We are facing a disruption to the Church in ways that we have not seen in our lifetime. Rather than waiting for life to go back to normal for our church activities, we need to embrace this disruption as a gift that is breaking open space for new life and new possibilities. The last great disruption was The Reformation, which in many ways awakened the Church to the doctrine of Grace and reading the Bible without papacy constraints. This current pandemic is disrupting the Church, and awakening us to the doctrine of love and releasing us to be the Church without walls.
Many of us do not feel prepared for this moment though, it is O.K., the Spirit is with us, the wisdom of Church is available to us, and history of God’s movement is speaking to us.
One of the Western Church building blocks that is being rattled by the Pandemic is our organizational structure of Centralization, a structure where decisions, directions, and discipleship come from “the center,” as opposed to the edge, or grassroots, of the organization. But is there a scriptural foundation for this structure? Why is this so easily embraced? Is this good for the mission of Church? Can we find another way forward?
Centralized and Decentralized
So when we talk about an organization that is either “centralized” or “decentralized,” what exactly do we mean? Surprisingly, the terms and concepts are not a modern phenomenon; they have been around for centuries. In fact, during the late 1800’s, Turkish-born Jules Henri Fayol said,
“Centralization is not a system of management that is either good or bad. The question of centralization or decentralization is a simple question of proportion; it is a matter of finding the optimum degree for the particular concern.”
In other words, even at its earliest inception, it was widely understood that centralization and decentralization lay at extreme ends of a continuum. And your church might land at various points on that spectrum, depending on cultural expectations, your church denomination, and your leadership style.
For the purpose of clarity:
- Centralization is an ecclesial structure where power, authority, giftings, preaching, finances, and decisions are held and made by one person or a very small select group of people within the Church.
- Decentralization is an organizational structure where power, authority, gathering, and mission are dispersed and made by equipped and empowered people throughout the Church and even outside the Church.
Embracing the Decentralized shift is not choosing the opposite of Centralization, it is finding the tension that does not stymie and stall movement outside Church walls.Embracing the Decentralized shift is not choosing the opposite of Centralization, it is finding the tension that does not stymie and stall movement outside Church walls. ~ Dan White Jr. Click To Tweet
To be completely Decentralized is to create the conditions for Chaos. To be completely Centralized is to create the conditions for Control.
Somewhere in the tension is the truth. We are given false choices all the time, in which something is forcefully claimed to be an “either/or” situation, when in fact there is another, more creative option. Certainly, seeing the world through only two choices is convenient and makes church-life easier. But life is more of a spectrum of possible alternatives rather than an option between two extremes. The very nature of Christ Himself is beyond either/or. God is a paradox. Is Jesus of Nazareth human or divine? He is both.
To discern Decentralization, we should not be locked inside an either/or mental cage, this tends to happen when we are reacting against extremes. When digging out of the ditch of Centralization, our genuine desire is to get back up on the road, not just fall into the other ditch.When digging out of the ditch of Centralization, our genuine desire is to get back up on the road, not just fall into the other ditch. ~ Dan White Jr. Click To Tweet
Battle Between the Two
From the very beginning of Church history, the conversation about centralization and decentralization were battling. In an attempt to alleviate this tension, the Church, by the third century AD, became a specialist in centralized authority, doctrine, and worship. What was previously a movement that scattered in clusters of 15 to 30ish in homes, barns, and even caves, within 100 years, became consolidated to ornate buildings, designated priests, and controlled worship services.
Our early history of being the Church had a strong DNA of Decentralization but then the pendulum swung under Emperor Constantine’s rule toward Centralization. This is important to remember, we have a history of both. As well, the New Testament presents both a centralized and decentralized organizational structure that was present in the early church. There is a beautiful and sometimes painful tension we see in the letters to the Church that some decisions and directions are centralized while activation of mission, gathering, and discipleship are decentralized far away from synagogues and seminary trained leaders.
Our first task is to begin to discern how Decentralized or Centralized our current church is. Where on the continuum do we see ourselves? How resistant is our culture to more Decentralization? Where are the fears? Where are the possibilities?
Making the Change
What if a church wanted to change from being centralized to being more decentralized especially because of COVID-19? How would this church, no matter its size, begin moving from a model where gathering, leadership, discipleship, mission, and decision-making are released outside the walls of the Church?
We need to start with the two entities The House and The Hub
Throughout the New Testament we find the word oikos, a Greek term typically translated “house” or “household.” However, don’t confuse the Greco-Roman household with our post–Industrial Revolution notions of household. In our culture a household is typically Dad, Mom and 2.5 kids. In Greco Roman society the household was an extended family that included close and distant relatives, employees of the family business, as well as friends of the family. Oikos is the basic building block of society and its close network of relationships. It typically included twenty to fifty people. The average membership of a New Testament household church was this size.
These communities gathered as the body of Christ in a variety of homes throughout the city. This social space provides the most fruitful environment for tight-knit community and for boundary-crossing mission. This Oikos space is small enough for people to experience authentic community, but big enough to mobilize people for the work of mission and justice. The glue that holds the group together is not a platform performance but instead gathering around shared-life and shared-mission. The Oikos is the basic building block for the decentralization of a congregation. The House is heart of the Church. In this approach, The Hub exists to resource The House. During COVID-19 the size of this group might be around 10, post-COVID-19 the size of this group should hover around 20 to 30.
As people orient themselves in this midsized Oikos they can expect to encounter people who are available for more relational interaction. Availability means being within reach relationally, having access that is not available in the public space or The Hub. In social space people explore belonging. We long for this type of relational availability, one that remembers names, celebrates milestones, cares for illnesses, laughs over meals, allows kids to play, affirms each other’s presence, and makes room for each person to make a contribution. People connected to the Oikos will encounter a clear mission, being sent to a neighborhood or a network of relationships to express the good news of the radical love of God. Each House is co-missioned to be peace-makers, reconcilers, activists, creators, and evangelists as a sign, foretaste and instrument of the in-breaking Kingdom of God. The missional DNA of each person comes into focus and is galvanized together as a group.People connected to the Oikos will encounter a clear mission, being sent to a neighborhood or a network of relationships to express the good news of the radical love of God. ~ Dan White Jr. Click To Tweet
We see this taking place when New Testament house churches gathered together in larger places (e.g., the temple, a synagogue or a large house). In 1 Corinthians, for example, the apostle Paul speaks of an event in which “the whole church” came together (e.g., 1 Cor 14:23). This public space becomes The Hub for the Houses. During COVID-19 we are challenged in the way of physically gathering in this space. But what if The Hub began to see itself as primarily resourcing, developing, and tethering Houses?
It’s difficult for each House to provide teaching, discipleship materials, and administration. Could the Hub create and produce materials for network of Houses? Sermons, reflection questions, liturgies, discipleship material? We can begin to have imagination for all the nourishment that a House might need and assemble a team of people focused on their resource needs.
Each House needs leadership and accountability to healthy forms of leadership. Could the Hub exist to train and deploy leaders for each House. There are three basic roles for running a missional House: Visioneers (Apostle/Prophets), Gatherers (Shepherds/Evangelists), and Equippers (Teachers). The Hub is responsible for recruiting and resourcing these three roles. A level of character, competence, and capacity is assessed for each of these roles by the Hub. Their development is an ongoing process. With COVID-19, guidance and restrictions could be given for how each house functions. Development could take place in small clusters at the Hub.
In living into the tension of Decentralization and Centralization, Houses will need to be tethered to each other and tethered to the Hub. Without tethering Houses will flounder and fall off. Tethering happens by way of communication, administration, cross-pollinating, and networking. This tethering strengthens the connection between groups. Unity across Houses is essential for stability, not uniformity. So a team of people are focused on the tethering work to keep houses talking to each other, collaborating together, and swapping ideas.
The more we explore decentralization we will discover how it provides a way to adapt quickly to cultural changes going on around us. The decentralized sweet spot is the point along the centralized-decentralized continuum that helps the church reach its maximum potential. This is what every church needs to be asking: What areas/ministries/projects/people need to be centralized in order to best advance God’s Kingdom, and what areas/ministries/projects/people need to be decentralized in order to best make way for the movement of God? This is up to each individual and local church to determine.
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