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FIRST-PERSON: Baptists, ants & swarm intelligence

NEW ORLEANS (BP) — Perhaps a long-sought secret to the vitality of the Baptist movement is swarm intelligence, the “collective behavior of decentralized, self-organized systems.”

The most useful metaphor for Southern Baptists’ cooperative work heretofore has been the “rope of sand” introduced by James L. Sullivan in his short book “Rope of Sand with Strength of Steel” in 1974. This metaphor gained prominence in Baptist life and thought as denominational servants and theologians attempted to communicate to Baptists and others how things work in our convention.

Swarm intelligence conveys an upgrade in two ways. First, it is a biblical metaphor:

Go to the ant, you sluggard;
consider its ways and be wise!
It has no commander,
no overseer or ruler,
yet it stores its provisions in summer
and gathers its food at harvest.

(Proverbs 6:6-8)

Baptists definitely fit in the “no commander, no overseer or ruler” group. We are fiercely independent. All our churches, entities and conventions are self-governing and autonomous. Jesus is Lord, of course, just as God is sovereign over the ants. But as far as social and business structures are concerned, Baptists have no commander, no pope or bishops.

Second, Baptists are living entities, not inert matter. Ants are an improvement on grains of sand in this regard. Grains of sand do not have even elemental intelligence, volition or initiative. But ants, though not one of the higher life forms, exhibit amazing resolve and purpose. Ants get things done even though they are not hard-wired to a central command.

Ants (and termites and other life forms) circle the project looking for something to do. If they see a grain of sand out of place or a defect in the structure, they immediately go fix it. They seem personally responsible for whatever task they notice. There is scarcely any specialization. Every ant works on the project independently, and the swarm ends up building extensive and complex living quarters for the colony.

Small robots the size of guinea pigs are now being built which employ this swarm approach, and apparently they are capable of constructing significant projects. If one robot breaks, the others keep working without interruption. If a robot is added to the group, it does not change the dynamic. Like termites building tunnels through your house, these swarms of robots work independently and without central coordination or communication. One day such robot swarms may build levees or lay bricks.

Baptists are the ants of the religious world. Our emphasis on the importance of the individual may be our finest contribution to religious thought. We insist that each individual give his or her own answer to God. Parents cannot decide for their children; clerics cannot decide for their parishioners.

We insist that all true faith is voluntary. Hence we are champions of religious liberty. Faith at gunpoint is not faith at all. Freedom of conscience is the fundamental freedom. Each individual soul is competent to respond to God. The ground is level at the cross of Christ. And each believer is competent to be a priest before God. No place in the church is reserved only for the clergy. The church may worship, observe its ordinances, and conduct its business with or without ordained leadership.

All associations in Baptist life are voluntary. Each of our 46,000-plus churches is independent and self-governing. Each of our state and national conventions is also independent. Baptists are a swarm of individuals and independent churches working on inspiring projects for Kingdom advance.

The key to maximizing the energy and initiative of a swarm is turning them loose and staying out of their way. Any effort to centralize control thwarts the whole system.

People have asked for years how such independent-thinking Baptists ever got anything done. We can reply: “Consider the ant!”
David E. Crosby is pastor of First Baptist Church in New Orleans. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress) and in your email (baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).

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  • David E. Crosby