What al Qaeda Can Teach the Church

A Decentralized Leadership Structure

Osama bin Laden, former core leader of al Qaeda, and mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, was killed by US Navy SEALs on May 2, 2011. Yet al Qaeda has continued to advance throughout the Muslim-majority world since bin Laden’s death. Multiple reasons contribute to their persistent progress, but one key issue stands out: al Qaeda’s decentralized leadership structure.

Within a few months after bin Laden’s death, it was tragically clear that national security had not stopped al Qaeda’s growth. Their spread of terror is not dependent on any single leader. Al Qaeda has a formal core group at its head providing overall direction, but there is a critical underlying structure that makes them more adaptive and resilient. Al Qaeda is a network made up of many affiliate-to-affiliate relationships, growing and multiplying independently, making it very difficult to control or defeat them. These affiliates have evolved and now threaten the United States as much as (if not more than) the core group.

Proponents for civilized societies agree that al Qaeda is a collection of barbarians who commit heinous acts in the name of Allah. But this terrorist organization also gets something right: al Qaeda’s movements have been impossible to destroy because their “success” is not dependent on a core leader.

Churches that Exalt a Single Leader Should Rethink

Churches would benefit by applying this essential principle. Many 21st century congregations are personality-driven, built upon the gifts and charm of an admired leader. As the leader’s notoriety grows, the church thrives. But when something happens to the leader, the church is often devastated.

I attended one of these churches during a business trip. I had read about the church and its pastor in a Christian magazine. When I walked in, a smiling couple welcomed me to “Pastor _________’s church.” During his sermon, the people applauded enthusiastically. A jumbo screen made him appear bigger than life. The experience felt more like a rock concert than a church service. The star was center stage.

Eight months later, this leader resigned after confessing to lewd sexual behavior. The size of the congregation collapsed more quickly than it had grown, and today the remaining congregants rattle around in the cavernous building as they struggle for survival.

Churches that exalt a single leader should rethink. Not only because al Qaeda gets it right, but because a plurality of leadership is more consistent with New Testament teaching. The church that resists the current trend of betting its future on any single leader has better odds for the long haul.

Photo credit: Reuters

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