Congregational Chaos

The key principle I think for church leaders is this: If you’re hoping to use deterministic models to lead congregational change, you’re not going to be effective.  “If we just do …. then …. will happen”  – not likely because your congregation isn’t a deterministic system where 2 + 2 = 4.


My undergrad degree was in Physics, specifically Physics and Computer Software.  Besides the obvious, that I had a nerdy major, it means I learned about chaotic systems.  In fact, I spent an entire summer at Bucknell doing research in the area of chaotic mixing.  So you’d think I’d recognize a chaotic system when I saw one, but it wasn’t until I read through this paragraph in Memories, Hopes, and Conversations: Appreciative Inquiry, Missional Engagement, and Congregational Change by Mark Lau Branson.

Chaotic systems are extremely sensitive to initial conditions, thereby, if you change the initial conditions slightly the outcome can change significantly.  You know the whole a butterfly flaps its wings and causes a hurricane?  While that example is a bit far-fetched, it none the less illustrates the point.  Branson’s theory is the social organizations, including churches, are chaotic systems.  Chaotic, by the way, doesn’t mean disorderly, it just means complex and easily influenced by initial conditions or slight shifts in the system.  In the science world, these systems are of such complexity that they cannot be solved but must be simulated and modeled.

In my setting, I’ve seen concrete examples of all the examples he gives in this section.  One well-timed sermon can shift the entire focus and view of a congregation; one “little initiative” can capture such energy that it re-orients the entire ministry around itself, and one family arrives (or leaves) and it re-shapes a significant aspect of the culture.

The key principle I think for church leaders is this: If you’re hoping to use deterministic models to lead congregational change, you’re not going to be effective.  “If we just do …. then …. will happen”  – not likely because your congregation isn’t a deterministic system where 2 + 2 = 4.  We lead chaotic system where minor changes can have a massive, unpredictable impact, on outcomes while a well-planned initiative does little if anything to re-shape the system and the future.  Rather, to manage a chaotic system, you need to be aware of the initial conditions (or the current shape and culture within the church and the community that impacts it) and the forces that influence the system along the way.  I think too often we simplify challenges into deterministic models, only to be frustrated when our best efforts lead us nowhere.

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