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Will We Have Mega-Cyberchurches?

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Hi, Andrew.
hope you are fine. right now we are working on the German edition of Roland Allen’s Missionary Methods. He writes a lot about strategic centres...and defines them geographically. Could you write a (longer) comment on what strategic centres are / can be in the present world (cultural centres, virtual centres?) and what this means for missionary methods? Thanks , Kerstin
[Email from Kerstin Hack, Down-to-Earth Publishing]


Hi Kerstin,
Hope the translation is coming along well. It’s a fantastic book and, as you know, one that has greatly influenced missions practise for nearly a century and was very influential for Bishop Leslie Newbiggin.

I can see why the strategic centre issue might be questioned in today’s world of decentralized power, personal blogs, micro-businesses and the growing influence of small house church networks that don’t seem to need a strategic geographic centre.

Right. . Roland's book. . .here are some rough thoughts:


MissmethRoland Allen noted in his classic book “Missionary Methods: St Paul’s or Ours?” (1912) that the apostle Paul focused his missionary work on strategic centres “of Roman administration, of Greek civilization, of Jewish influence, or of some commercial importance.” (Page 13). He also noted that these natural centres became strategic “because he made them such. There were not centres at which he must stop, but centres from which he might begin.” (Page 16)

This brings up some questions relating to our current emerging culture, which is undergoing a radical reformation through internet publishing, gift economy, open source, new media communications, new alliances and social networks, and the shift of power that accompanies those new allegiances and practises.

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This we know: Everything is getting bigger.

-The Internet currently houses 600 billion web pages and 50 million blogs.
- When my son logs onto Runescape, there are already a hundred thousand players online with him from around the world.

'In 1950, only New York and London had over eight million inhabitants. Today there are 22 megalopolises. Of the 33 megalopolises predicted in 2015, 27 will be located in the least developed countries, including 19 in Asia.'

This is from architect Rem Koolhaas who developed a theory of “bigness” which enables him to displace previous architectural theories and find a new starting place to rethink space.

A question:
Will there be an egalitarian dispersion of power in equal amounts among the emerging grassroots organizations and web sites or will we see concentrated aggregations of influence and connectivity that will give rise to new strategic centres that grow far larger proportionally than other aggregations?


The Internet was predicted to displace hierarchies and centralised hubs of power with its tendency towards decentralised leadership and shared resources.

When researcher Albert-Laszlo Barbasi mapped the connectedness of the Internet in 1999, he and his colleagues expected to find a uniform decentralisation of links and nodes of relatively equal size (random connectivity). Something that would resemble the rhizomic root-like structure of the web (Delueze and Guattari).


What they found was the opposite – highly centralised, connection hubs with extremely large numbers of links – out of proportion to the other hubs. They referred to these hubs as “Scale Free Networks”

400Px-Scale-Free Network Sample

Image from Wikipedia

The Internet has already given us examples of these scale-free, centralized strategic centres and nodes like Google.com, Wikipedia.com, Amazon.com and BoingBoing.net. On a smaller scale, certain web sites and web logs (blogs) seem to surpass other blogs of equal significance and quality by mushrooming in size to become large nodes and centres of interpretation and connectivity. There are reasons for this – a blog with a large number of permanent links tracking back to it receives a higher rating and is more likely to appear in a search engine’s results. This higher visibility increases its chances of higher readership, possibly more permanent links, and therefore an even higher rating. This enables it to grow exponentially, in a scale-free fashion.

Dwight Friesen has written on the relationship between scale free networks and the clustering of Christian communities.

Within God’s “scale-free kingdom” churches are best understood as Christ-clusters. Christ-clusters are groupings of nodes responsible for discrete Holy Spirit led/cluster-determined, cellular functions. These Christ-clusters are usually distinct from, though often synergistically related to the institutional church. “Scale Free Networks as a Structural Hermeneutic for Relational Ecclesiology."

So will we have strategic centres in cyberspace?

Yes – we already have them. And they are increasing in size and influence. I believe we will see on the one hand, a continued de-centralisation of power away from traditional hierarchies but we will also see new centralizations around key words, online gatherings, relevant conversations, timely projects, and social communities that choose to express themselves on the internet.

I believe there will be new strategic centres that will blossom out of proportion, not necessarily formed around organizational power or geographical location, but around issues of justice, common needs and interests, commerce, recreation, and education.

We will also have mega-cyberchurches, relational networks with millions of subscribers, religious blogs and sites that act as global hubs of information and connectivity. We have not yet seen how big these communities will become.

Lets go back to Roland Allen to clear something up.

Allen warns against the ghettoism of mission leaders at strategic centres, represented in his day by the mission station. His book was written shortly after the World Missionary Conference in Edinburgh (1910) an event that “epitomized all Roland’s worst misgivings about the current attitudes about Western missionaries” according to Huber Allen, Roland’s grandson in “
The Continuing Relevance of Roland Allen" (PDF).

In Allen’s later book,
The Spontaneous Expansion of the And the Causes Which Hinder It (1927) the only mention of “strategic centre” is given as a warning again the human tendency to organize by “fixing our stations and immobilizing our men. Consequently, we see spiritual movements taking place not far from us, and we ourselves outside them, or, if not outside them altogether, utterly incapable of taking our proper part in them.”

So, the primacy of strategic centres in the spread of the gospel is still relevant, and in our new age of shifting alliances and the emerging frontier of electronic communities, we would do well to understand it. We need a missional approach to the new culture forming in and around the Internet. And since this involves interaction with large strategic centres, I see Roland Allen’s teaching on the strategies of Paul to be equally appropriate, as is his warnings against the compounding of mission resources into new ghettos, insular virtual mission stations that exist exclusively for the converted and do not give themselves out into interaction with the wider community.

In short, Roland Allen brings our attention to the role of strategic centres, and warns us to avoid getting stuck inside them.

Sorry that took so long.

Hope the translation and publication goes well for you. A blessing on the Germans who have given us tremendous missiological resources over the years. I look forward to see what they do with Allen’s contribution.

Sincerely

Andrew Jones

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