Saturday, November 29, 2008

Viral Christianity

What would it take for the church to go viral?

That's on my mind pretty persistently these days. All the more so as I'm reading Frank Viola and networking with people pursuing "simple church" and "organic church" expressions. So I guess it's no surprise that even a political editorial can get me started down that track again. For example, here's what I read this morning in an article by Danielle Allen about Obama's use of the internet:

Over the last two years, the Obama campaign... used its website to disseminate tools for grass-roots organizing and made its campaign infrastructure infinitely expandable as groups replicated over and over, learning from and copying one another. The campaign infrastructure became, to a significant degree, self-organizing. This explains its remarkable people power.

Among the people I know in conventional church settings, self-organizing groups that learn from and copy each other as they replicate just because someone gave them the tools... well, it's pretty hard to envision. But among the simple/organic/house church people I encounter, that's not just what they envision, it's what they do.

Personally, I get an extra kick out of this because terms like "self-organizing" and "replicate" take me back to my days in grad school doing Molecular Biology research with an RNA virus. (Here's a little shout-out to all those Fan lab alumnae!) So when I muse about "viral Christianity" I don't just think about the internet and social networking. Visions of particles and genomes dance in my head as well.

So let me just try and wander my way into one point today. When you're a virus, "keep it simple" is an extremely powerful strategy. The smaller and simpler you are, the easier it is to make more of you. The smaller your genome is (the number of genes that make up your DNA or RNA), the less time and energy it takes to replicate it. The virus we worked with in my lab actually had only three genes. Three! Yet with just that it was able to infect a cell, instruct it to create a vast pool of virus components, assemble the parts and bud off mature virus particles capable of starting the next cycle.

"Viral Christianity," if it's to spread effectively will want to be as small, as simple as possible. Including blueprints for buildings, reproducing twenty-page constitutions, and requiring four years of grad school to train a leader before you can start is not simple, and simply ineffective. I am not saying those things are inherently bad. I am saying that if you require them or rely on them, you'll never go viral.

So. What is the smallest number of "genes" required for the church to be the church and to replicate, and what are those genes? That's what I think about.

I wonder if we can get it down to three?