The Ant, the SBC & Swarm Intelligence

by Dr. David E. Crosby, pastor
FBC, New Orleans, La.

(Pastor Crosby blogs HERE.)

I have found the long-sought secret to the vitality of the Baptist movement. Defined by Wikipedia,  swarm intelligence is the collective behavior of decentralized, self-organized systems. 

Heretofore the most useful metaphor for Baptist cooperative work has been the “rope of sand” introduced by James L. Sullivan in his booklet, “Rope of Sand 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 is an upgrade in at least 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 of 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, no bishops.

A second upgrade: 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 (Some might argue that Baptists lack those as well.) 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 is obvious. 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. Adding a robot to the group 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 upon 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 40,000 churches is independent and self-governing. Each of our state and national entities are 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 perverts the whole system.

People have asked for years how such independent-thinking Baptists ever got anything done. Now we understand: “Consider the ant!”