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?


DLW said...

I'd say lets' find a way to fuse Pentecostalism, as studied by Donald Dayton. ( and an emph on both house churches and parachurches(w. the latter being in the image of the former and deriving all its authority from the former) and a strong sense of missional holism that incorporates the insights of Catholic Social Thought(the need to balance the principles of subsidiarity and socialization).


Feral Pastor said...

Hey, DLW - thanks for the comment. Took me a while to unpack it! ;) (I couldn't follow the link you gave - apparently the site has restricted access - but did a fly-by of Dayton by looking at his Pentecostalism book on Amazon.)

So, I'm getting one gene for theology that expresses an early, Wesleyan-style Pentecostalism...

...and one gene for form that's expressed as house churches with larger & parachurch organizations as adjuncts.

For your third gene, I need a little clarification. I think you're proposing a gene for purpose/goal but I'm not familiar with the idea of balancing "the principles of subsidiarity and socialization." Can you sketch that out a bit for me?

Rene said...

I'll toss this into the mix ....

In brief,
gag = the person of Jesus forming the internal structure of the community
pol = the work of the Holy Spirit replicating and integrating the new life
env = love as the key to entering into new hosts so more viral communities can be reproduced.

Enjoy kicking it around ... !?!

Feral Pastor said...

Thanks, Rene - I love that! Folks, I encourage you to follow Rene's link to his site and see how he unpacks that metaphor. For the non-retrovirologists in the crowd, let me quickly just add that "gag" stands for Group-specific AntiGen. It refers to the protein that's often used as a unique identifier for the virus. So actually, linking that to Jesus in the metaphor works really well as he is ultimately the "unique identifier" for Christianity.

Anonymous said...

The creators perfect plan included the 12 tribes of Israel, 12 disciples, but then the numbers game goes exponential (or viral)as a cascade of followers individually take very unique gift-focused paths to being selflessly-organizing and selflessly replicated through a pure and joy-servant-filled commitment, that would survive the death of those individually created and blessed churches.

If a virus is simply one thing, it is simply committed to one thing, and simply able to be blessed beyond the death of the Host. Perhaps this is why the Bible prefers the "wheat" and "mustard seed" analogy to describe what we can do in Jesus name, and "fire" to describe what God can do through the power of the Spirit.

The Word states that "where two or more gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them" So I would sign on to the theory of "3"... Just like it takes 3 to complete a marriage or 3 to complete acts of kindness indidually or collectively (body, spirit, and someone to give those Acts 2)

Go Viral! And may God give you Words of wisdom for, and resistance to, the anti-bodies of Christ.

JB from CG,MN

Bob said...

There's real wisdom in your observation that the more doctrine, habit and structure the church acquires, the less likely it is to go viral. Most people don't really accept whole systems without prolonged repeated exposure (if ever). Stories and experiences can be quickly and passionately shared, not institutions.

So what are the essential genes? Try these on for size:

1 - faithfulness -- a focus on the generous and loving God whose kingdom can break into our world.
2 - discipline -- a commitment to living in ways that open up that kingdom here and now, following the way/example of Jesus.
3 - expectancy -- openness to the leading of God's Spirit into new, challenging and marginal spaces (and the guts to try to follow).

Feral Pastor said...

Thanks for your comments JB & Bob.

As I've mused about simplicity there's a particular "three" that keeps coming up, although I think it still leaves some key things out. It's sort of praxis-oriented, but in the way of naming outcomes rather than practices per se:

1 - Growth of individuals as disciples into their true/new selves and into Christlikeness.

2 - Growth of the community, deeper in their relationships and wider by adding more people.

3 - Growth of the Kingdom, seen as expanding justice, mercy and joy among all people & the creation generally. "Shalom."

Anonymous said...

One of the key insights I developed first when I delved into Xtn theology as an econ grad-student and that I became better at communicating after my time in seminary is that essential-speak is not essential for communicating the Gospel.

It reminds me of a joke I made up: Well, the world ended and all the Physicists went to heaven. (wait, that's not the joke...) And the first thing they all did was go up to God and ask, "Oh, please, can you tell us what the Grand Unifying Theory is?" God paused and then asked, "Which one?"

My view of the Trinity is that it encapsulates conceptually the way God is a God of paradox. Likewise, it seems plausible that more than one virus can faithfully transmit the identity and significance of Christ. God has created "reality" so that we can participate in advancing God's kingship in many ways, including our understandings of how best to act on the Great Commission.


Anonymous said...

Building on the previous 2 posts, perhaps the "paradox" is what what we "practice", as we try desperately to pray without ceasing, to complete the the Body of Christ via new cells of the church, or to lean on our own understanding while trusting that the Spirit is guiding us. When a virus is carried by, and purified by, the blood of Jesus Christ, all things become possible. So whether we are spilling this purified blood as a guy in prison, a monk in a tower, a preacher in a pulpit, or on the internet working on a new translation of the Message,"Its a Wonderful Life", that can only be revealed by Christs 2nd coming.


Anonymous said...

Wow! Well said. You have some great thoughts!

I think it all boils down to LOVE GOD and LOVE PEOPLE!

The people in the book of Acts tore it up for Jesus Christ. They loved God, loved people, and they were full of the Holy Spirit.

God, help us to do that to tear it up here on earth! Let your name be lifted up!

DLW said...

I'd say what sorts of disciplines shd we exhort and build each other up in within community so as to love God and others.

I'm not anal, but I don't trust the english usage of the word love.