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Imagining how different the church would be if it moved by stigmergy

May 23, 2023
The concept of stigmergy was proposed by the French entomologist Pierre-Paul Grassé…to describe a mechanism of coordination used by insects. The principle is that work performed by an agent leaves a trace in the environment that stimulates the performance of subsequent work—by the same or other agents. This mediation via the environment ensures that tasks are executed in the right order, without any need for planning, control, or direct interaction between the agents. – Francis Heylighen[i]

Jesus put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.”

And again he said, “To what should I compare the kingdom of God? It is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.” – Matthew 13:31-34

Have you ever noticed that innovation through cooperative groups, especially larger groups, is almost non-existent? We celebrate individual innovators for a reason: innovation by cooperation or consensus is nearly impossible.

Heather Marsh, in an early article on stigmertic organization, writes: “History has shown no drastically innovative ideas that received instant mainstream acceptance and history also shows that radically new ideas are most often the result of solitary vision; to leave control of work to group consensus only is to cripple innovation.”

Theologically, however, churches have typically understood themselves to be “cooperative” organizations, with each member of “the body” playing a role in contributing to the whole. The result of such “cooperative” understandings of church life has been a strange kind of paralysis and stagnation.

All you have to do is read a social statement of our denomination (all of which have been written by committees of over a dozen people) to get a sense of what’s wrong with cooperation. As Marsh also writes, “[Cooperation] is most effective only in groups of two to eight people. For groups larger than 25, cooperation is agonizingly slow, an exercise in personality management which quickly degenerates into endless discussion and soothing of ruffled feathers, is extremely vulnerable to agent provocateurs, and in large scale groups very seldom accomplishes anything of value. Cooperation traditionally operates on the democratic principle that all voices are equal, so it does not allow for leaders, or users with greater expertise, energy or understanding to have greater influence than those on the periphery. Cooperation wastes a great deal of time and resources in both discussing and discussing the discussions. In an action-based system, this discussion is rarely required as the opinion of those not doing the work is probably of little value unless it is solicited advice from a trusted knowledgeable party.”

Imagine how different (and boring) the Jesus movement would have been if it had moved by consensus.

If a church of any real size places cooperation high in its values as the way it makes decisions, no wonder churches rarely step out in any specifically radical or innovative ways. The very model for moving forward is designed to stagnate, degenerate, slow, bog down. But there is another way of organizing… one we can take from our observations of the natural world. That way is… stigmergy.

Marsh continues, “With stigmergy, an initial idea is freely given, and the project is driven by the idea, not by a personality or group of personalities. No individual needs permission (competitive) or consensus (cooperative) to propose an idea or initiate a project. There is no need to discuss or vote on the idea, if an idea is exciting or necessary it will attract interest. The interest attracted will be from people actively involved in the system and willing to put effort into carrying the project further, not empty votes from people with little interest or involvement. Since the project is supported or rejected based on contributed effort, not empty votes, input from people with more commitment to the idea will have greater weight. Stigmergy also puts individuals in control over their own work, they do not need group permission to tell them what system to work on or what part to contribute.”

Now, think about your participation in the life of church. Any church. Compare it to the cooperative model (or, perhaps even the competitive model). How much of what you do as church do you assume cooperative as the baseline model?

How often is the operative principle in your church, “If an idea is exciting or necessary it will attract interest”?

How often have decisions been made by empty votes (like at a congregational meeting)?

How often have the people with more commitment to the idea had greater weight?

The freedom of the gospel, the freedom proclaimed by Jesus, was in many ways an example of stigmergy. Jesus laid down main ideas, traces, and we have been trying to follow them ever since. What he didn’t ever do was poll the disciples and then act only when/if he had consensus.  

I’ve found it to be the case that when our church operates more in the stigmergic mode, not only does it excite or attract interest (and contributors to the work) from within the official “congregation,” but also from others. Which, if you think about it, makes sense. If a track has been laid down, it’s just… there. And whoever picks up the scent of it and wants to follow… does.

In our congregation, I can give you some examples of true stigmergic coordination. The most obvious is children helping with communion. Instead of following the cooperative model (by consensus signing up different people each Sunday to help with acolyte and communion duties) we began simply laying down a “trace.” In this case the “trace” is “anyone can help, and kids seem to really like it so come help if you want.” As more and more kids see it happening, more come up to help, and parents learning about it even publicize the opportunity to others via social media.

Another example: The Little Free Pantry movement, which started on our church driveway. The “trace” was an LFP itself. The community and congregation picked up the “trace” as laid down, and either take food or donate food to the pantry with no coordination, no leader, and definitely no “consensus” vote. The first LFP was just built at the whim of the founder (back to the reality that truly innovative ideas arise from a solitary vision).

I would contend that a large part of why church struggles to truly embody the kin-dom of God in our world today has to do with the extent to which it has been captivated by the “cooperative” model of organization. Cooperation functions like a strange unspoken legalism that drives so much of church decision-making. Pastors often feel they can’t lead apart from consensus decisions. Churches hold together disparate groups and then wonder why they can never build consensus around anything significant.

The freedom of the gospel, the freedom proclaimed by Jesus, was much more stigmergic. Jesus laid down main ideas, traces, and we have been trying to follow them ever since. What he didn’t ever do was poll the disciples and then act only when/if he had consensus.

Imagine how different (and boring) the Jesus movement would have been if it had moved by consensus.

Imagine how different (and Jesus-like) the contemporary church would be if it moved by stigmergy.

Rev. Clint Schnekloth is pastor of Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Fayetteville, Arkansas, a progressive church in the South. He is the founder of Canopy NWA (a refugee resettlement agency) and Queer Camp, and is the author of Mediating Faith: Faith Formation in a Trans-Media Era. He blogs at Substack.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.

[i] Heylighen, Francis. Stigmergy as a universal coordination mechanism I: definition and components. Cognitive Systems Research, Vol. 38, June 2016, pages 4-13. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cogsys.2015.12.002

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