Doing More Together

The way churches are affiliated has changed over the past 20 years. We used to identify churches according to their denominational affiliation; now we are more likely to find a church that affiliates with a network in the place of or in addition to a denomination.

To understand how we got to this place, we need to wind back the clock to the late 1990s when two parallel trends emerged, danced around each other and finally intertwined.

The first was a renewed interest in church planting. A new generation of pastors prioritized reaching the lost, and they followed the example of influential churches, like Willow Creek and Saddleback, by planting churches of their own.

At the same time, nondenominationalism was on the rise, and what I would call pseudo-nondenominationalism, which is when a church retains a denominational affiliation, but a person would have to work really hard to find out what that is. Pastors no longer wanted Baptist, United Methodist or Presbyterian in the names of their churches. The result was a wave of new churches that had weak or no denominational ties. 

The problem was and still is that church planting is hard work, and church planters need support. It’s no secret that church plants have a high failure rate. Any number of things can go wrong and throw plans off track. So, as church plants started to fail, leaders realized something more was needed, and that something was a church network. 

Today, church networks are exploding. If you compare the present day to just 10 years ago, more networks have come online, and more churches and ministry leaders are interacting with them than ever before. 

The Benefits of Networks

Put simply, a church network is an association of churches and individuals that offers members opportunities to connect, share resources and support one another. In the early 2000s, new church planting networks allowed churches to pool their resources to provide three things that church planters were sorely missing: community, support and mission. 

1. Community

Pastors tend to get set on a pedestal and often feel as if they cannot share what’s going on in their lives with members of their congregation. That’s especially true for church planters who don’t initially have a congregation and who have to disciple new believers into maturity. 

Church planters seek community—a place to be seen and heard. Most networks stress their role in encouraging pastors and creating community. For example, the mantra of the Association of Related Churches (ARC) is “Don’t do ministry alone.” Many other networks describe themselves as a family of churches rather than a network, underscoring their relational bonds. 

2. Support

Church planting requires a wide range of skills and tools. Churches discovered that if they pooled their resources in a network, they could better train and equip future planters for the field. Networks began providing training, funding and a range of other services that helped planters beat the odds. 

As networks began to sponsor more churches, they got better and better at supporting the planters they served. They added staff and services as they learned from experiences, both good and bad. Today, most networks’ websites prominently explain how well-cared-for and resourced their churches are.

3. Mission

What often binds networks together is a sense of shared mission and collaboration. The network’s win is everybody’s win. A clear and compelling mission is the secret sauce because it moves churches to be financially and meaningfully engaged in continued participation. In any network, you’ll hear its mission repeated often. 

Proliferation and Specialization

While church planting networks primarily emerged in nondenominational contexts, denominations have by no means been left out. Recognizing the enthusiasm for church planting and the need to provide community, support and a compelling mission, denominations responded by launching church planting networks from within or allowing them to form and affiliate with the denomination. 

The Southern Baptists have Send Network, the Assemblies of God launched Church Multiplication Network, the United Methodist Church rolled out Path 1, Nitrogen formed within The Wesleyan Church, and so on. The Conservative Mennonite Conference denomination even changed their name to Rosedale Network of Churches to emphasize their spirit of community, support and mission that is appealing to more and more churches.

As more networks were founded, they found ways to distinguish themselves from others and grew increasingly specialized, typically in relation to their mission, but also in terms of theology and practice. Today, you can find more and more networks with their city as their mission, like Houston Church Planting Network, San Diego Church Plant Movement, or Transforming the Bay With Christ (TBC) in the San Francisco area. Other networks focus more broadly on a state or region, like Multiply Indiana or Carolina Movement. They network churches together for the sake of reaching the locality they know and love.

The days when a network could simply say it exists to train church planters are over. Many networks are getting more precise on the type of churches they plant. They also provide the tools and training specifically for their niche mission fields, honing in on what makes them unique. For example, GlocalNet seeks to mobilize churches to engage in the public square, while Dirt Roads Network focuses specifically on rural communities. Underground Network trains leaders to plant networks of microchurches, and Passion2Plant’s website describes them as a “fully egalitarian network that trains Black and Brown planters to develop holistically minded, justice-oriented churches right from the start.” 

Challenges Ahead

The proliferation of networks has encouraged churches to maintain ties with more than one at a time. Churches and ministry leaders are becoming more comfortable identifying with more than one organization. It’s not uncommon for a church to be part of a denomination, their denomination’s network, a city-based network and another network that reflects their unique mission field. Leaders jokingly compare church planters to a NASCAR team, with multiple network stickers speckling their church’s website.

One effect of the new norm of multiple affiliations is that networks increasingly struggle to maintain long-term buy-in from their members. Churches may join for the purposes of a loan or specific training, and then exit or become uninvolved in the network’s other activities. These weaker ties mean that a network’s list of member churches far exceeds its convening power. Unless a regular monthly gathering is part of the core of a network, as is the case in many local networks, they will increasingly struggle to convene members for events. It’s a challenging snowball effect because face-to-face events often provide the community aspect that most networks desire.

When you consider the reality of multiple affiliations and add to it the fact that new networks are increasingly niche in their mission, it means that most large national networks will need to reinvent themselves. When these networks—many of which are now 20–25 years old—started, the idea of church planting was a compelling enough mission. But today, when a church has the option to join a network that resonates with their particular context (urban, rural, geographic, ethnic, etc.), why would it settle for a generic mission?

Faced with this dilemma, most national networks will respond in one of two ways. First, they may add more niche services and networks within their network. In some ways, a large network is like a large church—the bigger it gets, the more money and staffing it has, and the more niche services it can provide to its members. 

As they lean into this, the network will begin to look more structured and comprehensive; frankly, more like a denomination. Take ARC again as an example: The launch of Highlands College to train ministry staff, while not necessarily intended this way, functions for the network like a seminary does for a denomination.

Alternatively, these networks may respond by refining their mission and becoming more specialized. Rather than competing for greater structure and services, they will stand out by fostering a tighter identity around their unique mission. Either way, the democratization of networks will present a challenge for long-established organizations that do not have denominational backing.

Future Opportunities 

Just as surely as the shifting landscape of networks presents some challenges, their vibrancy will push the mission of Christ forward in new ways.

* Globalization and Increased Specialization

If you think new networks’ missions and support systems are specialized now, you ain’t seen nothing yet. Thanks to new technologies, they are able to better communicate and build relationships with others that are geographically distant. Workers in smaller niche mission fields are able to connect with each other and form networks around their passions and needs. From virtual reality church networks to theological, ethnic and ecclesiastical specializations, church planters will find themselves increasingly cared for and served in unique ways.

* Shared Learning

As networks increasingly cross geographic barriers in order to cater to a more specialized audience, cross-cultural connections will become more commonplace and more enlightening. Western leaders and church planters will have more opportunities to learn from the excellent work found in the global church. Network leaders are always learning about what works and doesn’t work in the field, and their easy access to more contexts and cases will only strengthen their role.

* Increase in Localization

While some networks will become more global, local networks will increase in number. More and more pastors will look at the church planting networks based in large cities and dream of something similar in their own locality. Expect the number of city-based networks to increase and be more common in smaller cities.

* Network Partnerships

Increased specialization means that gaps exist in what some networks offer. Also, an increase in the number of networks and denominations that churches affiliate with means that networks should not see themselves in competition for church planters. 

In the future, one can expect to see networks that offer complementary services partner together. Similarly, national networks will join forces with local networks. We’ll move from a degree of competition between networks to a more collaborative approach.

Out With the New

The truly wonderful thing about networks is that they are an expression of continuity. As novel as they might seem today, they really aren’t drastically different from what we see in the New Testament. We find networks springing up in Jerusalem and Antioch fairly early after the death of Jesus. Then, once Paul gets going, he ends up planting networks rather than single churches. 

Throughout his journeys, Paul planted networks in Asia, Cyprus, Crete, Galatia, Greece, Macedonia and Illyricum. But that’s not all—he writes to a network of churches in Rome before he makes it that far in his travels. Believers spread outward, planting networks of small churches, often because those were better able to navigate persecution.

Since early Christianity used networks and spread like wildfire, we would do well to implement some of the practices and principles that we see during that time period.

1. Meaningful Collaboration

It’s not like the New Testament paints a perfect picture of collaboration. Paul and Barnabas, after all, did split up once over whether to include Mark in their ministry. But by and large, individuals, churches and networks collaborated for the sake of expanding the kingdom. One overlooked example is the sharing of letters. Today’s equivalent would probably be sharing a network’s best resources. What if we were openhanded and shared our best stuff with each other? At the end of the day, I think more people would come to know Jesus.

2. Unity in Diversity

Early Christianity was incredibly diverse. Paul’s co-workers included various ethnicities, ages, men, women and people of different socioeconomic statuses. The movement quickly spread to multiple continents and the gospel reached people in multiple languages. Sure, we’ve seen fragmentation over various issues in the centuries afterwards, but a shared Christian identity bound networks together more than their divisions drove them apart. If we want to see greater multiplication, we’ll have to find ways for our networks to collaborate outside of our comfort zone.

3. Hands-On Hubs

During Paul’s third missionary journey, he set down roots in Ephesus (Acts 19)and trained future church planting teams out of the Hall of Tyrannus. People got practical, hands-on experience alongside the apostle who sent them. From there, churches multiplied outward. 

Throughout church history, we see instances of many ministries springing from a single source. Spurgeon’s College and Wesley’s Foundry trained pastors for the mission field from London. John Calvin had the Geneva Academy, William Seymour catalyzed from Azusa Street, and Henrietta Mears discipled young ministers like Billy Graham, Bill Bright and Jim Rayburn. 

That method won’t be for everyone, and it’s not to say none exist, but we are lacking in hands-on ministry training centers today. If we want to see a new wave of churches planted, then we’ll have to engage missionaries beyond online coursework. You wouldn’t let a surgeon operate on you based on textbook knowledge alone, and we can’t equip church planters that way either.

Planting in Hope

As we move into a growing landscape of networks seeking to help the church multiply, church planters should celebrate the fact they have more opportunities to find community, resourcing and training support, and alignment in contextualized mission. Never before has it been easier to collaborate across networks. And never before have we been able to learn about and share ideas in real time.

For 2,000 years, Jesus’ mission hasn’t changed: Make disciples of all nations. Churches are responsible for carrying that mission out. As we do so, let us do it thoughtfully, prayerfully and strategically—and let us do it together.

 


 

Networks at a Glance

For more information on the networks mentioned in this article:

* Association of Related Churches (ARC): ARCChurches.com/
* Carolina Movement: CarolinaMovement.com/
* Church Multiplication Network: ChurchMultiplication.net/
* Dirt Roads Network: DirtRoadsNetwork.com
* GlocalNet: Glocal.net
* Houston Church Planting Network: HCPN.org
* Nitrogen: NitrogenNetwork.org
* Multiply Indiana: MultiplyIndiana.com
* Passion2Plant: Passion2Plant.com
* Path 1: UMCDiscipleship.org/equipping-leaders/church-planting
* Rosedale Network of Churches: RosedaleNetwork.org
* Send Network: NAMB.net/send-network
* San Diego Church Plant Movement: SDCPM.org
* Transforming the Bay With Christ: TBC.city
* Underground Network: UndergroundNetwork.org