Reaching The Online Generation

An Initiative of CityTeam Ministries

Leadership and Discipleship Within a Decentralized Online Reality

Posted on | March 3, 2009 |

Yesterday I had coffee with a guy from a church who has a large online campus.  He told me about how they had someone who had taken their online resources, primarily video, and used them to start what was basically an offline multi-site location in another town.  “They had been meeting for a while - had a worship team and everything.” the guy told me, “One day they just called us out of the blue to tell us what they were doing.”  The guy recounted several similar stories from their online experience that demonstrated this phenomenon wasn’t an isolated event. 

I think we are going to hear stories like this one with increasing frequency.  In a decentralized online reality they are unavoidable and uncontrollable. 

If I’m right, we have to carefully consider a few things: leadership development, small group DNA and how it’s transferred, and discipleship. 

Let me cover each of those ideas within a decentralized online reality briefly.  I will go into depth on each over the next week and as you engage me here and on Twitter and other social media.

Leadership Development 

I learned just about everything I know about leadership from mentors like David Watson.  Most books I’ve read about leadership are really about power, authority structures, and management.  Few spend much time talking about leading by influence, which is the only leadership style that works within a decentralized system. 

David has little to no positional authority within the decentralized movements in Africa and other parts of the world.  He has high levels of influential authority, though.  That means many people treat him like their boss even though they don’t have to - he can’t actually fire them (Firing authority = positional authority).  People willingly submit to his authority though they can walk away at any time.  This is a key part of movement methodology and a critical aspect of leading a decentralized system. 

If you want to have a consistently significant and relevant role in the increasingly decentralized world of online ministry and evangelism, you are going to have to develop high, high, levels of influential authority.  Over time, your ability to influence and equip willing leaders who transform their communities will be the measure of your success in an online world. 

Small Group Process and DNA 

In a decentralize online world you are not going to be able to control who uses your material, how they use it, and where they use it.  If you’ve built a strong relational network and have a high level of influential authority, you might be able to track those things but you might as well give up on controlling them. 

Additionally, in a decentralized system you have little to no control over the front door - the point at which people initially engage your content.  Google searches effectively killed home pages because any Google search takes you immediately to the page that contains your search terms.  (I learned this from Seth Godin.)  

Since you cannot realistically control the point at which a person or group takes your material and start a new group, your DNA must be evident at all points of entry. 

In other words, your DNA must exist in everything.  Individual studies, small group materials and larger experiences.  Your DNA must be simple and easy to replicate - even if the person replicating it has only experienced it a couple of times.  Finally, it must reflect the DNA you want any individual in the group to have when they are by themselves.  Furthermore, they must be able to have this DNA - individually and as a group - and replicate it into subsequent generations even if they are cut off from the original source group or material for whatever reason.


Everything I just addressed - leadership, DNA, and small group process - can be summarized in a word, “Discipleship.”  How do you disciple lost people into a relationship with Christ?  How do you disciple them in a way that they have the basic DNA elements in place to be obedient and replicating followers of Christ?  How do you start a group with lost people that has the DNA to become a small group of obedient followers of Christ?  How do you make sure they have the DNA to become a church or become a meaningful part of a church?  How do you make sure they have the DNA necessary to obey Christ online and offline, in ways that result in online and offline transformation?  How do you make sure they can replicate that DNA into other groups of lost people who may or may not have contact with the original source material?  What do you need to do to develop DNA that is strong even in the 14th generation of disciple and small group? 

These are the critical questions we need to work out. 

Looking into the Face of Reality 

The online world is a decentralized reality.  We have to study offline Church Planting and Gospel movements to get a better picture of how the Gospel spreads with decentralized systems.  Start with David Watson’s Blog - and other resources at  You also need to read The Starfish and the Spider by Ori Brafman and Rod A. Beckstrom.  We also need to talk about the innovations that take place at the intersection of systems and field addressed in The Medici Effect by Frans Johansson. 

Gather your online team and start thinking through some of these critical DNA questions about small groups and discipleship and how they relate to your larger experiences or worship gatherings - online or offline. 

Can you have an impact if you never consider these things?  Yes.  Can it be big?  Yes.  Will it be as big as it could be?  No, it won’t.  I’m certain of it.

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4 Responses to “Leadership and Discipleship Within a Decentralized Online Reality”

  1. Daniel Berman
    March 4th, 2009 @ 12:18 am

    Very thought provoking post. I commented on it here - Where do you see this trend heading in 10-20 years, and how might we steer it in the right direction?

  2. Paul
    March 4th, 2009 @ 8:14 am

    Daniel, that is a great question. I need to think about it. Will probably write a post on it in the future. I have a lot of opinions, but they are too many for a reply here! If you don’t see a post on this topic in within the month, send me an email.


  3. Anglican in Second Life
    March 12th, 2009 @ 7:45 am

    I’d be interested in hearing which church this is, Paul - sounds like ?

  4. Paul
    March 12th, 2009 @ 7:49 am

    Nope, not LifeChurch. But I feel the story is one we are going to hear more and more often from churches online around the world.

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    Who is God?' was one of the top three sentences googled in 2007, according to Google Zeitgeist. According to Alexa, the top two religious websites are Muslim, with BibleGateway coming in at a close third. The Online Generation is spiritual. They are seeking. And the church is the last place they would go to find spiritual fulfillment. This site is dedicated to those walking with The Online Generation and living lives of obedience to all the commands of Jesus Christ.
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