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?