The Starfish and the Spider: A Conversation about Jesus and the Church

Last year I read the book The Starfish and the Spider: The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations by Ori Brayman and Rod A. Beckstrom. The 200-plus page book explores the concept of the “starfish” and the “spider,” two leadership models for organizations in any sector. Quickly, I’ll explain how both the starfish and the spider represent every organization you can think of:

The spider, according to Brayman and Beckstrom, is an insect that needs all of its parts to fully function. If a spider loses a leg, it will still live but will be severely handicapped, making it difficult for the spider to function as it should. If the spider loses its head, the entire body suffers and inevitably dies.

The starfish on the other hand, when it loses a limb, regenerates a new arm. What’s even more interesting, the separated arm will grow a brand new starfish out of that detached limb! What many people don’t know is that each arm of the starfish has everything it needs to regenerate and grow a new starfish — this means that even when a starfish’s arm is severed, the original body not only grows a new arm, but the new arm grows a new body!

Centralized (spider) organizations, like universities, music labels, even churches, that have one main leader, often die when said leader (the head) is cut off. Ever watched the leader of a huge centralized organization take the plunge into a scandal or died suddenly? The body scrambles. People are shuffled around. Many parts of that organization “die” because so many in the body rely on the word and leadership of the head.

On the contrary, decentralized (starfish) organizations like Napster, Wikipedia, even groups like Alcoholics Anonymous, are able to run without one centralized leader. Everyone in the organization has a part in developing and moving the organization forward without much say-so from the leader. A commitment to ideals is what keeps this kind of leaderless leadership together.

A hybrid version of this spider/starfish model makes use of a “catalyst,” someone who knows how to “[let] go and [trust] the community to do the missional work of the group.”¹ For instance, Wikipedia does have a founder or “leader” of sorts that makes big decisions, but the reason Wikipedia works is because there are a group of contributors who trust one another to offer articles about any topic in the world. The people in the Wikicommunity are encouraged to contribute in the ways that they see fit and in turn, they trust members of the community to “check” anyone who does detriment to the site by posting bad or erroneous articles. As the book notes, people in the Wikicommunity “find reward in just contributing”² solid work.

So this lead me to thinking: if the world is made up of spiders, starfish, and on occasion, a hybrid version of the two, how does this apply to the Church at large?

I mean, I’d venture to say that the Church is a spider. Regardless of the denomination, most churches have one pastor/leader that dictates what happens in the church. This is even more evident in mainline denominations that have a governing body that dictates and tells churches when to grow, when to move, who to hire and so on. The people fall in line and do the work of the Church. When the pastor or governing body “dies,” the shake up begins. Entire churches break in half and attempt to mutate into another church. Sometimes they work, but often times they don’t. When they do seem to work, many people in the “body” are left bruised and damaged trying to find some semblance of once was.

In some instances, we see churches acting like a hybrid of the two models through small groups/circles, allowing those who are members of the church to plant small groups throughout the community to further the message and missional work of the Church. I think this has been the church’s most recent attempt to move much of the focus on spreading the Gospel solely on the head of the pastor and empower the people to engage in the work of Christ on their own.

This leads me to ask, “Was Jesus a spider, starfish, or hybrid leader?”

Spider question: At his death (and subsequent resurrection), did the spread of Christianity suddenly stop? No.

Spider question: Did the work of Jesus end once He ascended to heaven? No.

Starfish question: Were the disciples and others empowered to continue the mission of spreading the Gospel while Jesus was alive and after his resurrection? Yes.

Starfish question: Has the spread of Christianity  continued despite the catalyst, Jesus Christ, being “present” to guide on earth? Yes.

Hybrid question: Was Jesus able to be both the cornerstone and the liberator for others to do ministry in His name? Yes.

What we  see Jesus do is operate in a hybrid model of both the spider and the starfish. He lead those who believed in His message of heaven on earth and a hope for a life with Him after death through some very core ideals, many of these ideals pointing back to Him as the chief cornerstone of our faith.

At the same time, He told them to go out and do the same work He did. He empowered His believers to build communities among each other, and even within communities not like their own, to further the missional work of Christ.

Jesus looked to decentralize the faith from one leader to many leaders who had a commitment to the body of work established by God.

John 14:12 says that Jesus told the disciples that they would do even GREATER works than He did, like a passing of the torch. So if Jesus is passing the torch to do the works He did to other people,  (again seen in Luke 10:19), then Jesus had a decentralized, “starfish” view of faith.

So how can Christianity, an “organization”  (organized religion, some may say) built around a decentralized leader operate as a centralized entity? As you can imagine, this presents some problems for the Body of Christ as a whole, yes?

And maybe this is where we Christians miss the mark: trying to spread the decentralized Gospel through a centralized process that requires people to be heavily reliant on the ways and means of one central leader (read: pastor/minister/televangelist/twitter prophet). This dependency removes one’s ability to empower themselves to reach the lost in the communities in which they live, in the ways that are most life giving to them.

Jesus was the head, but when teaching others about the Gospel, there was a spirit of agency for others to go and do the work — this is best seen through the life of Paul as he helped establish churches during the course of his life.

I think churches that use small groups try to offer a level of decentralization so that people can have the liberty to interpret and act on the Gospel in the way they see fit. But even those circles are often highly regulated by church ministries/officials, making organic forms of ministry hard to engage in.

How do we begin to do “Church” in light of understanding Jesus as a starfish or even a hybrid leader? In what ways do we begin to shift our understanding of what it means to be a part of a body of believers that, historically, have worshiped under sometimes strict “spider-like” church leadership? And most importantly, how does this understanding of Jesus and the Church as an “organization” shape the way we begin to engage with the world around around us?

There’s no one answer but there is something I would leave for consideration: Jesus as a leader, who was not only the cornerstone but the one who empowered us to do as He did and even more, is calling for us to loose our reigns on the structure of the Church to allow for those who are left outside our doors an opportunity to come and be a part of the Body. It is calling for us to embrace people more than we do religious policy or doctrinal differences that lean too heavily on the words and phrases of man and release the kind of experience that allows for people to come to the throne of grace so they may learn how to create their own communities of faith — in their own unique ways.

Let’s talk about it! How do you see these ideas played out in your own church?
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Have you registered for Allume yet? I’ll be in Greenville October 15-18 and Dallas October 23-24; I’d love to see you!

On the Starfish Chase,

Alisha L.

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