Abstract: Connectivism is a learning theory first proposed by Siemens and Downes (2005, 2009) as a learning theory for the digital age. This theory proposes that learning may occur external to the learner and teacher; it exists in the multiple complex networks with which the learner associates. In 2020, Corbett and Spinello followed up on Siemen’s work to move connectivism from a learning theory to a leadership theory. Connectivism is a leadership theory that specifically works in modern churches. This theory emphasizes the connectedness of all knowledge and the mutuality of those connections, becoming a tool used to build better teams in the local church, especially in this dispersed environment.
Keywords: connectivism, leadership theory, community, dispersed church, COVID-19 pandemic
In the spring of 2020, the world sprang into action to prevent the spread of COVID-19. In the United States, the preventative restrictions prevented the church from gathering together. Churches have practiced congregational leadership by gathering in person and conducting physical, face-to-face interactions. In this time of dispersed church leadership, a modern form of leadership is required to effectively lead the church. This article looks at connectivism as the theoretical underpinning for leading the dispersed church and can inform the church’s leadership in the 21st century.
A North Carolina government website offers an exemplar of the restrictions faced by churches and businesses across the nation (North Carolina, n.d.). For some time, in-person church services were completely restricted and all nonessential businesses were closed. As the restrictions eased, churches were only allowed small numbers of people in the building while observing social distancing regulations and mask-wearing. All large events were restricted, even if outdoors (North Carolina, n.d.). This caused the church to seek alternatives to the traditional church environment.
Lifeway Research found that 78% of Protestant churches in the United States have less than 100 people in attendance weekly (Earls, 2019). These congregations were often close-knit families of people who met on a weekly basis, lived life together throughout the week, and formed close bonds with each other. Similar research by Lifeway indicates that no more than 50% of churches had any experience with live streaming events, and only 30% of churches were ready to shift to a digital format where the pandemic restrictions were first implemented (Earls, 2020). Although most churches had a Facebook and a small number had an active Instagram or Twitter account, many smaller churches were still reticent to accept or venture into new technologies or the digital environment (Smietana, 2018).
These conditions set the church to either move to use digital resources or fail in congregational leadership. Connectivism, as a leadership and learning theory, provides a theoretical underpinning that is well suited to this church environment. This theory offers the space and language for churches to venture into the digital realm for leadership and pedagogy in a way that is true to the ideals of community, connectedness, and episcopal leadership. This article will examine the church as a living community (i.e., a network of people) and nodes analogous to the network nodes in connectivism. It will then move to understand connectivism as a learning theory and a leadership theory. Finally, we will examine an integrated application of connectivism in the modern church setting.
The Church as Community
Simon and Garfunkel once sang, “I am a rock, I am an island” (Simon, 1966). Counter to that, the church claims that humankind is not created to be alone (Pettit, 2008, p. 103). This is reflected through Scripture from the creation story of Genesis 1–3 to the formation of the nascent church in Acts 2:42–47 to the collection of Epistles written to instruct and encourage the early fledgling Christian communities. One modern theologian refers to the community as the “source of incomparable joy and strength” for the people of the church (Bonhoeffer, 1954, p. 19). In Hebrews 10:25, the people of the church are reminded that gathering within the community is a source of strength and resilience. Community and the building and leading of the community is an essential role of the church throughout the ages.
In some traditions, there is a specific theological statement regarding community. For these believers, the church community began with the assembly of disciples and continues today through the face-to-face groups that meet to teach, learn, and lead (Becker, 2008, p. 9, 13).
Defining Community in the Modern Church
In a seminal work, Ladd referred to the church community as the reality of God’s Kingdom in the present day (Ladd, 1959), a group of people working together to understand and grow in faith (Vander Wiele, 2014, p. 50). Additionally, Bonhoeffer (1954) suggests that community might also be viewed as both a physical and spiritual gathering of people in the name of faith (p. 21). The church community is a physical manifestation of spiritual truth.
In the modern world, we see the concept of community evidenced in several ways. The first and most visible are weekly gatherings of the community during which the rites and sacraments distinctive to each faith community are practiced. The most close-knit example is found in small groups that form in a church, providing a more intimate setting for learning and growing together in faith.
The idea of small groups as a part of the church has existed since biblical times (Acts 2:42–47). The modern small group came into being in the post-war years of the 1940–50s (Walton, 2014, p. 88). These house groups were extensions of the church community and not understood as a primary activity for building community. In the 1960s, under the influence of cell groups (or cell churches like the Yoida Church in South Korea), small groups became primary community pedagogy locations within the church (Walton, 2014, p. 97). In many churches, these groups morphed to take over and surpass Sunday School as the locus of small group interaction and stand at the heart of modern church movements, such as the Vineyard movement (Walton, 2014, p. 101). Today, in many traditions, small groups continue to be the locus of community and pedagogy within the church. Therefore, a church community is a people gathered together to practice distinctive rites and sacraments while meeting in small groups to promote community and formation.
The Community as a Network
Digital communities operate as loose communities, and not all members of the community are active participants. On the other hand, church community provides a closely knit community where active participation is encouraged and expected (Campbell & Gardner, 2016, p. 65). Thus, online church communities have operated as an extension of and adjacent to the physical communities (Campbell & Gardner, 2016, p. 67).
Lowe & Lowe (2018) described the digital and physical communities as ecologies, borrowing the term from biological sciences. Each of these groups is an ecosystem related to and impacting each other in physical and digital environments. These communities can be thought of as network nodes defined by connectivism (Siemens, 2005; Downes, 2009). These nodes are the corresponding locations of knowledge that are then accessed through the network. During the COVID-19 restrictions, the church has depended on these digital networks and communities to be the gathered church. In this time, the digital communities have become the heart of leadership and pedagogy within the church. With these circumstances in mind, it has become increasingly imperative to find a theoretical foundation for these networked communities to aid in advancing these communities in the 21st century.
Given the church’s dispersal in 2020 and the need for a true theoretical language to discuss leadership in dispersed digital community networks, the church requires a new way of exercising ecclesiastical leadership. In the past, the church depended on the community’s physical presence to exercise leadership. Board meetings, councils, committees, and the celebration of rites and sacraments occurred within the confines of physical gatherings. Hebrews 10:25 admonishes the community to “not neglect to meet together” (ESV). This has been used to justify a requirement for physical gathering and downplay the effectiveness of other forms of meeting, whether telephonic, digital, or social media. Connectivism, as a leadership theory for the digital age (Siemens, 2005), provides the theoretical language that allows full consideration of the modern church in a 21st century, digital environment.
The Origins of Connectivism
Siemens introduced connectivism as a learning theory in a blog post in 2005. In his introduction, he argued that the learning theories that currently dominated the educational sphere—specifically behaviorism, cognitivism, and constructivism—are inadequate, as they were developed when technology was not a primary factor in the learning system’s development. He noted that technology is so pervasive that it infiltrates every aspect of the modern world (Siemens, 2005).
A core part of Siemens’s argument was the massive development of information, given that one-half of the data available to a student today was not known a decade before. He accentuated the exponential growth of information and potential knowledge available. He cited one study that showed the amount of knowledge available doubles every 18 months (Siemens, 2005). Downes followed up on Siemens’s ideas by talking about knowledge as a distributed commodity, residing within network nodes and available to learners who can maneuver through those nodes and discover the required knowledge (Downes, 2012, p. 85).
For connectivism, a primary liability in previous theories is the evaluation of knowledge for accuracy and worth. Previous learning theories were about the process of learning and did not make judgments about the content of learning (Siemens, 2005). In connectivism, these elements are just as important as developing the skill of evaluating knowledge and determining its worth based on accuracy, relevance, and application. Connectivism does not postulate a right place for knowledge to exist, only that the knowledge must be evaluated for worth and connected to other knowledge that assists the learner in understanding.
This theory cites several trends in learning, the most pertinent to this study being (Siemens, 2005):
- Learners will move through varied fields, many of which they were not educated.
- Informal learning is eclipsing formal learning in significance.
- The cognitive tools for accessing learning are being rewired.
- Knowing where to access knowledge is becoming as important as the why and how.
- There is a convergence in individual and institutional learning.
These trends are just as true in the modern church as in society, at large.
Considering this, connective knowledge is not knowledge obtained and retained by the learner but knowledge that is accessed by making connections through the network nodes in which the information resides (Downes, 2012, p. 299). Given the amount of information available to the learner, it is inconceivable that s/he might contain all the knowledge. It is just as important—possibly more important—to learn how to navigate the networks. Navigating the networks requires a meta-skill of making and discarding connections between nodes and assembling information in a coherent form (Siemens, 2005; Downes, 2012, p. 9).
When a learner accesses knowledge in the network and connects it to other networks of knowledge, they create a feedback loop where those new connections are now available to all on the network (Brieger, Arghode, & McLean, 2020, p. 325). There is no requirement that the learner memorizes connected knowledge; instead, s/he must remember the pathways that lead to access. Unlike previous theories, connectivism views knowledge acquisition as non-linear and less tied to the process and place of learning (Jung, 2019, p. 49). Jung viewed the computer network as a metaphor for the many networks in which the learner exists (Jung, 2019, p. 50), postulating that these networks (e.g., social, computer, familial, etc.) act as potential sources of knowledge that may be connected to other nodes in the network.
Due to a paucity of research data on connectivism (Corbett & Spinello, 2020, p.5), Siemens and Downes pioneered the primary place of study: Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) (Jung, 2019, p. 51). The MOOC is a large online classroom that provides a peer-led, peer-evaluated, non-linear, distributed educational experience not defined by the classic definition of the classroom, student, and curriculum (Jung, 2019, p. 52). Social media is a learning tool and allows connection points to multiple networks where knowledge may reside.
Connectivism as a Leadership Theory
In his 2005 blog post, Siemens opened the door for connectivism to have leadership and management applications. Given the pace, breadth, and depth of management and leadership decisions today, it is inconceivable that all knowledge exists in the mind of one or two individuals (Siemens, 2005). A variety of voices, multiple network nodes, and integrating information from various avenues to make coherent and effective decisions are required. Corbett and Spinello (2020) viewed connectivism as altering the leadership processes and decision-making (p. 1).
Another place to see connectivist leadership may be in the popular Massively Multiplayer Online Games (MMOG). In 2012, a paper examined leadership within the games (Mysiriaki & Paraskeva, 2012, p. 223). These games involve large numbers of players that associate into guilds; there are no fixed leaders. Leadership is collaborative, and problem-solving is a task taken on by the entire team. Players are challenged with complex tasks that increase in difficulty as they proceed across a non-linear set of problems. Each decision results in facing different circumstances and requires renewed skills and management to make succeeding decisions. Ultimately, there is a common shared goal, unachievable by any individual player but attained through the guilds’ combined abilities (Mysiriaki & Paraskeva, 2012, p. 225).
Informal leaders may arise for a given set of circumstances but are replaced by another, or a group of others, when circumstances change. Information that led to good decisions in the past may be outdated or otherwise faulty in future engagements. When viewed through the lens of connectivism, there are elements of chaos, network, complexity, and self-organization theories as predicted by Seimens (2005). The problems can only be navigated through the collective of the online community.
Application of Connectivism in the Modern Church
The church uses several networks to provide leadership and community to its believers. In the past, this has primarily been accomplished through physical meetings of large or small groups. The church is becoming more defined by the smaller groups that informally assemble within the church, supplemented by larger assemblies for the participation in rites and sacraments. While some forward-thinking congregations moved strongly into the digital environments, others did not. The restrictions of COVID-19 have provided an opportunity for the church to reevaluate and even redefine community and community leadership. One such congregation is Piedmont Chapel located in High Point, North Carolina, USA.
A Case Study: Piedmont Chapel, High Point, NC 1
In 2014, a new faith community began in the Piedmont Triad of central North Carolina. The lead pastor, Mitch, was in his late 20s at the time and was an innovator. Accompanied by a group of about 35 people in the same age demographic, Mitch set out to create a church for the 21st century. From the beginning, Piedmont Chapel (PC) has been characterized by the presence of youth, use of digital media, and a collaborative leadership style. Without realizing it, PC has developed into an organization that is well-suited to demonstrate the reality of connectivism as a leadership model in the modern—even dispersed—church. At this early stage, PC built small communities that formed the larger church. These small communities were naturally grouped around personality, affinity, involvement in the church, and other criteria.
Even before the first gathering of any size, PC created an online presence. Through Facebook, a web page, and Instagram, PC created an online presence and persona. The designs were modern and even displayed a unique logo created by the team. Although it was clear that Mitch was the senior leader, all decisions were made collaboratively. At this time, only a few of the team lived in North Carolina; therefore, most business was conducted using various digital methods.
Once the team moved to North Carolina and assembled, the first physical gathering was planned—again using digital and physical meetings and methods. Even when meeting physically, the presentations and notes were all digitally based, and the collaborative tools were all web-based. From the very first meeting, the gatherings were recorded and, very soon, were livestreamed. Although there was a focus on physical gatherings, in large or small groups, this church’s digital capabilities and footprint exceeded that of churches many times larger.
As the church developed, its online presence evolved and grew.2 The livestream gathered near equal numbers to the 500-600 present in physical gatherings. Most business meetings were conducted through Zoom, Google Hangout, or FaceTime. Individual internet protocol (IP) addresses were monitored and revealed participation from Europe and Australia, as well as many places in the United States. Just as all these systems were being perfected, the COVID-19 restrictions impacted the church.
Within days, PC transitioned all worship services, leadership meetings, and even small group meetings to virtual formats and seamlessly went on with the life of the community. Except for the longing for physical contact that all corners of society experienced, PC continued to function without fail while other faith communities struggled to survive. To date, due to restrictions on rental spaces (e.g., the church met in a high school), PC has not resumed physical gatherings yet remains a vibrant, effective faith community.
PC has always collaboratively exercised leadership with many voices providing input to decision making. Pastor Mitch commented that there are many decisions made in which he is not—and does not need to be—consulted. These decisions are made by people with expertise and a vested interest in the particular area in which the decisions are made. Even the community calendar of events is developed in a team framework with input from many places. The leadership flows from the pastor to multiple groupings of people who concentrate on specific areas, yet have a voice and input into many other areas. The media team has input into the overall gatherings and physical or media presence of the church. The musicians speak to decisions of production and spiritual values. All of this expertise is collected and maintained in a network of people, Google drives, online resources, online scheduling, and online music storage.
During the COVID-19 restrictions, the church has used various methods such as asynchronous music production compiled into a seamless video presentation, video and music recording, teaching, and asynchronous decision making through email, text, and chat groups. The leader-pastor has continually drawn the community’s focus to the enduring values and mission of PC, just as he did before. The COVID-19 restrictions have proven the church’s strength and resilience and have encouraged even more people to become active participants.
It is also during this time that PC has experienced marginal new growth from members in the community. Individuals find PC online and become regular online attendees and financial givers. At the beginning of 2021, a small group of PC members were hosted by another member in Alabama, along with members from several other states.
in Piedmont Chapel Siemens noted that connectivism is an integration of several theories (Siemens, 2005); considering this study, network and self-organization theories stand out; during the COVID-19 restrictions, PC also experienced chaos and complexity. Volunteer organizations differ from other organizations and require different leadership strategies. As Catano, Pond, and Kelloway (2001) indicated, volunteer organizations cannot reward the volunteers with the normal positive and negative incentives for work done (p. 256). This is supported by Oostlander, Güntert, van Schie, and Wehner (2014), who suggest that volunteers are motivated to achieve higher levels of actualization beyond a paycheck that provides for the life necessities (p. 870).
Self-determination theory (SDT) speaks to the “innate psychological needs” that cause a person to seek specific goals and pursuits (Deci & Ryan, 2000, p. 227). This theory moves away from more cognitive concepts of goal pursuit and returns to a precognitive idea of basic needs (Deci & Ryan, 2000, p. 228). SDT tries to understand why a person volunteers for more work, tasks and goals, pressure, and oversight when there is no observable compensation. What motivates the volunteer?
Combine the above with the mechanisms of team assembly (Guimera, Uzzi, Spiro, and Amaral, 2005), and you find answers to the source of the energy and passion displayed by the leaders and volunteers of PC. The volunteers of PC are a very diverse population ethnically, culturally, and in age. Guimera, et al. (2005) argue that great diversity runs counter to good decision making and team cohesiveness, but diversity is necessary for good leadership and decision making (p. 697). PC exhibits great diversity and great coherence to a simple mission statement of “A Church for All People” (see more at www.piedmontchapel.com). This mission statement is continuously and consistently reinforced by leadership. In the current dispersed church, it is shared on all media platforms and repeated/accentuated in all forums, at all levels. At each of these levels, ideas arise for improving and developing new avenues to meet that mission statement.
Network theory also speaks to the success of leadership at PC. PC uses social networks extremely well; without knowing it, PC capitalizes on the power of the weak ties defined by Granovetter (1973). This interpretation of network theory gives evidence that small interactions between people can significantly affect leadership and decision-making (Granovetter, 1973, p. 1360). PC has used social media and other digital means in conjunction with physical interactions to develop a larger footprint. This is evidenced by individuals who log onto online streams and giving monetary gifts, even though they have never been in physical contact with the church. Small groups have been hosted and attended virtually by those who are not in the same state. PC has capitalized on the broadest idea of the network and those micro-connections between people.
The weak ties are where the innovation resides (Borgatti & Lopez-Kidwell, 2014, p. 4). PC is welcoming to and encourages innovation in all forms. PC has always depended on many overlapping and intersecting groups to provide the leadership and decision-making nexus of the church. From inception to the current day, many groups, some with weak ties, give input and innovative ideas to every part of the church community.
Connectivism in Piedmont Chapel draws on the foundations of network theory and self-determination theory, and to a lesser extent chaos and complexity theories (which have not been explored here). The leadership of PC is exercised through a network of physical and digital nodes that consist of single persons, groups of people, digital applications, and collaborative systems and relies on those strong and weak ties to invigorate innovation and decision-making. This community is a vibrant and growing community that has suffered little due to the restrictions of COVID-19. This resilience is because of the preexisting reliance on the network nodes for institutional knowledge and to provide the primary source of leadership and decision-making. Within this community of faith, there is a model of connectivism that may be the answer to church leadership in the modern, dispersed, digital world.
1This case study is based on interviews and conversations with the staff, leaders, and members of Piedmont Chapel. It is also greatly influenced by the author’s association with Piedmont Chapel.
2PC regularly counts unique IP addresses, knowing that a portion of those IPs account for multiple viewers. PC chooses not to estimate the total viewership.
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W. Ray Williams, MDiv, is the deputy director of religious affairs for the Army National Guard in Arlington, Virginia, and a doctoral student at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia.