Gladwell's Cellular Church
What do the Communist Party, Alcoholics Anonymous, evangelical Christians and al-Qaeda all have in common? They adopted and refined the technique of organizing in small cells to achieve change. This is the fascinating theme of Malcolm Gladwell’s new article, “The Cellular Church” (alas, not available online), in the September 12, 2005 issue of The New Yorker (actually, I added al-Qaeda to the list based on a posting that I will mention later).
Gladwell uses the story of Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church in Orange County, California to make this theme come alive. For those of you not familiar with Rick Warren, he is the author of The Purpose-Driven Life (23 million copies sold so far and it is just getting started) and founder of the Saddleback Church, an evangelical Christian church with 20,000 members in its congregation and the hub of a global network of 1,100 other evangelical Christian churches.
Gladwell focuses on a core challenge confronting any voluntary organization – how to make it scalable. On the one hand, many voluntary organizations want to grow so they need to have low barriers to entry. But if they grow too fast or too big, they begin to lose the sense of community and identity that is necessary to retain members. He notes that “historically, churches have sacrificed size for community” but that this changed back in the 1970s and 1980s when the evangelical movement began to build megachurches. It turns out the cellular model has been key to the success of megachurches – cells helped them to solve the scalability challenge.
What are these cells? Gladwell observes that they are “exclusive, tightly knit groups of six or seven who meet in one another’s homes during the week to worship and pray.” It turns out, at least 40 million Americans now participate in a religious cell of this type. This is also the organizational model that led to the early success of the Communist Party and the continuing success of Alcoholics Anonymous and its many spin-offs.
As Gladwell reports,
Warren’s great talent is organizational. He’s not a theological innovator. . . . What he wanted to learn was how to construct an effective religious institution. His interest was sociological . . . The contemporary thinker Warren cites most often in conversation is the management guru Peter Drucker, who has been a close friend of his for years.
In his article, Gladwell focuses on the role of cells in building tight social bonds among people who share common interests – he mentions one church cell of mountain bikers that “go biking together and . . .are one another’s best friends.” But there is another even more fundamental theme in the article that makes this story more relevant to business executives.
Gladwell draws a distinction between self-help books that are inward-focused, “focusing the reader on his own experience,” and Warren’s book which begins with “It’s not about you” and instead draws the reader into a program of personal and social change that requires the participation of others. Warren’s book serves as a powerful coordinating mechanism for a highly distributed network.
Gladwell quotes Robert Wuthnow, a Professor of Sociology at Princeton who has spent many years studying the evangelical movement (Wuthnow is also the author of the interesting book Loose Connections: Joining Together in America’s Fragmented Communities):
Small groups cultivate spirituality, but it is a particular kind of spirituality. . . . They provide ways of putting faith in practice. For the most part, their focus is on practical applications, not on abstract knowledge, or even on ideas for the sake of ideas themselves.
These groups are not just worshipping and praying together, they are contributing time and money to change the world. They provide a forum for taking initiative, building something very new and making a difference. Depending on your religious and social views, you may not necessarily agree with what they are building, but they are driven by the desire to create something quite different, rather than passively listening to sermons and reading scripture.
I look for patterns. I see the spread of the evangelical movement with its cellular structure as just one illustration of a much more profound shift in society. I blogged earlier about distributed creation and production in such diverse domains as music (remix), extreme sports and even illegal drugs, not to mention open source software and electronics devices. We are seeing this same pattern play out in the evangelical movement. We are moving from consuming religion in central locations to producing (or re-producing) it in our living rooms.
In the process, considerable diversity is emerging in these living rooms (far more than secular liberals are willing to acknowledge). To quote Gladwell again:
Scratch the surface, and the appearance of homogeneity and ideological consistency disappears . . . . The members of Warren’s network don’t all dress the same, and they march to the tune only of their own small group, and they agree, fundamentally, only on who the enemy is. It’s not an army. It’s an insurgency.
Which brings me to al-Qaeda. John Robb posted “The Bazaar’s Open Source Platform” almost a year ago on his blog discussing the implications of the disruption of al-Qaeda’s hub of operations in Afghanistan and the evolution of an even more distributed virtual network behind the guerilla war in Iraq. He makes the case that this virtual network is pursuing many of the same principles outlined by Eric Raymond in The Cathedral and the Bazaar, one of the inspirations behind the open source movement.
Now that’s a pattern – from the Sunni strongholds of Iraq and the Afghanistan-Pakistan border (not to mention working class neighborhoods in British and German cities) to the living rooms of affluent Orange Country, we’re seeing loosely coupled networks surface as spearheads of social change. I certainly have no intention of equating Islamist guerillas with evangelical Christians. My point in fact is that remarkably diverse movements inspired by deep religious conviction are embracing similar models of organization.
The patterns on this edge map to patterns on other edges that are more directly relevant to business executives, including the emergence of global process networks reshaping the creation and production of goods as diverse as khaki pants and digital still cameras. People are also becoming more involved in the production and creation of the items that are most meaningful to them. At the same time, these production and creation activities are becoming far more distributed, even on a global scale. New ways of organizing are creating the potential for significant scalability, flexibility and innovation as well as much deeper relationships with participants. Companies need to figure out what these developments mean for them, both in terms of how they organize their activities and how they build relationships with their constituencies.