the  survival of the fittest. Only the strong need apply.

During the 90’s, church leaders recognized the disadvantages of a completely decentralized approach to church planting.  They  reacted by introducing formal assessments, training and coaching systems, designed to assist those brave pioneers with the support they had previously done without. With these systems came an increasing amount of “top-down” management by denominations and church planting networks.

The pendulum now swung toward the centralized end of the spectrum.  And, the inevitable side effect of centralization was more bureaucratic intervention over the church planting process.

The support systems, created by the bureaucracy, resulted in a safer planting environment that allowed a broader spectrum of planters to be successful. Leaders who had never thought about planting suddenly saw how they could be successful and lined up to become one of the new heroes of the church. More churches were planted; but as David Olsen’s research in The American Church in Crisis demonstrates, the Church made very little actual evangelistic progress because the vast majority of “growth” was the result of pew swapping.

Pioneer planters (those who are the most effective at starting churches that reach un-churched people with the Gospel) and the new micromanagement style mixed like oil and water. The systems designed to assist them, ended up slowing them down or driving them away from the very systems that were intended to help. Thankfully, the pendulum is swinging back toward a healthy balance between centralization and decentralization. Entrepreneurially minded leaders of existing churches are acting with decentralized enthusiasm to start new, relevant campuses to reach lost people. And, at the same time, they are benefitting from the centralized systems of their denomination or network. It’s called multi-site, church planting movements, or churches planting churches.

An increasing number of church organizations are now seeing a significant increase in the number of successful new churches as well as a growing number of new converts. The key difference is that these organizations and networks are learning how to support the multiplication efforts of local churches and shifting from a command and control mindset to one of support and empowerment. That’s what happens when the best of centralization meets up with the best of decentralization.

The application of this new, emerging reality of combining both systems will be different, depending on your organizational perspective. If you are a church planter, do your homework, connect, and cooperate with a church that is plugged in to an empowering organization. If you are a mission-focused church, desiring to multiply, take advantage of the resources available through your denomination or network. And, if you lead a denomination or network, the best way to unleash the evangelistic force of planting new churches is to empower and provide resources or tools your local congregations that encourage successful multiplication. The key to Gospel expansion is not seeking to be either a spider or a starfish. It’s to be both—at the same time!