Oddly enough, current speculation about ISIS terrorists  operating in Europe and the North America is that they’ve adopted a new and dangerously effective approach to violence — radicalization over the Internet. This M.O. can actually shed some new light as well on the work of the Holy Spirit in the world today.
Previously, when the major “face” to jihadist terror was the group, Al-Qaeda, founded by Osama ben Laden, terrorist operations depended on hidden centers of operation from which terrorists could be trained, equipped (with arms or explosive materials), and then sent into the nations of the West.
Today, ISIS is demonstrating a dual methodology of creating a caliphate in Syria and Iraq and at the same time raising up jihadists living in Western nations by spreading its toxic faith via social media. These jihadists, radicalized through the Internet, can operate alone or in small groups. The fantastic impact these radicalized jihadists represent arises from an organizational structure known commonly as the “starfish” — as in the “starfish” vs. The “spider”.
In a biological sense, the spider represents a centrally located control system. That is, though its legs may reach far away from its body, once the body is crushed, the spider is dead (and so are its legs.) Most human organizations (from small businesses to huge corporations) structure their lines of authority similarly to a spider; at the head (e.g., CEO or “the Boss”) is a corporate officer who surveys the operational structure as a whole, then sends instructions “down” through a hierarchy of managers to those who actually accomplish the purposes of the organization.
The “Boss” gives instructions/orders to his/her employees who do whatever the “Boss” says. If something unexpected happens (the “Boss” dies or quits or loses a line of communication to his/her underlings), the employees may face situations for which they’ve not been prepared. They’re liable to be rendered ineffective or even paralyzed until reconnection to the head (a new “Boss”) can be restored. Just like the spider, if the “head” (the body of the spider) is crushed, the legs can no longer function no matter how far spread-out they may be.
A starfish is considerably different. It has no centralized control system — it has no “head”. If one or more of its legs are severed from its larger body, each simply grows into a separate starfish and proceeds to carry on its purposes in life as though nothing important had occurred. An organization patterned after the starfish equips each of its employees by imparting the organization’s overall Mission and Vision; it gives them the tools and methods needed to accomplish its Mission and Vision, and it confers on them the authority to complete their tasks when cut off from any central “Boss”.
This is the organizational pattern ISIS is using over the social network today as it radicalizes individuals and small groups of people without any direct contact with the ISIS leaders, its lieutenants, or any of its leaders. To each independently, radicalized individual — in Europe, Canada, the United States or wherever there’s an Internet connection — ISIS imparts its Mission and Vision; it instructs these “arms” of ISIS on how to develop and use tools and methods necessary for accomplishing their Mission and Vision; and it gives these individuals the authority to complete their tasks even while physically disconnected from any central authority.
Here’s where the Body of Jesus Christ — improperly called “the Church” — needs to re-think its “evangelistic” methods.
[NOTE: For those many people who have been misled and taught falsely, “evangelizing” is not proselytizing but is a simple process of allowing others to see and know the Good News of Jesus Christ. Rather than arguing or pressuring others to join a “church” (which has nothing to do with following Jesus Christ), an “evangelist” is supposed to be an ordinary, common, non-religious person who has personally experienced the love and grace of Jesus Christ and extends that to others through loving acts rather than debate or argument.]
The organizational pattern Jesus has always used amongst His people is the “starfish” pattern. This is hardly obvious since most people think of Jesus in terms of church buildings or religious congregations, associations, or denominations — none of which existed in Jesus’ day or in the first century following Jesus’ Resurrection.
For centuries, beginning a little before the emperor Constantine (who legalized the religion of Christianity and took over its control as an arm of the state in the fourth century), “Christianity” had gradually became a “top-down” organization. At its head was the Bishop at Rome (who eventually became known as the Pope.) Then under him were ranks of officials — first, bishops and priests, and then a more sophisticated hierarchy of cardinals, arch-bishops, bishops, pastors, parochial vicars, deacons, nuns, monks, and the mass of Catholics with no titles (or entitlements.)
None of this top-down (“spider”) organization existed in Jesus’ day or the first two centuries. Instead, it gradually developed as individuals within the Church organization sought increasing power and authority over parishioners.
Even in Protestant churches, the idea of “authority” being “top-down” still holds true for most religious organizations. In any given church organization, at the “top” may be a Pastor, an Elders’ Board, a Deacons’ Board, or an entire denominational network with people in control over regions, districts, states, national groupings and even international groupings.
Jesus instituted none of these hierarchical positions, nor did anyone else in the first century after Christ. These were all developed in the centuries following the life of Christ as a means of controlling the groups of people as a whole who called themselves “Christians”. Not even the office of “Pastor” as it’s exercised today comes from the Bible, and especially not any hierarchy of power over individuals in local gatherings of Believers in Jesus Christ.
Jesus didn’t even start “the church”. The word, “church”, is a deliberate mistranslation of the original Greek word the Gospels show Jesus using. For example, Jesus used ekklesia (now commonly mistranslated as “church”) when He famously promised, “I will build My ekklesia, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it!”
The word ekklesia means simply a gathering of people; an assembly. Just before His crucifixion, Jesus said, “Whenever any two or three of you are gathered together in My Name — there I will be, in your midst”, He used the word, ekklesia, not “church”. And hardly anyone today would call two or three people gathered “in Jesus’ Name” at a Starbucks as a “church meeting” — but Jesus calls it an ekklesia, no matter if it’s tiny or large, a temporary one-time even or a regular get together over chai and espressos.
Here’s why a “church” having people in “positions of spiritual authority” (whether from Boards or Pastors or Bishops or Popes and so on downwards) are not Jesus’ organization: These are not Jesus’ “organization” because Jesus organizes His ekklesia like a starfish.
Jesus uses faithful people amongst His followers to equip and prepare other people amongst His followers to reach out to the world in a multitude of various ways — encouraging them to know and to follow the leading of the Holy Spirit Who lives within each and every one of them. He does this in order to extend His Love through their lives and hands, into the lives of people who desperately need hope and purpose and encouragement and grace.
Through His Spirit living within, Jesus prepares each of His people, individually, to know what is His Mission of Love, Grace, and Healing. Thus equipped, individual Believers in Jesus Christ don’t need “top-down” authority figures to prepare and equip them to love and care for others — because Jesus does this Himself through His Spirit Who lives within each Believer.
The jihadist “lone wolf” is given Vision and Mission, preparation and equipping, is radicalized via the Internet, and can act alone or with a few others to carry out the mission of ISIS — without needing to operate under a hierarchy of other leaders.
Similarly, every Follower of Jesus Christ receives Purpose and Vision, preparation and equipping via the Indwelling Holy Spirit of Jesus Christ, and can carry out random acts of kindness and love alone or with a few others, showing to the world the Living Reality of Jesus Christ amongst His followers — without needing to operate under a hierarchy of “church” leaders.
The Body of Christ has but one Head — Jesus Christ — but not like a spider whose legs operate at great distances from its body and head. Instead, through His Spirit, Jesus (the Head of His Body) dwells within each and every one who Believes in Him. Cut a Believer away from others Believers — it won’t stop that person from sharing with others the Love and Grace of Jesus Christ because he or she is not cut off from their Head. Smash an important spiritual leader in China or North Korea, it won’t stop any person who knows Jesus Christ from continuing to spread the power and influence of the Living Christ to others — in word, and if not in word, in action.
Just like the starfish: if an “arm” of a local gathering (ekklesia) of Believers is executed or sent to “re-education” camps, every other Believer will grow into a complete “starfish”, reaching out in every direction, still carrying on the Purpose and Mission of Jesus Christ to spread His love and power into the lives all all who are hungry and craving God.
One final word of caution: The “starfish” organizational pattern Jesus uses doesn’t mean that there will never be regular, local gatherings of Believers. If there are others who are following Christ in the Spirit as you are, coming regularly together with them allows you to uphold and encourage the others — and allows them to uphold and encourage you as well. This is very important.
But if the only local gatherings of Believers you know about turn out to be traditional leaders who try to replace the leading of the Holy Spirit in your life with their own “spiritual authority”, it’s better for you to be on your own than in the middle of a merely human organization which is (unconsciously) set on becoming a spiritual authority “in-between” you and Jesus, your Head.
So, if your personal experience of caring and ministering to others is ordered, controlled, directed, or circumscribed by “spiritual leaders” in your local “church” — take a break. Any of you whose “spiritual lives” have been regulated by others instead of by the leading of the Holy Spirit — take a break… You deserve a break today… breaking free from hierarchical control and moving into the freedom which Jesus bought for you and brought to you — the freedom of being led by His Spirit and not by mere human beings who want to substitute themselves in place of the leading and direction of God in your life.