‘Network Churches’ – What do you mean?

George Lings, director of the Sheffield Centre and previously an ACPI trustee reflects on the strategic importance of an emerging breed of “Network Churches”.

Are they churches on the Internet? Churches for fishing communities? Just a new name for eclectic churches ? Sorry it’s none of those. By Network church I mean “a Church of England church which has been deliberately set up, and officially authorised, to work only with networks of people. Unlike a parish it has no exclusive area to call its own.”

Why do that?

The first reason is a change in society. Increasing numbers of people not only live their lives in networks of relationships, but find their identity through this. While they also rent or own houses, the neighbourhood or locality is not the main source of how they think of themselves. We need a change of mind that asks “in what circles do people live their lives?”, not “at what address do they sleep?”

Back in 1994, the Church of England official report on church planting Breaking New Ground went public on this change and urged that we work with it. That is because of the second reason. A church with a national mission responsibility is called to reach all types of people. A church that urges working in an incarnational style has to dare to fit with particular cultures, just as Jesus did. If some people today live in networks not neighbourhoods then the Church of England is honour bound to create some churches for those networks.

How do they work?

Think both in terms of variety and similarity. The variety is that Network Church plants use different models of ministry. Some make use of the Seeker approach, some are Cell based, others draw from the Vineyard values about worship and healing. Indeed some draw from more than one source. So if you visited each of them on a Sunday they might look very different in their worship and presentation.

The similarity is the market they are called to serve and evangelise. They are called to networks of people. By choice they agree not to practice area based forms of evangelism – leaflet drops, door knocking, receiving local requests for Baptisms, Marriages and Funerals etc. Their way of working is through friendships alone. Contacts may be built from work, sport, leisure, school or home. This puts an enormous emphasis on each network church member building genuine friendships and learning the skills of relational evangelism.

Another similarity is that network churches must work on trust. Wherever they meet they are in someone else’s parish, whoever they draw has an address in a parish. This is a new and necessary kind of Anglican church but it really rattles the cage of traditional thinkers. It will take support from members of Diocesan Staff teams to gain permission to start a Network Church. Responsible accountability will need to be part of the process. Those leaders who have earned trust in the Diocese will find it more straightforward to gain permission to start and encouragement to continue.

How did they start?

Some of the earliest ones, like Tommy’s in Nottingham and Carpenter’s Arms in Deal started with a mission concern for people who were outside the church and who didn’t relate to parish identity. But the journey began without a clear idea of what a network church would look like. In my view it is very healthy to let the mission drive the process and let church form on the way. We could say that is the outline of the NT story: Jesus, Mission, Church.

Once the pioneers became known, then the later ones could learn from the lessons gathered and stories told. Some of them formed around a ministry model or philosophy – a way of being church that seemed to fit. Some began with a specific purpose – identifying a particular network of people to reach for Christ. One or two simply evolved through a progression by which a church begun for an area turned into one that served a network-based wider group of people. A few began because there was a problem – like irreconcilably different groups in a church that began to split. The last is not a recommended way – but God has a Master’s degree in creative handling of human mess.

How many are there?

At present I know of at least ten with permissions being sought for a further three. Not a large number, but in terms of precedent it means 1/5th of our dioceses have at least one. The first is often the hardest to obtain.

ACPI and The Sheffield Centre sensed this was a significant new development and in November 2000 we hosted a Conference for practitioners and those exploring starting. It clarified good practice and generated a sense of an emerging movement, which led to a call to meet again.

What’s the future?

I have no doubt we need more of them and as they become better done and better known more people will see the sense, the need and the way. We should pray that they will learn how to thrive and to contribute to the wider life of their dioceses, so that they become seen by others as valuable additions to the wider church, not unfair competition with it.

We need to clarify the legitimate variety of ways for them to have secure futures. Some have legal status, as Extra Parochial Places, others have gone for Charitable Status, some exist solely on relationships and trust. We need guidance to find what is best.

Encounters on the Edge No 7: Canterbury Tales, the story of two different Network Churches in the Canterbury Diocese, offers examples of good precedents. It is can be downloaded here

This article was originally produced for an ACPI circular called “News From”. This paper publication was (usually) published and distributed free to those on our mailing list twice a year between 1997 and 2001. Please bear in mind that the articles were written several years ago, and circumstances may have changed and people may have moved on. 


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