What does Church 2.0 look like

I’ve been asked a number of times to speak to various churches and other leadership groups about young adults, their relationship to organized religion, and their take on — and use of — technology.

Unfortunately, church and technology tend to generally mix about as well as the football team and chess club. Neither the two shall meet, right? Who needs technology to find God, after all?

Sure, a few of us may have put up a screen to show words to our praise songs, and we may have even had a kid from the youth group throw together a website for us…which hasn’t been updated in about forty-seven years or so.

As they say in the twelve-step tradition: how’s that working out for you?

Folks generally fall into one of two categories. Either they are terrified by technology and want to have nothing to do with it in church at all, or they see it as some sort of silver bullet that, if aimed properly, will magically fill the now-empty pews with young families. In truth, neither perspective is particularly realistic. For one, technology isn’t going anywhere, so by ignoring it, we risk making our churches even more irrelevant.

On the other hand, if we hope that technology — or emergent worship, a groovy website, or even a podcast — will save us from a fate we’re hoping to avoid, we may be putting way more trust into a handful of tools than they deserve.

It might help more to consider the question: is your church a spider or a starfish?

The whole concept came from a book on business management practices, called The Starfish and the Spider: The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations by Ori Brafman and Rod A. Beckstrom. The model presented here resonates with the idea I’ve had for a while now that church could learn a whole lot from the structure and governance of organizations like twelve-step groups like Alcoholics Anonymous. After all, they have reached millions with virtually no budget, and they seem immune to economic conditions, flourishing while we institutional churches struggle to keep the doors open.

So what’s the difference?

I might help answer that question with another question; if you cut the head off a spider, what happens? We all know it dies, right? But what if you cut off the arm of a starfish?

It just grows another starfish. Where you once had one, there are now two. In trying to stop it, you actually only made it stronger.

So, how many of our churches are more like spiders instead of starfish? I thought so.

Here’s where the advent of recent technology might teach us an awful lot. I’ll be presenting some webinars and other workshops about using applications like Facebook, podcasting and blogging to further our ministries, but for now, let’s consider these Social Media tools a little more systematically.

In particular, consider a phenomenon known as “Web 2.0.” This is much like the so-called “leaderless organizations” that Brafman and Beckstrom are referring to. They are viral in nature, highly adaptable and scalable, and relatively easy to manage because the users generate the content.

I’ll offer a few examples to clarify the differences between a 1.0 — or spider — model and a 2.0 — or starfish — system.

Amazon, which has become a behemoth presence for online commerce, would be considered a 1.0 model. They have a product that they sell to customers, pretty much in the traditional model, despite their lack of storefronts. Though they’ve been successful up until now, they are depending on some basic truths about the market. If, for example, the cost of paper or transport fuel went through the roof, it would affect their business model significantly, or if a supplier shut down, they might be stuck.

eBay, on the other hand, is a 2.0, or starfish, model. eBay, as you probably know, doesn’t actually sell anything. All they do is create the framework within which people can conduct business. This means they can be a conduit for everything from sweat socks to automobiles and homes. If the price of gold plummeted and jewelry markets crumbled, people could just sell more baseball cards or used books on eBay.

Another comparison might be looking at the difference between the traditional military structure versus a network like Al Qaida. Though you can throw an entire military into chaos by attacking its senior leadership or supply lines, Al Qaida is hard to stop in one sense because it is a headless beast. You kill or capture current leaders, and a dozen more pop up in their place. The system is so adaptable, it’s hard to stop.

Our churches have been based upon a 1.0 “spider” model for centuries, and so far, it’s worked pretty well. But now, we’re surrounded by starfish like Facebook, Craigslist, BitTorrent, MySpace, eBay and the like, and we wonder why it is that we, the institutional church, don’t seem relevant to younger people.

For starters, we not only don’t look familiar: we don’t even look relevant.

People may not be able to put their finger on it, but they know 1.0 versus 2.0 when they see it, especially younger people. There are consequences to being a starfish organization instead of a spider, such as letting go some control over the content exchanged within the system, but there’s great opportunity as well.

After World War II, churches were booming, and we could hardly build or expand the worship halls fast enough to keep up. Married couples generally stayed together for a lifetime, people stayed in the same job and the same home for decades, and there was an inherent trust in institutions to care for of us.

Then things changed.

Since the sixties, our relationship with institutional structures has changed, and in many ways, has become more suspicious. From government and religion to corporate America and even the institution of marriage, we approach such systems with an increasingly critical eye.

Along with this skepticism has come a new sense of resourcefulness too. The post-boomer generations have begun to learn to create a sense of community, belonging and “place” where and when they can, unable to consistently depend on institutions, or even their families of origin, to provide the stable foundation they seek.

Enter the Digital Age, which has expanded time, space, communication and community in ways most could not have even imagined before. Though some are suspicious, or even critical, of phenomena such as Social Networking (Facebook, MySpace, etc) tools, they are unquestionably filling a need. With more than 250 million subscribers, MySpace is one of the largest networks in the world.

The curious thing about Social Networking tools — also considered to be a part of Web 2.0 — is that they technically offer very little, if anything. Although Facebook offers users some memory space on a giant computer somewhere, and a few handy applications, the content primarily comes from the users. In the end, Facebook creates nothing except for the opportunity for community to happen.

Historically, churches have been possessors and purveyors of information, organizing and managing the systems in a top-down structure within which the faithful can acquire what they seek. However, this “Church 1.0” model assumes a general trust in the systems in power, which continues to erode. Our instinct as church is to ratchet down, to tighten the reins as we sense the threat of our own irrelevance.

But perhaps it’s not the message we bear that’s no longer relevant, but the way we impart it. Perhaps the institutions that once represented security and authority to the culture now actually hinder our mission more than they help.

Perhaps there’s something to this whole Web 2.0 thing that we could learn from.

Such systems are not novel. From Apache tribal systems to Facebook and arguably the first-century church, so-called 2.0 systems operate with little or no budget, with little or no paid leadership, and like the early church, cannot be stopped once they catch fire.

Before Church was an institution, it was a movement. Its only purpose for existence was to spread the gospel — the good news — with a sense of urgency more powerful than fear of the risks. And like a starfish, the forces bent on dispelling them only caused them to scatter and multiply.

That is, and was, the essence of Church 2.0 — the Starfish Church. The model is right there in scripture. The children of the digital age get it, but do we?