The Congregation as *nix

Note: If you don’t know what *nix is, this post will utterly confuse you. Instead, let’s go get coffee and chat.

Being part of a Christian congregation is frequently frustrating for me. This not because I don’t love the people, nor is it because I look at the congregations I’ve been part of and think, “Who needs this?” Rather, the frustration comes because most of our congregations are set up with systems that work the world of the mid 20th Century. There are multiple boards, various levels of permission structures, and several territories which must not be touched, looked at, or mentioned. I’m not wired to work that way. If there’s a good idea out there, I don’t want the person to sit around wondering which board as the authority to “give permission.” If there’s a (typically dusty) button which says, “Do not push,” well… that thing’s getting activated! I tend to be a rooted individual, personally, but when it comes to group interaction I’m wired for a more dynamic reality. To me, a congregation should be POSIX compliant – it’s a *nix.

Operating systems that are POSIX compliant (such as Unix, Linux, and BSD) are wonderful things. Instead of creating a huge, tightly-woven, thread of processes which are mostly “all up” or “all down,” a *nix system has lots of little processes which do one thing, and can be tied together to performed larger tasks. If a process is not needed, it can be shut down and the system will keep running as normal. If you’ve ever had to re-boot a windows machine when you change the network name, installed a driver, or updated the network settings – you’ve see what the alternative to a *nix is like. Everything runs at the same time, and to restart (or alter) one aspect of the system requires the entire thing to be temporarily inaccessible. In a *nix, you simply turn the one process off and then back on.

The Church, over the last 60 years or so, has been more like Windows than *nix. Or, rather, it’s been more like several windows machines trying to collaborate on multiple tasks without networking. So, if an idea comes in that needs a new process to run – the Church (metaphorically) looks for the system that has the closest approximation to the idea and then “installs it there” (usually by a board appointment). The promise is, in a sense, “eventually we’ll get the software needed to do what you want – but until then you want to stay at this system because if you aren’t here when we get to it you might not get to use it.” By the time the one system (i.e. board) is ready to act on an idea the users figure out that they need resources on another machine – only to find that’s it been shut down, and all the people who know how to access it have gone home for the month. If the users of the first system remember to bring up the idea with the users of other needed system when they come back (a month later) it is usually found out that the data (the proposed idea) from the first system isn’t compatible with the data from the second system. Then the first users are sent back to reformat the idea into a language that works on the second system. By the time this is done, the users of the second system have shut it down and gone home – for another month.

It is in this way that congregations put new ideas to death. It’s what I refer to in another metaphor as, “The Bureaucratic Nightmare.”

Now, instead of having several systems (which constantly have to be rebooted every time you even a slight change) I like to think of the Church as one system with many processes going on – like a *nix. These different processes can be turned off and on at will, and are designed to work together in order to accomplish larger functions (that’s the beauty of POSIX). If there comes a time where a particular process is no longer needed, it can just be shut down completely – allocating the resources it used to other processes which are needed. This creates a dynamic reality that can flow with the current situation.

There are two things about this idea that I want to share.

First, while I am frustrated by the “Bureaucratic Nightmare” which exists in many congregations, I don’t want us to consider the people who came up with that type of system as unintelligent. The systems created by a Bureaucratic structure worked when they were developed. If they hadn’t, they would have never survived. In fact, at least in the context of Western Civilization, I’m certain that the structure I’m naturally wired for wouldn’t able to function at all prior to the advent of mobile technology. It’s mobile, and the arrival of “pushed” data, that creates a human-network where small specialized processes (the ideas people have) can be easily tied together to accomplish larger tasks. Before mobile, a *nix metaphor for a congregation would end up hanging while data waited for someone to get home to answer their voicemail and, if it wasn’t too late, call back. With mobile we can send out a request and expect to receive a reply in minutes, if not seconds.

Second, even a *nix has an underlying core, or kernel, which governs all the processes on the system. The kernel tells all the other processes what resources are available, and sets boundaries for the processes running on the system (among other things). In a Christian congregation, our kernel is the truth of God revealed in Jesus Christ – the Gospel. That kernel is what keeps us “running” – and without it we wouldn’t be a Christian congregation.

So, here are my musings. Enjoy, and may your reboots be few and far-between.