"Net-working" the Local Church

A look at the need

Several years ago, I remember a couple in the church we had attended that shocked the congregation by getting a divorce. They had been married almost twenty years, had five children, were active in attending all the church’s services on Sunday, going to Wednesday night Bible study, active in ministries, etc. By all accounts, everyone at church thought they were doing fine. Then out of nowhere, they got a nasty divorce where the wife took off and left the family and now has very little involvement even in the lives of her children. Needless to say, no one in that family is a part of that church any longer.

This is only one of multiple stories I could share of people who looked healthy externally when they showed up for church but eventually left their churches. They were besieged with various major spiritual problems that no one else in the church had a clue about. These issues have varied widely to areas such as adultery, children announcing to their family that they are gay, children running away from home, struggles with bitterness and anger, addictions such as alcohol and pornography, etc. Not limiting it to spiritual problems alone, I have also witnessed families struggling with layoffs, relocation, major health issues, vehicle issues, etc. These types of problems have caused enormous stress on families which result in spiritual strain. Many of these families were left to face these crises alone while the church found out too late about their burdens that needed bearing.

To be fair, I have seen individual members and whole congregations do an admirable job at stepping up to the plate to help those who are struggling either spiritually or physically and meeting these challenges as they come. Yet in each of these scenarios, instead of preventive discipleship, I have observed local churches take a reactionary approach to dealing with problems and issues that plague their congregations, acting only after a major calamity or church upheaval. For an example, why is it that churches that are having trouble meeting budget seem to be keenly interested in outreach and in the principle of financial stewardship? The reality of ministry is that the pastoral staff often has too little time to prevent, or shepherd through, every difficulty each person in their congregation faces. Often, pastors see the overwhelming burdens of their people (and I used to be one who thought this way) and think that the missing ingredient to these ministry challenges is the implementation of a new program or ministry to meet that need. I would argue that this proposed resolution is not adequate to meeting the problem.

What is meant by Net-work?

I believe there are two basic approaches to proactively discipling and tangibly helping with the challenges that our congregations face. The first, I equate with a fishhook. I compare it to a fishhook because it is a one-dimensional, direct approach that we hope will solve the problem so that we can move on to the next person with an issue to address. For example, when the problem is with sin, we hope that counseling with the pastor or a sermon on the topic will solve the issue. When a teen is having difficulty then the answer is one-on-one mentoring. When the problem is physical, like a health issue, we respond by a hospital visit or a meal to the family. How do we get people involved in using their gifts in serving in an area of need? Why, put an ad in the bulletin and surely they’ll step up and do their duty! When it becomes known that poor people in the congregation need financial help, the answer is to put a box in the back of the church for people to anonymously donate food. When it becomes evident that there are problems with marriages in the church then the solution is to have a class on the subject.

The fishhook approach is also employed as a method of church growth and evangelism. It is usually called the “attractional” model of ministry. This model is used to dress up a fishhook to attract people to the church, employing methods such as an event, an evangelistic “bring your friend to church” sermon, a guest speaker, special musical services and programs, kid’s programs, or a special curriculum for marriages, etc.

I do use these examples to ‘knock’ these direct solutions. Hospital visits, pointed sermons, counseling, mentoring, etc. are all great things and are an important part of the process! Yet all alone, they are limited in scope in comparison to a multifaceted approach to discipleship and care. This one-dimensional approach to addressing the burdens of our congregations is limited in its effectiveness. Similar to a fish avoiding one fishhook in a big pond, it is easy for a person to avoid the single-faceted approach to ministry. In the church growth arena, it is easy for people to be attracted with these special fishhooks, but once the object that initially attracted them to the church in the first place is gone, they rarely have the maturity to stick around very long.

While there are many positives that can be said about the fishhook approach to ministry, it tends to lend itself to developing a consumer-driven style of church where one or two main attractions or people become the motivating factor for people’s attendance, whether it be worship style, the preaching, the kids’ ministries, etc. This model facilitates a “me”-centeredness that is unhealthy to the cause of Christ and His church. People rarely stay long term and submit to the process of discipleship because they are being isolated and rewarded according to their desires rather than being integrated into a loving body of believers. When the hook is no longer attractive enough, they get upset and leave.

I am convinced that there is a better solution to this fishhook paradigm that is more simple and yet more effective. The term ‘net-work’ is a description of a proposed solution to the fishhook approach to ministry. Nets are much harder for a fish to avoid than a fishhook and much more effective in catching fish. Net-work is not simply about coordinating ministries and church people; a church ‘net-work’ is the interweaving and fusing of united relationships in the body of Christ for the edifying of the body in love. The building of mutually edifying relationships within the body of Christ is the key to meeting the spiritual and tangible needs of our congregations. The fabric that holds and weaves our net together, I believe, is the unity of the Spirit that comes from abiding in Christ.

1 Corinthians 1:10 says, “Now I plead with you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment.” (NKJV) The word “perfectly” is the same root word that is used of the disciples who were “mending their nets.” The idea is that we are to be meshed together like a net around Jesus Christ, not compartmentalized into different factions based on our favorite fishhook (“I am of Paul! I am of Apollos!”). When one or two believers are abiding in Christ and join together in demonstrating Christ’s love in real koinonia fellowship, the effects can be noticeably beneficial to the church. When an entire congregation of believers encapsulates a culture of genuine love for one another, the effect can strongly impact the entire community! Discipling a church through mutually edifying, intentionally networked relationships is not primarily attractional, but much like a fishing net, it is hard to stay away from people whose lives are knit together in Christ’s love!

Net mending

Moving from a fishhook to a net-work approach is not simply a matter of putting a new program into place. It is not achieved through guilt-tripping people into spending time with virtual strangers. It would do us well to remember that any spiritual change in a person or congregation is the work of the Holy Spirit. While Paul and Apollos worked together in a multidimensional manner (one planting, and the other watering), it was God who gave the increase!

In my first pastorate, I mistakenly thought that if I preached about our responsibilities to our brothers and sisters in Christ long enough, people would be convinced and everything would change. I also thought that since no program was in place, people were just waiting for an outlet in order to fulfill the clear commands of Christ towards their brothers and sisters. So, I preached, modeled, and started a program…and nothing really changed overnight. Why? Because no heart change in the people had taken place. No matter what we do to facilitate change, we always need to remember that it is God’s job, and to prayerfully look to Him to work in people’s hearts.

At the same time however, Ephesians 4:12 tells us that one of the reasons that God gave congregations pastors is for the “perfecting of the saints for the work of the ministry.” The word “perfecting,” again, is the same word used for mending the nets. One of the many roles of the pastor then is to help the body mend itself to spiritual maturity so that it will be equipped for the work of the ministry. Scripture teaches that the pastoral elders are to take the lead in this matter of repairing and discipling of the body of Christ. This is not to say that others in the church are not actively involved, even doing both teaching and tangible ministry. It means that the pastors are responsible to oversee the work of “perfecting (or equipping) of the saints” in the body. Because the work of “perfecting” is measured by the fullness of Christ, the work of church net-working is never fully completed. We must proactively and intentionally mend the nets of our congregation lest we isolate our people and be left pondering about the “one that got away.”

[node:bio/joseph-leavell body]

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There are 3 Comments

handerson's picture

This is a really interesting article and one near to my heart.

But I've got a question about the place of pastoral care in all of this.

Our generation (young fundamentalists) seems to have recovered an understanding of the pastor's role of feeding the flock through careful teaching, leading the flock, providing vision, etc. But almost hand in hand, I see a growing LACK of intimate involvement in people's lives from young pastors and an increased reliance on the body to do this aspect of the "shepherding" work.

So here's my question: what can we legitimately expect the "net-working" of a church (small groups, etc.) to accomplish and what can it not do?

My observation is that the "net-work" can only provide general accountability, encouragement, and fellowship, but it can't replace actual intimate relationship with a pastor because the role of pastor is accompanied by specific authority, training, and gifting. (That is not to say that individuals in a church aren't necessary and gifted, just that they are gifted in different ways and they can't fulfill the role of a shepherd any more than the pastor can fulfill their unique roles.) Maybe an illustration is that brothers and sisters can love and support each other in a family but this can't replace intimate relationship with the parents.

I don't think you are suggesting this in your article, but I'm curious about how you see this dynamic playing out in relationship to net-working a church.

Joseph Leavell's picture

Thank you for your comments, handerson! I appreciate the feedback!

To answer your question about what we can legitimately expect the "net-working" of a church to accomplish and what can it not do, I would answer that I am not sure that there is one pat answer that can fit onto the back of a brochure.

Let me use my work as an illustration of a network vs. a fishhook. I work part time as a manager for Chick-Fil-A. My co-workers are with each almost every day. They have a lot in common because they make and sell chicken together. But outside of work, many of them are friends, getting together to hang out and have fun. Recently, some of my co-workers took a trip together to CA. Why? Because Chick-Fil-A has a program in place labeled "fellowship?" No, it has been a result of the lives that they have led at work has blended/netted their lives together even outside of work.

Contrast that with our customers. They are all there for the same purpose - to consume a product we brilliantly have labeled a "chicken sandwich." People love our chicken! We have a formula that we use that gets people coming back for more and it is effective. Our store even has a marketing director who oversees special events that seek to draw people together for chicken. But you know what? None of our customers (as far as I know) get together outside of Chick-Fil-A to do life together. They honestly do have something in common (love for our chicken) and are great evangelists to those around them about the virtues of Chick-Fil-A. Yet there has never been (again, as far as I'm aware) a group of customers who were like my co-workers and went to Disneyland together, gotten tattooed together, played "Black Ops" until 3:00 am, all because they met at Chick Fil-A. We're not even trying to get them together outside of Chick-Fil-A to discuss their love of chicken - that would be rather awkward. I've attended a few small groups that were awkward like that.

The point is that our customers are consumers. They have been fish-hooked into consuming the product which they greatly enjoy. It's a great strategy for getting customers - and it frankly is a great marketing way to get people to come to our churches. People come and consume our products, love our worship, love our children's programs, etc. But they're not doing life together...and for some reason we don't understand why. This isn't just mega-church/progressive types I'm talking about either. I've been to conservative churches that have "productions" that were just as "entertainment" driven as churches with bands and fog machines. Oftentimes, conservative churches are simply putting out a fishhook for a different breed of fish. So, we create program after program trying to get people to fellowship with each other and serve one another, but they are ineffective because that's not why they come to church. They are there to consume a product and then go back to whatever business they were doing before. They aren't interested in doing life together. Thus, my plea for a paradigm shift and a different way of thinking that is vastly different than marketing/dressing up a fishhook.

So, what can you expect? Sometimes, frankly, from a congregation that is so used to consumerism, you can expect apathy and even antagonism, at least at first. This paradigm shift isn't exactly an overnight endeavor but is one of discipleship in helping people understand what it means to be a joint-heir with Christ and with their brothers and sisters. The effects of the paradigm shift are directly proportional to 1) leadership's modeling and teaching of it, and 2) the church's commitment to loving God, their neighbor, and obeying the commands of Scripture.

As far as it relates to your question about pastors, I think that the pastor's primary job in networking is to work on the areas of the net that need mending (i.e. the perfecting of the saints). There's always somewhere in the net that needs pastoral attention, until the body comes into the image of Christ (so pretty much a pastor has a lot of job security). That being said, I think that the pastor needs to model to his congregation what it means to "do life" together. That means that people aren't just a "ministry" but a friend (something I was advised repeatedly in ministry never to do - make friends with my congregation!). Frankly, I hate knowing I'm simply a pastor's 10:00 appointment! I am sorry that you haven't seen this modeled by other young fundamentalists. To put it bluntly, I think too many young fundamentalists are out to be the next manager of a Super-Wal-mart type mega-church. We need more guys who are willing to shepherd the Walgreens and the local pharmacy type church. Perhaps they are not involved in the lives of their congregations because they are too busy using their congregations as stepping stones to their own glory. They don't want to get too close because it means that they would be accountable to the people they are serving which for some people is very awkward. Using your example, parents don't often share their struggles with their kids...though to some degree they should! Hope these scenarios are not the case...but I've seen it many times from us young-in's.

Hope that answers your questions from my perspective.

L Strickler's picture

Very good article and response to question. HAnderson's husband was that kind of pastor and we are praying God places him in a church that wants a good shepherd. He is also a gifted preacher.

L Strickler

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