Leadership Approaches – New Science, Chaos, Complexity Theory

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Part of the follow ministry resources: Christian Leadership, Empowerment, Transformational Leadership


A growing batch of literature focuses on the applicability of “New Science” to leadership in general, and church leadership in particular. New Science refers to the breakthrough findings of quantum physics, chaos theory, and biology which are radically altering our understanding of the physical world in contrast to the centuries-old dominance of Newton’s mechanistic views of laws, cause and effect, etc. One tenet of New Science is that all organic life is in relationship to everything else. Because of the complex interdependence of all things, when systems reach the edge of chaos, the interconnected organisms within them respond by self-organizing, often just at the moment when it seems like self-destruction is eminent, emerging out of the chaos into new and more robust realities than could have been controlled, planned, or manipulated beforehand. This has spawned numerous theories in both physical and social science, variously referred to as complexity theory, emergence theory, and chaos theory.

Application to New Science Leadership to Christian Ministry

Many church leaders encounter confusion on beliefs, large-scale ineffectiveness in mission, and increasing marginalization of the church. If New Science is true, it holds promise that churches can be led through chaotic times and emerge stronger. Seen through a theological lens, Colossians and Ephesians elevate God’s eternal purpose to reconcile all things to himself in Christ, in whom all things hold together. These passages speak of Christ’s cosmic rule over the universe, remind us of God’s intent to be glorified eternally through his church, and assure us of the empowering Spirit to fulfill God’s design through us in ways that we cannot ask or imagine (cf. Eph. 3:20-21).

On the church’s macro-scale, what New Science attributes to a principle of self-organization, scripture attributes to the interworking of an infinite, personal God, his Christ, and the Holy Spirit. This by no means minimizes the “surfing at the edge of chaos,” to borrow the words of New Science. Scripture affirms, however, that we engage this complexity with a hope that transcends a mere impersonal cosmic principle of self-organization, but with a genuine hope in the rule of an infinite, personal God over the created universe. On a micro-scale, leaders who live within God’s ordered reality can respond better to the chaotic conditions around them. This allows them to be more attentive to and cooperative with God’s redemptive work, to avoid an overemphasis on control mechanisms, and to focus on postures that help the living systems they serve “self-organize” into a future brighter than anyone could have anticipated.

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New Science as Transformational Leadership

In terms of leadership theory, New Science expresses transformational leadership. New Science suggests leaders must embrace complexity and ambiguity, allow people to feel the “pinch” of reality, grow through the anxiety of the chaos, and emerge transformed by the experience.

More specifically, New Science resonates with Ron Heifetz’ distinction between adaptive vs. technical leadership. New Science addresses not the “technical” challenges that can be remedied by existing know-how, but the “adaptive” work of struggling with the unknown and birthing creative new realities.

Ministry Resources on New Science Leadership

Several volumes discuss the New Science as it relates to Christian ministry. The list below is only a starter. They are given in suggested order.

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