One goal in computer programming is to build “loosely coupled” systems. A loosely coupled system isn’t tied down to a specific platform. It makes it easy to take a program written for Macintosh and turn it into a program that can run on Windows or Linux or whatever other system you want. When a new platform appears (like the iPhone), a loosely coupled system makes it so that you can just swap a few parts around and make your program work on that new platform.
Loose coupling is achieved by separating a system into “layers”. Take this blog, for example — timesandseasons.org (or most any website you visit) consists of three layers: the presentation layer, the data layer, and the business logic layer. Here’s a quick overview:
- The presentation layer is what you see on your screen right now. It determines what the site looks like, things like “put that picture montage at the top of the page” or “put this article in the middle of the page, with “Recent Comments” to the left and “Notes From All Over” to the right.
- The data layer is what stores all of the content for the site. It’s a database that contains all of our blog posts, all of your comments, and the various links that you see on the sidebars of this page.
- The business logic layer is what connects the presentation layer to the data layer. You come to this blog because you want both presentation and data. You don’t just want a pretty page with no information in it, and you can’t look in the database to see the blog posts directly. You want the data from the database to be displayed on your computer page where you can see it. The business logic layer handles that.
You’re probably reading this post on a laptop or desktop computer. You have a monitor with plenty of space, so your presentation layer can show you lots of stuff. But now imagine that you’re viewing this same page on an iPhone (my apologies if you actually are viewing this on an iPhone!) There’s a lot less space on an iPhone screen, so the page would need to display information more efficiently. To use the terms above, you would expect a change in the presentation layer. You wouldn’t want the site to act differently (that would be a change in the business logic layer), and you wouldn’t want to get different content (which would be a change in the data layer) — you’d just want it to do all the same stuff but on a smaller screen.
Loosely coupled systems make that (relatively) easy to do. If you did, in fact, visit this site on an iPhone, you’d see that is already set up to provide a different presentation layer. There’s no extraneous information, just posts and comments.
Could the church be organized to work in the same fashion — a “loosely coupled” church organization, where the various functions of the church are separated out into various layers?
As a starting point, I see the church organization as providing essentially four distinct functions — social support, theology, moral standards, and charitable service. I’m sure we could cut things differently, but for discussion’s sake, I’ll use these four.
- The social support layer covers the temporal benefits the church provides to its members: a place to build friendships, gain practical life skills, receive financial support in times of need, and the whole Provident Living program.
- The theological layer is about faith-based teachings — the nature of God, the plan of salvation, priesthood orders, etc.
- The moral standards layer addresses ethical teachings — what behaviors are acceptable or unacceptable, how we should live our lives, and the identification of worthy goals (e.g. education and family as opposed to fame and fortune).
- The charitable service layer covers the church’s role as a contributor to human welfare to people outside of the church organization. This includes disaster relief, community service projects, and humanitarian mission work.
For many church members, these are already separate layers. There are members who reject the theological layer, but continue attending because they like the social support or moral standards layers. Conversely, other members don’t find meaningful social support or charitable service layers in their wards, but continue attending because they have a deep commitment to the principles of the theological layer.
If the church were a loosely coupled organization, members would be encouraged to swap out the layers that aren’t working for them. Regarding the social support layer, members who have a hard time with individuals in their wards would be allowed to attend their meetings in other wards. With the charitable service layer, members who feel that the church’s charitable service arm is somewhat anemic might be “called” to serve through a more proactive church or charitable organization in the area.
The other two layers — theological and moral standards — are stickier, since they feel so much closer to the heart of our identification as Mormons. While possible, any attempt to provide a loose coupling with those two layers would be controversial. However, church history might hold a key: there we see how even those two layers have changed dramatically over generations.
Ultimately, the goal of a loosely coupled church organization would be the same as for a loosely coupled computer program: to allow a system to be dynamic enough to meet the unique needs of individuals while still being solid enough to provide a reliable set of services. So what do you think — could (and more importantly, should) the church be loosely coupled into layers? And if so, what layers would you suggest?