Network church – Planting into social networks

In 2004, the Mission-shaped Church report emphasised the importance of engaging with the increasingly dominant network society today, analysing the forces shaping this society and presenting some principles for engagement, as well as presenting some examples of fresh expressions arising amongst such networks. In this article Bob Hopkins looks at some of these principles and how they have been expressed across the church planting and fresh expressions movement.

The first Anglican Report on Church Planting – “Breaking New Ground” in 1994, identified non-geographic networks as an increasing mission responsibility that did not fit well with the parish system. The subsequent“Mission-shaped Church” (Available from the Online Store) report that reviewed lessons ten years later in 2004, emphasised the importance of network society today and went further.  It analysed the forces shaping network society and presented some principles for engagement and examples of fresh expressions arsing amongst such networks.

However, mission engagement and church planting in non-geographic people groups is a new experience for most UK and Western European pioneers.  As we work with a number of projects, we are picking up the following important differences of approach and some associated principles.

From “Breaking New Ground”  onwards the Church of England have recognised the reality that much of our population now live with relationships based on non-geographic networks rather than locational neighbourhoods. “Mission-shaped Church” took this principle further and identified the many trends shaping networks as well as describing some of their characteristics.

As the network nature of over half of our society has been taken seriously, a number of church plants and other mission projects have been initiated, aimed at network mission. A category has even been established of network-based church plants. Similarly as some churches have developed a cluster model with mid-sized missional communities, many of these have taken on a network mission focus.

However, it has become increasingly clear to us that there are two very distinct expressions of network mission engagement involved with some church plants, fresh expressions of church or clusters.

On the one hand there are mission initiatives, which have as their starting point the identification of one single social network. This could be clubbers, or surfers or café culture or even the population of a school (pupils, staff and parents).

A mission project that focuses on such a simple network will need to identify the meeting places or hubs that give relational coherence to the network and then seek to connect with those meeting points.

The mission team involved in such network planting or fresh expression will either all be drawn from this chosen network or will need to reprioritise their social lives to engage with these hubs and relationship building in the chosen network.

In this sense such network mission projects are equivalent to neighbourhood church plants or fresh expressions when a team would need to all already live in the neighbourhood or choose to relocate themselves into it to serve their mission purpose.

The key principle behind these steps is that the mission team need to strengthen and multiply their relationships within the chosen social network and then very quickly a reinforcement process occurs whereby all the team are making relationships within the same target population and inevitably a cross over can also develop where more than one person in the team is building relationship with the same not-yet-Christian in the network.

A further implication of this first model, is that not only can events be planned to engage with all the group/team member’s networks, but it can be possible to put a permanent structure in one or more of the hubs at which the common network gathers. For example, if the whole group/team are focussed on a café culture, then a café might be rented or acquired so that the mission project actually has at its disposal a facility that serves their engagement with the chosen social network. Another example would be creating after-school “circle-time” groups if the common focus is the networks around a singe school.

By contrast the other model which we observe is where a group or mission team embraces a vision to develop a missional community that is not geographic and therefore rightly define themselves as a network church plant or fresh expression. However, their understanding of network is that each individual in the team develops relationship with their own network of friends and acquaintances through their work, family, leisure and spare time interests and pursuits.

What seems often not to be realised in such a case is that it is likely that as many different networks begin to be engaged with as there are members of the group or team. The group or team are not focussed on a single network, but on multiple networks. And each network engaged with has but a single member of the team building relationships within it.
From our analysis from the first model, it should immediately be becoming clear that the missionary dynamics are completely different in this second case. There is no potential for identifying hubs and meeting points of a single network and prioritising the spare time and lifestyle of team members to engage with these focus points all together.

Furthermore there is no potential for the relationship building of one team member to begin to reinforce and multiply the effect of the social engagement and service of another team member. As well as losing the potential for this synergy and reinforcing of relationship building, there is no potential for planning social events that serve relationships of all the team members at the same time. And the development of any structure to create a common meeting point at a network hub, is almost certainly ruled out.

The first clear implication of these insights is that the second model requires very different expectation from the first model. Because there is no reinforcement of each of the team members relationship building, the progress and fruitfulness of the mission project is likely to be dramatically slower.

Secondly, the sorts of not-yet-Christians reached by each member of the group or team will be from different networks and therefore different social and cultural backgrounds. Hence initially they may well not be able to be built into the same emerging community. This almost forces a cell-based model upon this second approach. As each member of the group or team builds relationship in their network they need a small group community of similar social and cultural makeup, into which to build them. This will need to be the foundational strategy and the expectation will be the emergence of a range of different small cells related to each group/team member’s network. There can then be another level at which these cells are clustered together.

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