L. Gregory Jones: Christian institutions as cities
Cities have a vibrant core, permeable boundaries and strong networks. But many of today’s Christian institutions are more like corporations, tightly bounded and working alone.
September 27, 2011 | Do Christian institutions feel more like cities or corporations? How we answer that question could reveal a lot about whether the institutions are likely to be innovative, as well as sustainable. Why?
Theoretical physicist Geoffrey West has looked at data from dozens of cities from around the world and discovered that as cities grow in size, they are exponentially more likely to be sources for innovation than are smaller communities.
They are also more likely to be sustainable and to endure over time. More recently, he has conducted research to compare data on cities to that on large corporations.
In two recent talks, he contrasts the creativity and durability of cities as ecosystems with that of large corporations as organisms. West’s empirical study looks at the growth and innovation of cities and large corporations on the one hand and, in the case of the corporations, their decline and death on the other.
As he looks at the data, West concludes that cities are like ecosystems that persevere and adapt, whereas large corporations are like organisms that are inevitably going to die. West also notes that cities are full of “crazy” people, whereas corporations screen those people out.
Author and Wired magazine founding editor Kevin Kelly doesn’t think the “crazies” are the key differentiator.
How would you name the key activities of your organization?
- Interpretive charity
The critical mindsets? The essential character traits? Leadership Education at Duke Divinity suggests these lists as a starting place.
“Rather I think it is the defined boundaries of a company which prevent it from evolving,” he writes on his blog. “It is too closed, too bounded. Cities on the other hand [are] ill-defined, loosely coupled, permeable, center-less beings, and therefore capable of constant transfiguration without changing their essence.”
Kelly’s contrast returns us to our presenting question: Do Christian institutions feel more like cities, with their potential for creativity, connectedness, innovation and sustainability, or more like West’s stereotypical large corporations? We might also ask: Are there more generative ways of organizing Christian institutions to feel more like cities?
Cities have a defined core -- with a history, traditions, a sense of place, and concentrated development that encourages idea sharing -- as well as boundaries that flow into suburbs and exurbs and networks that extend its reach.
Such questions may seem counterintuitive, especially since many American Protestant denominational structures were organized precisely on the mid-20th-century models of large corporations. Now those Christian institutions are burdened by the regulatory structures of those models. It is not surprising that most have found that such models don’t seed innovation.
Even so, Christians have the resources to re-imagine our institutions as cities.
The book of Acts describes the development of the Christian movement consistent with West’s descriptions of cities as ecosystems. In Acts, the Christian movement developed networks of traditioned innovation in which permeable boundaries could be sustained.
The boundaries were important for establishing identity and for knowing who and whose we are. The permeability was sustained through such practices as hospitality and forgiveness. One gets a feel throughout Acts of the fluidity of the movement, a sense of the networks of relationships sustaining communities across the Greco-Roman world.
Today, the process of redefining our institutions as cities requires a mindset of cultivation, in which we think of our organizations as themselves parts of an ecosystem rather than as single organisms that live or die on their own
West’s point is that a solo organism is likely to die, but one that is part of a vibrant ecosystem has a better chance of evolving and growing, likely in surprising and innovative ways.
Living as part of an ecosystem involves developing a mindset of imagination that creates the possibility of seeing relationships and networks in new ways, as well as a mindset of trust in our relationships, which, we learn, are vital to our own survival.