Tuesday, April 09, 2013

Missional networks spread by losing control


I'm going to flash up a theological concept for our consideration. Let it sit with you for the duration of this presentation. It might be an overly facile connection. I'm not sure. But consider it.

Why did Jesus ascend? What does it mean for Jesus to have ascended to the Father? It's remarkable to me that the Ascension of Jesus typically plays such a small role in our constructive theology. Aside from treatments of it in Barth's Church Dogmatics and Robert Jenson's Systematic Theology,the only exception of which I'm aware as a kind of free standing treatment is Douglas Farrow's Ascension and Ecclesia. In any event, I think Christ's going away is the primary way "in" for a theological understanding of what I am presenting here. Jesus does not control the network he started. He goes away, and leaves it in the hands of others (continually enlivening it by the Spirit's networking presence). The church has had a lot of trouble emulating this model. The church wants to maintain control even though its Lord did not.

It seems clear that Jesus understood that missional networks spread by losing control. The church can now learn from the "here comes everybody," "world is flat," broadly mediated culture that it does not need to control. It needs to think of itself as spreadable media, spreadable networks. Real church starts when all hell breaks loose. The church will be full when it is empty (Philippians 2).

Part I

It is an honor to stand among you and speak today. I can hardly believe I am here doing this. Thank you for the invite.

I suspect I have been invited because of the work I do in social media. That or maybe you were just looking for a clergyperson with a rather unusual last name. I'm not sure. In any event, I plan to invest time talking about the church and networks.

And the first thing I need to say is this: I am not going to talk about a vision for 2020, because 2020 from a social media perspective is too far away. We can't vision that far. And in a way, visioning is for wimps. In the new era, real change of necessity needs to happen now, immediately... because it can and because it will.

Everything I'm going to talk about today are things I think could and should change now. These are concepts we can integrate into our individual ministries and the ministry of the ELCA even before we leave this building this afternoon. They are assets and resources that are all around us.

Oh, and as much as possible I'm going to try and talk about my failures, how I haven't yet figured this stuff out. I think that is important, because I think at this point in the digital and world-is-flat era, we are only observing the effects of the changes, and we don't know what the total overall change is going to be. That's an important distinction. I'll come back to it.


I honestly don't know how many of you are regular users of digital social networks. Some of the leaders in the ELCA are pretty high profile users. Michael Rinehart is a blogging and Facebooking bishop. Stephen Bouman engages the ELCA Clergy group a lot. Bishop Hanson has a solid Twitter following. And so on.

But if you are like me, or if you want to know how someone like me functions, one way to describe it is this: "I don't do and can't do much without my network. I make use of network as a mirror, filter, feedback loop, for almost everything I do."

So, when I was invited to come and speak with you, my first reaction was, "Can I post this in my networks? How will I share this in my networks?"

At first, I started discussing it with a smaller core of trusted folks. Still a network, just not a widely digitally mediated network. I called up one bishop. I talked to parishioners. I talked to my wife. I talked to colleagues by phone. One friend said, "See, this is why they asked you, even if they don't know it. I would have gone there and told them what to do. Your first response to being invited to give this presentation was to crowdsource the response."

So here is my question and insight for your three tables specifically at this point. Before you arrived at this gathering today, how much of this did you do? Have you been making use of your networks to gain insight, let the Spirit speak, let the crowd and not just the small core be the source for vision and leadership? If not, why not?
Next, I started floating possibilities, theoretical visions, in my digital networks, especially in the ELCA Clergy Facebook group.
The first idea that came to mind was to repeat the summary of what I have heard from some colleagues who work in Latino ministry in the ECLA.

 "We should put all of our eggs in one basket and devote all of our mission development, all of our institutional outreach, all of our new recruitment, everything we can muster, to developing our Latino ministries so that our church is as much Latino as Anglo by 2020."

Quite quickly I decided that although I like this proposal, I don't think I'm the best person equipped to make a case for it. So I dropped it. I did not gain a lot of conversation around this one. It didn't interest the crowd much.

So I tried idea #2, and posted it in the ELCA Clergy group. This post gathered over 600 comments in a few short days. If you are really interested in reading everything people wrote, I've put the permalink in the footnotes that I've handed out:

Apparently there is still a Babylonian Captivity of the Church, but it is of our own devising and we defend it and think well of it and do not even consider it is counter the very Reformation we supposedly represent.

The captivity is the captivity of the Eucharist. When we go on vacation, we think we have to bring an ordained person in. We think camps can't do the Eucharist without a pastor present. We think interns can't preside while serving on internship. We are nervous about authorizing lay presiders. We pre-consecrate elements (whatever kind of hocus pocus THAT is) for lay communion visitors or on the weekend we have to go to synod assembly.

We do everything we possibly can, both institutionally and personally, to act as if the validity of the holy meal of Jesus is dependent on the personal presence of an ordained minister.

In the meantime, our congregations are not aware that they are free to share this meal profligately, all over the place. They do not know, because we have not taught them, that they can preside at communion on the campus, in the coffee shop, in their own homes, at the park. They do not know that in the absence of the pastor, they could go on just fine having communion each week by designating a table host and carrying on.

We then coalesce all kinds of other ministries around the person who presides at this meal, and act as if church is only wherever the pastor is. No wonder we do not have churches starting churches. No one believes they themselves could start a church--because who can start a church without the Eucharist?

The church is trapped, and although pastors are not the only cause of the captivity, our theology of the office of the pastor in relation to the table is the primary cause, and until Christ's meal is freed up and presided at by all the baptized, in many places, and sundry times, we will not see the church grow.

* This is how to talk about this from a sacramental perspective: much the same could be said when talking about church structure, flattened network, transparent communication, priesthood of the baptized, and more.

I truly and deeply believe that this one is very close to what I want to say to you, but it is an expression of networks as it plays out ecclesiologically. And it is just a start. Although I believe in both of these posts, love them as concepts, they aren't yet the core, the cultural and theological insight I want to emphasize as central for our way forward.

Networks are distributed (Wiki)

So I posted this:

Let's say, 'hypothetically,' that you were invited to give a 15-18 minute TED talk to a gathering of some of the key leaders of the ELCA--representatives from the Executive Committees of the Church Council and Conference of Bishops, and the Churchwide Organization Administration Team. What would be THE thing that you would make central to your talk? What would you want to say?" Share your short version/response here, or make your own talk and post it in a video sharing venue or podcast.

An early response said this, when I asked why I wasn't getting a lot of concrete answers to the question:

"I think it is hard to get replies b/c it is hard to see how a TED like talk to the stewards of the institution would change the institution. I would rather put it out to the populace and let the revolution sort itself out."

Of course, I share this same suspicion. That's why I have already invited many people in my various networks to dream this dream together with us. Because I honestly think the answer to what 2020 will look like has to do with what the distributed network itself says it will be. And the social networks I inhabit all fairly universally seem to say that whatever change is going to happen, it needs to happen right now, immediately. No one knows what things will be like in seven years. Seriously.

There is deep suspicion of our institution (ELCA) among our people, very deep suspicion... And it's not because any individuals working at the ELCA are worthy of suspicion. It's more a part of how a hierarchy like ours functions as a "culture," and the general suspicion many of us now have of institutions and their power. 

My suspicion is the only way to fix this is to blast things open, commit ourselves to the old Polish and Russian commitments of Glasnost, perestroika, sobornost (can you tell I used to be an ELCA missionary in Eastern Europe). Transparency is invaluable, and the way forward is to let go of control.
This is precisely why I don't think we can vision for 2020. Trying to imagine a quasi-utopia seven years from now based on our assets... we won't get there. And we won't get there because my vision is we have to let go of control. My presentation, if it is nothing else, is to offer the greatest asset for consideration we have at our disposal right now. Our greatest assets are the opportunities for self-emptying, transparency, networking.

On social media, you gain influence and authority by giving it away. Gone is the time when keeping information / authority / etc to yourself gained you more. The new social media economy is an economy of generosity. Do you want more influence? Share the influence you have with others. Give it away.

See why I at least wanted to flash up Jesus' ascension for us?

What does this mean for the church? What does it look like for the church to have an economy of generosity? What does it look like for the church to give away its influence? For that, I need to tell a few stories.

First, I Gave the TED Away Somewhat

It came to me that I could crowd-source even the tech aspect of this presentation, which meant I could illustrate the power of distributed networks to you in another way... within 10 minutes of posting a request for help, I had Michael Sladek (http://www.impressionmediagroup.com), a presentation designer, on-board from Sammammish, Washington, someone's work I had seen, who volunteered to prepare my presentation and make the visuals polished and tight with the message. The goal here was to keep in tight with the idea of TEDs more generally speaking, which have very refined if simple visual aesthetics.

I already have a team willing and able to organize and provide all tech support for an ELCA version of the TEDs if and when we decide to organize one. Because the network was already in place, it wasn't even that hard. People will give their time away for the things they care about. People care about the future of our church.

I shared an early draft of this talk with my office manager. She is also highly networked, but with a lot of unchurched people and various types of folks around the country. She was kind enough to gather feedback from them (and they were kind enough to read it).

As I already mentioned, I took the step of reaching out to ELCA peeps, and my own networks, to field test various presentation topics. Many of these were spectacular failures. I offered the vision, for example, that we shouldn't change anything, and just stay the course. This troubled many readers. Then, when I said we should stop everything, completely, just stop, this also troubled others. Some (many) of my thought experiments didn't fly in my social networks. Often they even angered or confused people. I was reminded of something a friend (Drew Curtis, who started one of the world's largest news aggregators, Fark.com) had written recently:
Notice the lesson here for ELCA leadership. It is very unlikely that we can get anyone in our denomination to do anything. But we can put things in front of them that we know they'll want to react to.

By this point I was getting very clear both what I wanted to say and why it was so hard to say it. I wanted to tell you about the strength and power of these networks for the church and mission. They are indispensable to us, they are the way forward, but there is one very essential thing we have to know about the strength of these networks in order to move forward: missional networks spread by losing control. We can only begin to imagine doing church in these contexts if we are willing to accept the inevitability that all hell will break loose.

Then, I decided to make the TED about giving the church away

Let me say what I mean, offering some examples. A few years ago, I read Neil Cole's spectacular little book on Organic Church. Neil Cole started a house church movement. He didn't just start some house churches. He started a movement. One story in that book especially caught my attention. One day, when he was out in his yard, some friends stopped by and said, "It's great you started another house church on the same block as yours." Neil's response was, "No, I didn't." They said, "Yes, you did." It turns out that a house church he had helped start had split making some new house churches, who had themselves replicated into new house churches, so that by the time this new house church was starting on his block, it was three iterations away from his own actions. He had "lost control" in one sense. But he had planted the seed of a movement.

I have heard many stories like this from around the globe. Alan Hirsch reports on some in his The Forgotten Ways. In each instance, churches seem to have discovered a way to imprint communities they are founding with a kind of DNA that lets them fly from the next and become their own birds.
It makes me wonder to what degree we are imagining mission starts and missional leadership in our churches in this way. Are we comfortable with the ministries we give birth to flying so distant from us, and iterating themselves so many times, that we can't even keep track of what they are up to (let alone record adequate statistics about them)?

I have never started an exponentially replicating movement like this. Confession. But I know that is as much my failure of imagination as anything. I want to start one. I want to start a Lutheran movement that is so viral someday somebody will say to me, "Did you know somebody started a church like yours in Texarkana?" But let me tell another story that offers a hint to why I haven't yet gone as viral as all that.

A wonderful Hawaiian family visited our church a few times last year. They haven't yet become members of our congregation, but I remain hopeful.

In the meantime, they started a Hawaiian restaurant in town (if you live in or near Fayetteville you should eat there some time soon, and regularly, it's scrumptious. Hawaiian Brian's). Before Christmas, they asked me if I could help bring in hungry families to eat a free meal at their restaurant. Because I have a network here, I was able to connect Shanea and Brian to the head of the Single Parent Scholarship Fund and the Families in Transition program at the public schools (the social worker from the school is another person I consider a "potential" member of our church--the director of Single Parent Scholarship Fund IS a member of our church). We brought fifty people out to Hawaiian Brian's for a free meal. At the meal, we had a brief prayer service blessing their new restaurant. In my old way of thinking, I would try to figure out how to "count" this as being a ministry of our church, how to guide or direct it in some way. In the new model, I believe the network is the ministry. I can set new things in front of Shanea that can open doors for her to strengthen and expand her missional ministry--but she is already doing it. Heck, she could be her own church.

Did I mention that all the networking we did for this meal happened on Facebook, in various messaging strands?

So, I think my moderate level of facility with social media provided some bridges for connections to make an event happen that might not have otherwise. The lingering question, however, is: "What do I do now?" What is my role in this network? Most of the participants aren't members. Some of the participants I never even met. Yet I am clearly in a position to be a catalyst (Shanea would like to offer the meal again), bridge-builder (I can connect her to other needs-based social service agencies, other restaurant owners interested in doing similar ministry), but do I have the time? Do I know what next steps to take? Is there possibility here for the formation of a missional community rather than a church per se, or should I be inviting this whole community into the life of Good Shepherd?

Are these even the right questions to be asking?

Which then makes me wonder, do all of you have stories like this to tell? Open doors for the opening up of new networks that are highly distributed, won't work if they are hierarchical or top down, self-emptying in the sense that the only way to move them forward is to give away your influence and just be a node among many nodes?

Then a friend almost gave all the TEDs away

A good friend, Rich Melheim, on tour right now, see http://faith5.org, and colleague many of you likely know, almost "gamed" my talk today. I had shared with him the concept, and he immediately start imagination "storming" it, as he often does. In minutes he had decided we should form a leadership team to start an ELCA version of the TED talks, invite 15 top leaders in the ELCA here to give the talks in the ELCA Headquarters chapel, bring in an outstanding recording team to record them, and then send them out into the digital world for people to view. I loved this idea, but then I asked him, "Do you know you're trying to organize a gathering in Chicago of TED talks the week after Easter, and it's only a month away?" Another good friend, David Hansen, and I reigned the concept in a bit (although I loved the energy) and we have decided it is a great idea to pursue, either as a distributed model or as a conference.

I tell this story to illustrate how putting your ideas and events out there requires giving up some control of them. People will run with them as they will. We do not have control of how people will respond to what we share with them. I don't even like the language of "reining" Rich in. Why should I do that? Here we are all, sitting down with this high level set of tables, a Tri-Table gathering, and outside these walls (actually, even immediately accessible through whatever wifi network is in this space) is a massive network, our people, and all the people they are connected to, and all the people they are connected to.

How would we be strengthened by letting them all in, or letting ourselves out? Frankly, trying to control the conversation isn't going that well. It certainly isn't spreading anything.

One of the hardest things I did this year was follow Paul Hoffman's advice not to lead or even sit in or visit the bible study small groups that were happening during our catechumenate. A group of us had done a trial run of the catechumenate in the summer, but by the time winter came around, and we were dividing our forty catechumens and their sponsors up into small groups, it was time to let the groups just be the gospel, the spirit, and the group.

We call our catechumenate "Our Lives, This Text."

There is such a natural inclination to want an authority in the room, to have right answers. This is not an inclination only those of us as clergy or as leaders have--even the people in those groups have that sense. It takes considerable spiritual fortitude to step back and let the group itself discover the truth they will discover when they bring their lives into conversation with the gospel text.

In this model, I still have a role, a very important one in fact. I help build bridges, getting people into a place where they can meet each other and meet the text.

But then I get out of the way. Already the newly baptized are doing far better than I ever could to invite the next set of inquirers into the process. We will meet the baptismal candidates God is preparing for us by my, in a sense, getting out of the way and letting the Spirit of what we have initiated, and the network it energizes, lead the way.

My ministry will be full when it is empty. Church gets started when all hell breaks loose, because really, what will they say, what crazy stuff will they come up with in the room if the pastor isn't there to direct the conversation?

What kind of mischief might the church get up to if Jesus doesn't stick around and monitor it?

Church gets started when all hell breaks loose. Missional networks spread by losing control.

The church will be full when it is empty.



Permalinks (only members of the ELCA Clergy group can view these posts):

First post in ELCA Clergy ask about TED talks: https://www.facebook.com/groups/elcaclergy/permalink/612117398815134/

TED Talks (examples of TEDs with synergy with mine, I think):


  1. Thanks for sharing, Clint. The images are showing up broken for me.

  2. Thx. Clint. Agree with Ben 0 couldn't see the pics. imagine since its in beta test mode may have something to do with it.

    Anyway. Brilliant. It is. I am sure it divided the room into the people who get it; wondering next steps - as you say - right now - to keep this moving; while the others who are still stuck into an almost panicked frenzy. I've seen this in the expressions on people's faces when you really turn them loose and I suspect you have too. There was one misspelled - "think" it came out "thin" about 1/2 way through. I really digged the ascension image / may not read it the same way again so thanks for that. So here is the bottom line for the ELCA churchwide office - this is going to happen. They can either help be part of the seachange or be drowned by it. I love the TED talk idea. Have to admit when you first proposed doing them and Rick got on board - I hadn't heard of them. No I'm somewhat addicted. I think a forum or event or even online venue we could post our own thoughts could be really great. I'd love to be part of it. I'd love to go to it. I'd love to watch it with some of my leaders. AS for the flow which was your question - the front paragraphs are a little choppy. I reread it a couple times and I got it, but for someone new to you or the material might go "woah" after Barth and go home. The rest is great once you rev it up with all hell breaking loose :). The Hawaiian Brian story is dead on. My lasting question is how did the people in the room react? Thx. Clint. I appreciate you including me in the conversation.

  3. I think I've fixed the images now... hopefully. Thanks!

  4. images are fixed. thx


  5. Great job! I plan to share this with my parish, although half of them have no idea what a TED Talk is!


    dave bühler

  6. Good thing I provided some links, then!

  7. I've been reading about getting the church out of control since my Deaconess formation days at Valpo in the late 90s. I think it is much easier to do on the local level. But I'm curious how that message goes over with church higher-ups?

  8. I love your candid conversation around the captivity of the Eucharist. I can't wait to see where this conversation goes next. As a seminarian preparing for internship in the fall, this is very much on my mind. Another question I would like to raise is our rigidity in the ordination process. For someone whose call is to chaplaincy, I struggle with the "three years in a parish before specialized ministry" requirement. This is applicable to campus ministry, outdoor ministry, and other specialized calls also. Why is the parish considered normative? This is only perpetuating the misconception that church only exists within the brick and mortar walls of a traditional congregation.

  9. A parallel argument to the Eucharist I would make is that we should flatten the call process also. I took an initial stab at a proposal here:


  10. I don't even know where to start, but this is great, and precisely where my middle-of-the-night-lying-awake thoughts have been heading. I'm in a tiny church, mostly older and struggling to know what we are supposed to be 'doing'. I want to change everything up, because the old ways of 'church' are finished. The gospel isn't finished, though. This makes me excited and anxious at the same time ... and I think lots of people ought to read this. Thanks.

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  12. Great work! I feel you are really listening to the spirit at work.

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  15. I am really intrigued by your post, in a good way. I like the helpful approach that you've discovered to crowdsourcing;'putting things in front of them that I know they'll react to'. People will rally around a thread/idea on their own terms and with enough gravity could turn into a catalyst for change/revolution depending on the response of the crowd/size of gravitation pull. But it begins with a captivating idea. Here are two thoughts that came to mind:

    1) The sting of Pearls and the culture code: I wonder if the key to 'gravitational crowdsourcing' is to understand the culture coded meta-narrative of a community. It is not simply just throwing pearls out there, random ideas that are interesting to you, but rather the ideas (pearls) are along the string of an over arching meta narrative. That's what makes the ideas have greater mass. When the crowdsourcer has done the homework either through lived experience in community or through cultural anthropological study in another culture, they can learn to understand the culturally coded ideas that will have the most mass and therefore create the most gravity. For example in the Clergy Fbook page, the Babylonian Captivity thread was an idea that was perfectly coded to the culture of the group to attain enough mass that it produced an enlightening if not frustrating conversation. Other threads that have mass deal with liturgy, ministry practicalities and prayer requests among others. I think that one can also in reverse determine the culture of a group by seeing which threads carry the most pull. Then by putting these together one can determine the meta-narrative of the group. If one already has a grasp of the storyline string and which pearls will gather the greatest interest, I believe one could crowdsource a movement .

    2) Another similar metaphor would be the Higg's Boson. Certain threads are to an fbook group like the higgs boson are to other particles. They give mass and gravity. When discovering the higgs boson threads one could more quickly accelerate a movement towards a particular end. But the end is unpredictable and therefore larger than any one person's vision. THis is crowd sourcing at its best. Intentionality could be given to providing a high percentage of of higgs boson like threads in order to accelerate an unpredictable, yet common storyline driven movement. When the church is empty it is full

  16. I'm delighted and amazed when I think that this presentation was given to the top level leaders in the ELCA - just the fact that the ideas were presented. As for me and my house, all in for viral Lutheranism to be released on the network. I know a bit about viruses from my first career (Molecular Biologist.) For this to fly we will need a very stripped-down "Lutheranism" that many, I'm sure, will not even recognize as "us" anymore because it will not maintain a huge number of the genes that express the conventions of our current Lutheran culture. And this, by the way, I suspect will find itself completely at home in the emerging Postmodern world. Though we are suffering now, the days ahead look very bright to me.

  17. Interesting idea. What was the reaction of the people that were gathered there? Any plans for moving forward?

  18. There was a lot of synergy between this presentation and what ELCA leadership is already talking about, so we had a lot of creative ways to speak together. It was a very positive response. Thanks for asking.

  19. Clint, I have a counter-thesis for you, based on long experience with open-source projects. "Losing control" is naïve. Missional networks, like all project-oriented communities, cycle in and out of various forms of control. Or, shall we say more charitably, organization. A less pejorative way to get at the good points I see you making is to speak about the distribution of responsibility.

    Frankly, I think your Eucharistic point is needlessly inflammatory because you're missing exactly this word, and you chose to speak in condemnation of clerisy instead. And the ELCA Clergy thread demonstrates that you did a fine job of pot-stirring there, but there's a big difference between that, and actually herding cats in useful directions. Setting your programmers at each others' throats doesn't get quality code written. We make enough bikesheds of our own in any given week. Work tends to get done in spite of them, not because of them.

    Of course, one question you have to ask yourself is, is the church more like Fark, which exists to no purpose except as a forum, in which case all progress is bonus and all organization optional, or do we have a project? Are we making something? Are we more like the Linux kernel? Are we more like Gnome? Are we more like OpenBSD? Are we more like Fedora? It is fine to suggest that we are not like Microsoft. You will get little disagreement among your target audience as to the fact that we are not interested in tight control and packaging of an end product for consumers whom we do not trust. But we are interested, and deeply so, in structures of responsibility that serve our functions. Formal org of some type is necessary to operate at scale. The question is what kind, and how well it serves our purposes.

  20. You could send a patch for the quickstart guide. As for the user guide, I agree that it is very comprehensive, but then they have presented everything in a linked manner so the user can read only what he/she wants to message goes here