Decentralize or Die


The biggest mistake I ever made in ministry was starting a worship gathering. I had 35-40 students between 4 campuses and the only thing they all had in common with one another was me. We needed connection, and what could connect us better than a weekly worship gathering? When I pitched the idea of starting a combined worship gathering at my church (which was roughly equidistant from each campus), they got excited about it.

Two students led worship. One ran sound and lights. The rest attended – most of the time. Attendance ranged from 20-45. Then 12 on one night. I preached to 12 students in a cavernous sanctuary one night. This all took place in a sanctuary with scarlet carpet that could seat as many as 300 if you packed in tight. Think about that.

The reason it was such a mistake to launch this worship gathering wasn’t because we didn’t have enough students yet (we didn’t). It was a mistake because the moment we launched the gathering, it took us 10 miles away from any campus. It capitalized on my time and took my focus away from the reason I was there in the first place — to reach students who were far from God with the gospel. I told myself that the gathering would help us reach students more effectively and that it would unite all my students across campuses.

None of the students ever really connected with anyone in a new way, and we became less connected with campus life. The weekly gathering quickly became our biggest distraction from mission and our biggest barrier for community. It hijacked our mission. Simply ignoring this fact would be a convenient negligence on my part.

What would you do if you had no ministry facility, no budget, no tradition, and the campus wouldn’t grant you Registered Student Organization (RSO) status? In my time starting that campus ministry in Ohio, I never had these luxuries. If our ministry model demands that we fit everyone in the same room at the same time, our response to ever-increasing campus restrictions might be simply to resist and fight for “our” territory. I never had territory in Ohio. I suggest an alternative. Let’s stop fighting the loss of territory and reconsider how we structure our ministry. We can either be proactive and prepare for the future now, or we can be reactive and wait for our campuses to squeeze us ever tighter.

We are currently multiplying to a new campus and we haven’t created any promo materials, we are not seeking RSO status, and we aren’t seeking to start a weekly worship gathering. Rather, we are relying on a simple process for multiplicative disciple-making.

Decentralizing a ministry isn’t a choice of preference. It is about the end-vision. Our end-vision is that we want to see no place left without a gospel presence on our campuses. If we truly want to saturate our campuses with the gospel, we cannot truly believe that a one-size-fits-all approach will work. It hasn’t yet. Why should we expect that to change? I think we can do better. Ideology is the fuel for a decentralized organization. Without a shared ideology, a decentralized organization will simply fall apart and wither away. Our vision is our ideology.

In a centralized ministry, evaluation is often based on attendance at the central gathering. The assumption is that if attendance is high, something must be working. We are successful. If it is low, something must be wrong. In a decentralized organization, metrics for success must be reevaluated. A decentralized organization is built on a network of circles (we call them “Gospel Communities”), so we must evaluate not just the number of circles and number of circle members, but we must evaluate engagement with outsiders, activity of circles, multiplication of circles, etc. Note that this is not a plea for more “Small Groups” or “Community Groups” or “Sunday School” etc. What I am talking about is a network of self-contained, self-sustaining, totally independent and autonomous groups, each containing our complete DNA.

I have often tried to keep my ministry as neat and tidy as I can. I seek order and try to contain and eliminate chaos. I don’t think we always understand the messiness of ministry. In a manner of speaking, Proverbs 14:4 says that we should expect a healthy and growing ministry to be messy. We must tend to the mess, but we shouldn’t avoid it. Decentralization recognizes the messiness of ministry, and sometimes even empowers it, especially as movements break out. In a decentralized ministry, if we try to control everything, we will stifle and kill it. We must trade control for cultivation.

Sometimes there’s nothing more comforting than sitting around a campfire with close friends. A campfire is safe as long as it is contained. Some campfires are large; others are small. I am proposing that we abandon our controlled campfires and start unleashing wildfires. Wildfires are not controlled and they can barely be contained. They are a living example of the power of a decentralized movement. May God engulf our campuses with uncontained wildfires of multiplying gospel impact!

I wrote this post initially for the No Campus Left blog and it was then published on Collegiate Collective.