Malcolm Gladwell’s book The Tipping Point has an interesting story about W.L. Gore & Associates, the company who invented Gore-tex fabric. Two fascinating facts about them: they never have any more than 150 people working in any specific branch or plant, and they have eschewed traditional hierarchical models and titles of leadership, opting instead for a massively decentralized, organic, relationally centered structure. All of their business cards say the same thing: their name, and underneath it, "Associate", no matter how much money they make, how long they’ve been with the company, or how much responsibility they have. They don’t have bosses, they have "sponsors", or mentors who look out for their interests. There are no organizational charts
Maybe you’re thinking, "That’s nice. They’ll probably be featured on the cover of of some cutesy business magazine and go out of business in two years." But here’s the kicker: It actually works! W.L. Gore & Associates is a multimillion dollar high-tech firm that has been profitable for 35 consecutive years, they are continually expanding and innovating in new areas, and they are consistently rated one of the top companies to work for. Their employee turnover rate is a third the industry average. "It is a big established company attempting to behave like a small entrepreneurial start-up. By all accounts, that attempt has been wildly successful," Gladwell writes.
Obviously this has some huge implications for the church in the 21st century. Like I’ve said before, growth is good, obviously. The gospel is good news – it is meant to be preached, and when it is preached, people will believe. They will become followers of Jesus, and the church will grow. But there are different kinds of growth: cancer is a kind of growth that kills because it’s purposeless and homogeneous. There are dangers in growth, as well as opportunities. W.L. Gore & Associates has successfully navigated the perils of bigness by getting small.
Perhaps for the church to find healthy growth in the 21st century, she’s going to have to get small to get big. Smaller, semi-autonomous "companies" that still retain the unifying vision of the larger "body". Maybe this is the key to the church being a bit more sticky – it’s easy to slip through an institution’s system, it’s harder to slip through a web of relationships.