Strengths of a Really Flat Church

Last week I blogged about the Valve handbook and how it brought up the idea of a completely flat, anarchic, leaderless organisation. It’s not just a concept, this is a highly successful company. So the question for me is what can we learn from Valve in the church? Could there be a church with the same organisational non-structure? And what would the strengths and drawbacks of this kind of arrangement be?

Before I go any further, I want to be clear that I understand the hierarchy in our churches does not function like the Army or a company. The congregation don’t have line-managers and no-one goes to services because they have been instructed to by their boss. Religious authority works in different, perhaps more insidious ways. The key for me is the way a structure without authority gives freedom to those who would otherwise not have a voice.

This resonates strongly with an idea that as a Brethren boy I often heard about – ‘the priesthood of all believers’. This is the idea that none of us need someone other than Jesus between us and God. It’s radically egalitarian; no one is superior to anyone, irrespective of gender, age or ethnicity. Any ‘minister’ must be there to serve rather than lead. Leadership is less about power and more about allowing and empowering people to do the things they believe the Spirit is calling them to. Lay vs clergy becomes a non-discussion because there is no distinction.

It means that the members of the church are not hostage to a vision imposed on them by a leader or leaders. They set the agenda by deciding what they want to be involved in. This should empower them in the way Valve employees are empowered – if they understand the way the church works, they will know that nothing will happen unless they want it to. No more passive congregants, each one takes part in the way(s) that they feel they should.

Of course, here are many parts of church life that work on a voluntary basis – probably because they are staffed by volunteers! This means that they have chosen what teams to be a part of, but it is still different to being non-hierarchical. In a voluntary system, it seems that there is a small number of people who set the agenda and then find other people to help them do the work (or do it for them!) However, in a non-hierarchical church there would not need to be an agenda, just people joining in with the tasks they thing are important.

At Valve it’s very different to church – every employee is paid to be there, paid for doing something productive and successful, no-one has the choice of free-wheeling. A flat church would have the challenge of inspiring people to be a part of what the church is doing without telling them what they must do. Making sure members know what they can join in with requires a lot of deliberate effort be put into internal advertising of active and potential groups – is that well spent effort? I suppose that depends on whether it encourages more action and self-ownership or leads to empire-building.

We’re sailing perilously close to the drawbacks and potential problems of a really flat church now, which I want to leave to another post. I’d love to have your input, though. Are the strengths that I’ve written about realistic, would they happen in practice – and are they things we should really be desiring for the church? Are there other things that you can see coming from an entirely flat structure that would be benefits to the church?

  • http://twitter.com/garethirvine Gareth Irvine

    It sounds very appealing – especially with our contemporary dislike of authority figures.  But even Valve has a process of deciding who should join them and who shouldn’t – which could be seen as the strongest exercise of power within the apparently flat structure.  That said, in my experience this kind of culture definitely allows creativity and entrepreneurs to thrive.  But not convinced the church is supposed to be either democratic or anarchic.  Either option places the choices of the individual at the centre of the decision making process, with the end goal of joining someone else’s team being that it improves your salary in the end of year review.  It seems to revolve more around fear of control and defining one’s personal identity than freedom to follow and be part of something bigger than yourself.

  • http://twitter.com/mwalimurural Simon Martin

    Very interesting post, Jon. I think I might wait to make substantive comment until you’ve posted on the cons as well as the pros.
    I’ve always wondered about the relationship between egalitarianism and the church, especially in the light of the NT evidence (which is pretty sparse vis-a-vis structures & models). Distributed leadership?
    Some of the most anarchic groups I’ve been involved in (both inside & outside the church) have been nominally egalitarian/priesthood of all believers!

  • jonrogersuk

    I’m not quite sure if you’re using ‘anarchic’ in a negative sense or the descriptive (largely positive) way I am above. I think I’m suggesting that any anarchic Christian group gets there by taking the priesthood of all believers really seriously. Perhaps distributed leadership is a model that lands somewhere between proper anarchy and the ‘oligarchy’ of a church like ours.

  • jonrogersuk

    Thanks G! You’re completely right that deciding who should join and who should not is an exercise of power, one that I haven’t even started to critique. I do certainly acknowledge that the church cannot operate like Valve in that sense. 
    However, seeing Valve as a ‘walled garden’ where more idealistic structures can flourish compared with the ‘common land’ of Church does not necessarily imply that church should copy the hierarchy of other organisations. 
    I’m fully prepared to admit that since the Patristic era the Church has been structured in a way that mirrored the Roman organisation of the time, but I don’t accept that it is normative – especially, as Simon notes above, the NT gives almost no space to describing ideal church structures.
    The placing of the individual at the centre of decision making is a reflection of our culture right now. While your critique possibly hits the mark for some who crave that freedom, the inverse can be true in a hierarchy: I’m afraid of taking personal responsibility and control of my life and my part in this community, so I out-source the power and control to someone better qualified than me (be it a ‘line manager’ or ‘clergy’).

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  • http://www.facebook.com/adbc9 Alistair de Blacquiere-Clarkso

    I’m currently involved in a Church plant that is based on the idea of a flat church. The church in Ephesus seemed to be established in this way and then leadership developed within the womb of a flat church. People are called by the spirit to do things and the voice is clear; but sometimes in the lack of leadership they are not empowered and there are certainly cliques that don’t come forth and lead; but do ensure their place isn’t taken. As a result nobody ever really sets the agenda, the congregants are split into those that are active and those that are not coming forward and are frustrating the active ones. I am fairly critical now because the bubble has to burst; but I am grateful for the initially flat church. IMO it is not worth continuing once the leaders are clear who they are, so in this plant I hope the period in the womb is over and we will have a properly lead group soon.