Is your church a Team of Teams?

I guessed – correctly – that General Stanley McChrystal’s book, Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World, would have a lot to say about how New Testament churches should operate. So I bought it recently. Of course, the author’s theme is how he redesigned Special Operations in Iraq to fight Al Qaeda and how such lessons can be applied to all kinds of organizations in both the public and private sectors.

General Stanley McChrystal

McChrystal had nothing to say about churches per se. But so much of what he writes applies. When he took command of the Joint Special Operations Task Force in 2004, Al Qaeda’s terrorist acts in Iraq were causing havoc, threatening complete chaos. American forces had the manpower, training, ammunition, supplies, courage, and whatever else it took to win . . . except for being locked into the traditional military top-down organizational structure, slow to respond, reluctant to share, slow to decide, and so slow to execute that targets simply weren’t there by the time a commander said, “Go!”

Al Qaeda (Iraq) – or AQI – had the superior management scheme: a loose network of adaptable and decisive teams, able to get back into the game no matter which leader was taken out. McChrystal faced up to reality and transformed allied forces to beat AQI at their own game . . . ‘getting there fustest with the mostest.’ (A quote attributed to Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest, who espoused the principle, but expressed it more grammatically. – Doc)

McC’s anecdotes are worth the price of the book. He relishes the incisive strategy of 5 foot 6 inch Admiral Horatio Nelson who defeated the French / Spanish fleet in the Battle of Trafalgar. It wasn’t just another battle: “If Nelson’s force fell, England fell.” Nelson’s fleet was outnumbered, but he knew that his ship captains were better trained, better motivated, and could display initiative under chaotic conditions.

Admiral Nelson

Rather than allow the conventional line-to-line face-off, Nelson split his fleet into two columns which drilled through the enemy battle line, dividing it into three parts . . . initiating chaos! The plan was to disrupt all plans, preventing the French and Spanish commanders from coordinating an effective response.

It worked. The British captured 19 of Napoleon’s ships (out of 33) and lost not a single vessel . . . one of the most stunning strategic victories in naval history. The prime cause? Nelson’s organizational culture rewarded initiative and critical thinking. His plan “created the market, but once it was created he would depend on their enterprise. His captains were to see themselves as the entrepreneurs of battle.”

How relevant to God’s design for His New Testament church! God’s design? A city-wide network of local teams, control and initiative broadly distributed, local teams (“ships”) able to adapt quickly to environmental conditions. Study the New Testament and the relevant early church history. The churches at Antioch, Ephesus, Smyrna, Thessalonica, etc., were city-wide networks. Modern churches are structured like Napoleon’s fleet, with a little Napoleon at the head of each independent megachurch (or megachurch wannabe), employing megadollars, and competing(!) with a bevy of other Napoleons in the same city.

Am I too bold to connect “church life” with warfare? Are you kidding? The stakes in spiritual warfare are nothing less than the salvation or damnation of every man, woman, and child in your city. If your church is not “engaged with the enemy” – specifically by sharing the Gospel eyeball-to-eyeball with everyone in your community, out there in the streets, every Christian engaged as the warrior he or she is called to be – your “church” does not belong to the Lord Jesus Christ. It’s no church at all. Oh, you ask who the “enemy” is? If you get into the game, you’ll find out. Satan’s forces become evident when you encroach upon their turf. If things are smooth, the Devil is able to deploy forces elsewhere. That’s why you don’t experience the battle.

Battle of Trafalgar

Between WW1 and WW2, France spent billions of dollars on its Maginot Line, a vast, impenetrable defense network, guaranteeing that Germany would never invade again. Hah! In 1940 the German army approached the Line and stopped . . . a feint! A handful of armored divisions went around the Line, roaring through Belgium and the Netherlands, forcing France’s surrender in under two months . . . and nearly capturing the entire British army, except for God’s grace at Dunkirk.

Western churches love the Maginot Line. Build huge attractive “campuses,” hire talented staff with creative marketing and scintillating communication skills. Teach your “army” that warfare is passive . . . just show up and watch the show. Nobody needs to learn to fight, particularly “out there.” The battle, if any, will come to us. “Build it and they will come,” after all. We’ll “out-world” the world with entertainment that rocks, hops, and dazzles. Who needs to be adaptable! Who needs to learn varied tactics and strategies! We’ve got THE ULTIMATE SYSTEM validated by superstars like Warren and Hybels! And just look at our crowds! You can’t deny the numbers! . . . But is anyone actually getting saved, then growing in knowledge, wisdom, holiness, compassion, and zeal to reach the lost???

The Dutch have centuries of experience in building dikes and reclaiming land from the sea. In the 1990s, though, river floods brought water from behind . . . the defenses were facing the wrong way to help. Massive damage ensued. Their new approach is to “make room for the river,” reversing top-down approaches and enabling a more flexible response to flooding threats. Some dikes have actually been lowered, opening up floodplains for inevitable river overflow. In short, the new strategy is a system that is resilient to threats that are too complex for simplistic solutions.

Most of church history over the last two millennia is characterized by threats in a complex environment. The NT city-wide house church network design – when actually employed – enables resilience. The design inherently fosters leadership development throughout the network. No one leader is irreplaceable. Everyone knows to carry their own weight and yet there are many strong brothers and sisters when help is needed.

a megachurch campus

When the Soviet Communists cracked down on the independent churches, the first thing they did was to arrest the pastors. It took decades for those “headless” churches to recover. Modern threats include all kinds of potential legal actions . . . just wait and watch the mounting pressure as our increasingly anti-Christian culture, courts, and government go after the deep-pocket churches in the years ahead. It’s clear already though that the megachurch response will be compromise – cave to any cultural demand. The top-down centralized Roman Catholic-style evangelical church is not resilient at all. Moral or financial scandals involving the Senior Pastor often bust a church apart.

The SYSTEM is well optimized for what it does, though. McC points out that the more you optimize the elements of a complex system, the more you reduce that system’s resilience, making it vulnerable to trouble. “Robustness is achieved by strengthening parts of the system; resilience is the result of linking elements that allow them to reconfigure or adapt in response to change or damage.”

A modern church’s “parts” are strengthened as special programs and special program directors (paid staff) are established and finely tuned. But resilience is intrinsic to a NT church network as individuals, families, and small groups of families grow stronger in their faith, their day-to-day love for one another, and their consistent outreach to those “out there.” Modern church members and the church’s program do just fine without any spiritual growth, without any real fellowship or discipleship – as long as the people show up and the bills get paid.

Dutch waterways

Now it’s clear that a church’s paid pastoral staff – clergy – expect the members – laity – to do such things as Gospel outreach. The ‘best’ of evangelical and fundamentalist churches exhort the people from the pulpit at least occasionally to “share your faith.” In practice, people don’t. I’ve visited scores of churches and sought out those in the church who do. They are so rare. But it’s not surprising because there is no training and no accountability, unlike any organization that actually cared about their mission. Actual (military) armies and actual (commercial) companies do train and do practice accountability . . . or they die. But modern churches roll on.

Resilience and accountability can happen only with a small team. A Christian family with a marriage problem or a child-rearing crisis needs help right now. It can’t wait until the subject pops onto the Senior Pastor’s sermon schedule . . . which won’t address particular issues anyway. If the “troops” are out each week sharing their faith, they need to discuss results and encourage each other this week. That can happen only on a small team. That’s discipleship.
A “team member” wants to offer a training seminar on personal evangelism (or whatever). Let’s start this week! In a modern church, it takes multiple meetings over a course of months because the paid staff are just so busy!

The culture within even a small team can produce dramatic consequences. McC cites United Flight 173 bound from New York to Portland, Oregon, on December 28, 1978. A minor instrument glitch provoked the Captain to delay landing to insure that there was no actual safety issue. A series of other minor events provoked delay after delay. The Captain and most of the crew didn’t realize that their fuel reserve – initially quite ample – was exhausted. The flight engineer started to warn the Captain that fuel was gone, but the Captain was too focused on procedures. The top-down culture resulted in an “accidental” neglect of their fuel state. Frankly, the flight engineer, who died in the crash along with others, should have been screaming to get everyone’s attention before gravity took over.

US Airways Flight 1549

In contrast, McC cites Captain Sullenberger’s amazingly successful 2009 “ditch” in the Hudson River after Canadian geese destroyed both engines. In an incredibly time-sensitive and complex situation – complex because there is no training for this scenario – the crew performed as a highly interactive and empowered team . . . no time for top-down hierarchy.

The particular application I’d like to make is that such empowered small teams don’t even exist in modern churches! The pastoral “leadership team” doesn’t count. General McChrystal’s solution to the AQI problem was not to empower his command staff. Satan’s forces and their enslaved captives – the lost in the community – are “out there.” The “lay” Christians are embedded in that community. It’s no wonder that a top-down approach does not have much impact.

Churches should take lessons from Navy SEAL training in their basic “BUD/S” course. I’ll quote McC directly:

”While most military discipline is used to integrate the individual soldier into the military’s rigid hierarchy and perfect his ability to execute orders passed down from above, BUD/S takes a different approach. The formation of SEAL teams is less about preparing people to follow precise orders than it is about developing trust and the ability to adapt within a small group . . . it is impossible to survive BUD/S by executing orders individually.”

Churches would have to take a big step upward just to achieve conventional military “execute this order” discipline. How much greater a quantum leap it is to foster a team-of-teams culture where disciples adaptively execute the mission, depending and trusting one another.

McC quotes a SEAL officer who describes successful graduates as “believers” . . . “The believer will put his life on the line for you, and for the mission. The other guy won’t.”

SEAL training

The author describes how emergence arises in such diverse arenas as ant colonies, economic markets, parallel computing, and artificial neural networks, whereby performance and creativity emerge in ways far beyond what you could predict by analyzing the individual members of the system. It is possible for a properly integrated network to solve large and complex problems, even in time-critical situations, like Sullenberger’s flight.

When a modern church’s resources grow in people and dollars, is its attack on Satan’s kingdom incremental or does a nonlinear emergence arise? The answer is obvious: more buildings and more staff members and more programs can only produce incremental results. After all, there’s only one team – the pastoral team.

What are some of the complex problems and opportunities that could be addressed uniquely by a genuine city-wide house church network – you know, like that developed by the Holy Spirit in the 1st century? Here are a few ideas just off the top of my head, admittedly mixing problems with solutions or tactics:

• A tailored Gospel presentation delivered to everyone in the city, noting that a middle-aged divorced mom might need a different approach (to open the door, at least) from an engineering graduate student. Yes, the Gospel is the same, but if you want to get in the door, you’d better be “out there” and adaptable.

• A systematic pushback against public school indoctrination in evolution, sex ed / abortion / ‘safe sex’, socialism, etc.

• Letters to local editors, coordinated in time / topic / location to stand up for righteousness.

• Coordinated stands and Gospel outreach to influence business and government leaders who let ethics slide or who have corrupt agendas

• Finding and helping poverty-crushed people who might actually respond constructively and enduringly . . . That requires “out there” targeting.

• Training to disciple every believer, integrating such training with evangelism to reach every corner of the city . . . systematically and repeatedly.

• Insure every disciple has a “swim buddy,” or several, just like SEAL teams who make sure nobody gets left behind.

• Pushback against corrupt media and creation of godly media . . . coordinated with discipleship and evangelism – make “training” count in actual “battlefield exercises.”

• Coordinated training within the church network to address marriage and child-rearing problems, personal finance, health, etc., and extend portions of this training as an outreach to the lost . . . integrated with Gospel outreach.

• Substance abuse recovery integrated with Gospel outreach.

Whew! Just getting started . . . there is so much that a proper city-wide NT church network could tackle, for God’s glory. Are God’s people even in the game?!? No. Not with hundreds of competing, culturally dead, local top-down organizations, working blindly to build their incremental programs. Furthermore, most evangelical “outreach” programs are handouts of dollars, food, and clothes, neglecting an actual Gospel presentation, thereby making the enemy’s captives (the lost) more comfortable on their way to Hell. Rather than rescuing them as a Special Forces unit would.

How would a city-wide network hang together, work in a coordinated manner, etc.? That’s not hard to figure out. McC describes the issue well with details that certainly apply to NT churches. If you’re interested, buy the book and keep “our application” in mind throughout. The biggest challenge is simply to want to do it. As team-of-teams coordination problems are solved, the network gets smarter, gets more efficient, relationships grow, morale rises, and leaders multiply and replicate themselves. Ideas bubble up, down, around, and across. The ‘organism’ becomes far more brilliant than any hierarchical leader could hope to be.

By the way, on a personal note, I’ve had the pleasure of experiencing some of these principles and successes . . . in my secular career. As a research director during the 1980s, responsible for elements of Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative, I was blessed (yes, God helped me daily) to create a vibrant research team that included 5 different government labs and 15 different defense contractors. I insisted that information flow freely within ‘our community,’ forcing this – at the start – by having regular (and expensive) technical reviews in which everyone put their progress (the good, the bad, and the ugly) on the table. Eventually, some “emergence” developed. Ideas and innovations got shared. Teams worked together even though this wasn’t explicitly in the contracts. I consistently rewarded the best team players and research results multiplied quickly. Ultimately, we were able to drive the program to completion in a way that saved literally hundreds of millions of dollars.

Even more enjoyable was my opportunity as an engineering professor at Michigan Tech U, in which I helped to build “Enterprises” – student-led companies that conducted practical, commercial research for academic credit. I was able to build the two largest Enterprises on campus, each one a team of teams, with student leaders who went on to get spectacular job offers when they graduated. That was a lot of fun! I found that I was most successful when I was most invisible, creating a culture in which students found ‘swim buddies’ and accomplished far more than they could have done by themselves.

What about you? What’s your mission? Got any swim buddies? Or are you just sitting around watching the show, perhaps occasionally responding to an order that filters through the hierarchy? Hey, life is short. Try to find some teammates, form a team that does something for God’s glory – evangelism comes to mind – and make your days count.


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