Thursday, January 11, 2024

The Future Is Networks

January is a time for making predictions about the future, so here’s a prediction: The future is networks, not formal institutions.

This prediction requires some elaboration of what I mean by networks and formal institutions. The prediction should also be qualified somewhat: This is less a prediction of what is to come and more an observation of how human organization has already been changing, coupled with an assumption that such a shift will continue.


A network may be defined as a collection of separate individuals or organizations that come together for collaboration. A network is definitely a type of organization itself, in that it organizes people or other organizations. Networks are, though, defined by their relational nature – relationships are the basis of their organization. There is a large literature in several social science fields on network organizations, and this post does not even begin to scratch the surface of this literature, but this definition will do.

A network may also be a type of institution, in that it may involve “rules, beliefs, norms, and organizations that together generate a regularity of behavior,” though it lacks much formalization of these rules, beliefs, norms, and organizations. Instead, a network relies on relational ties to produce those qualities. Moreover, the focus of a network may not be so much on regularity of behavior as on responsiveness, that is, on coordinating behavior in response to particular conditions or events rather than coordinating behavior toward a pre-determined end.

As relational organization, networks involve (relatively) equal status among their constituent parts. They may be organized around common interests or a shared desired outcome. They may also be short- or long-term oriented. Networks, especially those organized around shared interests, are often open ended, with the purpose of the network evolving as its constituent relationships evolve. Thus, networks are a relatively flexible form of organization.

Networks usually serve as avenues of communication among their members and for exchanging or pooling resources around shared objectives. A network may carry out a project as an organization itself, but more often, networks serve to loosely coordinate the activities of their members through exchange of information. Thus, those members are the primary actors in carrying out any work, not the network.

Formal Institutions

A formal institution may be defined as an organization with formalized rules and structures for working towards a goal or goals. Such formalized rules and structures include aspects such as legal incorporation, by-laws, assigned roles and responsibilities within the organization, clearly defined leadership roles, organizational hierarchies, defined mission and vision, etc. Formal institutions as organizations are defined by their formalized nature.

Formal institutions tend to be goal oriented. They are very concerned with regularity of behavior and planning toward a particular end. They exist to direct the behavior of constituent parts and the use of labor and financial resources towards certain goals.

Formal institutions tend toward a long-term orientation. Their formality gives them a greater permanence, and some of a formal institution’s efforts are likely to be directed towards the continuation of the institution. Formal institutions can and do change, grow, and shift over time, but their focus is on regularity.


Both networks and formal institutions are solutions to the problem of collective action – how can humans act together for the sake of achieving goals beyond what any individual is capable of? Formal institutions and networks can be thought of as two ideal types of solutions to this problem with actual organizations falling somewhere in the middle. Moreover, networks are often composed of formal institutions as members. Again, there is a large literature available for those interested in the spectrum of organizational types.

Each of these solutions is better at some things and in some situations. Networks have advantages at information sharing and are more flexible. Formal institutions are better at standardization and central coordination.

Yet whatever the absolute advantages and disadvantages of each organizational form, there has been a significant shift in recent decades away from formal institutions towards networks. Formal institutions were one of the crowning achievements of the modern era of human history – the world coordinated through bureaucracy, in a non-pejorative sense. In the 21st century, however, the flow is in the other direction, towards the creation of more networks and the dismantling of some existing formal institutions.

Applications for Churches

This shift from formal institutions to networks has implications for many areas of life, the church among them. Three ways in which this shift will impact churches are in denominational structures, ecumenical organizations, and ministry collaborations.

Denominations are, at their most basic, an organization that brings together multiple congregations. Yet there are varying ways in which denominations can serve to organize congregations, and some are more similar to networks, while others more closely resemble formal organizations. Some of this depends on polity. (Baptists tend more towards networks; Methodists towards formal organizations.) But even within a denomination, shifts are possible. Thus, for United Methodists, a shift towards a more network understanding of denominational structures would mean structures that serve to equip and coordinate churches in their own work rather than structures that seek to represent churches through the work of the denomination.

A similar principle applies to ecumenical organizations. At one time, the National Council of Churches was a significant organizational force, carrying out major work itself, work that was supported by the member denominations because of the formal structures that tied them to the NCC. Nowadays, the NCC serves more as a forum for discussion among member denominations, who may sign off on statements released by the NCC, but who maintain more autonomy in deciding what of the NCC to go along with.

Such a shift applies to more local and regional forms of ministry collaboration as well. In the past, inter-congregational ministry efforts may have involved forming new formal organizations with carefully balanced representation from participating congregations and extensive binding agreements as to how the congregations would relate to one another and the new entity. Now, though, inter-congregational ministry is more likely to be ad-hoc and project-based, involve a sharing of information rather than entering an MOU, and/or involve creating an informal “coordinating committee” instead of founding a new 501(c)3 entity.

Again, these are not necessarily bad or good shifts; they’re just different. Walter W. Powell, in his 1990 article, “Neither Market Nor Hierarchy: Network Forms of Organization,” wrote that “the open-ended quality of networks is most useful when resources are variable and the environment uncertain.” In that way, the shift away from formal institutions towards networks is a reflection of other shifts going on in society. 

The point is not to try to resist this shift or to try to be the first to hop on the bandwagon. The point is to recognize the ways in which how we as humans collaborate and organize work are changing so that we may continue to do what Christians have always done: work together to make disciples and transform the world.

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