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!
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.”