For the past few years I have been cultivating an approach to ministry I call “Network Church.” Elements of this approach have certainly been in practice in a variety of ministry contexts for years, but this has been my way of pulling it together into a unified understanding of how to be church in today’s world. My first attempt to develop this into a book stalled, but I plan on returning to it after I get a few other projects out of my system and after I’ve curated some more experience and research on this in my work at Union Presbyterian Seminary. I submitted the following description to be considered for the McCormick Prize for Innovation and it was recognized as a finalist. I’ll be teaching an adult education class on this concept at Fourth Presbyterian Church over the course of the next three Sunday mornings.
My biggest step forward in youth ministry was when I stopped focusing on attracting young people to church programs and began to think of church as a social network. The majority of young people who are confirmed in mainline Protestant churches stop participating after confirmation. Instead of trying to woo them back to programs they are clearly not interested in, the church needs to seek out ways to engage them in their own environments. My new goal is for youth to leave confirmation with a multi-generational network of peers and adults who will remain in relationship with them (regardless of traditional church involvement) and create opportunities for ongoing faith formation.
This has changed my thinking about ministry in general. The church at large has failed to recognize that congregations are based on anachronistic social capital models. Lee Rainie and Barry Wellman suggest that “networked individualism” is the “new social operating system” of the 21st century. Instead of focusing exclusively on attractional or program-based approaches to ministry that will have limited results in a post-Christendom cultural matrix that we cannot realistically hope to change, the church must also invest in the religious and spiritual lives that people are actively cultivating beyond congregations. A network approach to ministry (in person and online) will most effectively take advantage of the social infrastructures operative today. “Network church” is a new model for youth ministry and ministry with “spiritual but not religious” people of all ages.
My thinking about “Network Church” grew out of my reflection on adolescent confirmation in mainline Protestant churches. In these churches it is usually the case that confirmation is treated like “graduation” from church and it becomes the last meaningful faith formation opportunity many emerging adults experience for a decade or more. The overall decline of Protestantism and the so-called “rise of the nones” indicates that many mainline Protestants are walking out of church on confirmation Sunday and never coming back at all.
It is imperative, therefore, that the confirmation experience “has legs” that will travel with youth as they leave church. Ensuring that each young person is launched from confirmation with a network of peers and adults who will remain in some kind of meaningful relationship with them as they journey through high school and beyond will keep them connected and provide opportunities for ongoing support, faith formation, spiritual development, and missional service in the world.
But the impact of network thinking is not limited to this perennial church problem. Rather, the “Network Church” approach has the potential to revolutionize the way we understand church participation, church growth, evangelism, and outreach to un-churched or de-churched populations.
Whether it is a program (like youth ministry) or the congregation as a whole, every church system has at least three levels of participants: a core group of regular participants, a semi-regular group of participants, and a periphery of people who participate very little or perhaps not at all. And, of course, there are people outside of the system altogether. The church must engage different approaches for ministry with each group. Most churches are stuck or do not reach their full potential because they focus almost all of their energy on the regular participants (or others like them) who are already interested in the kinds of religious and spiritual experiences mediated by the congregation.
By thinking of each person in the system as an individual in a social network—whether that system is a congregation, a program within a congregation, a new worshipping community, a church plant, or even outreach possibilities in the community—it is less important what programs or activities they participate in and more important who they are connected to and what kinds of interactions they have with the people in their network. In youth ministry, this will mitigate against the loss of young people who no longer participate in traditional church activities because they will still be in meaningful networked relationships with people of faith. In the church as a whole, it will become clear that as much or more energy needs to be directed into ministry in a variety of social networks and public spaces as is directed toward traditional church programs. It will be critical in this “Network Church” approach to curate and facilitate faith formation opportunities that will thrive within the infrastructure of social networks (as opposed to congregations gathering in brick and mortal buildings).
Coupled with traditional congregations, the “Network Church” concept will provide a more effective means of ministry and outreach with a much broader base of members, constituents, and adherents. Many traditional congregations will continue to thrive and grow—often at the expense of other traditional congregations. But these successful congregations can no longer bank on the long-term viability of attractional and program-based paradigms. Rather, they will need to recast themselves as churches sending missionaries into post-Christendom cultural space. These missional followers of Christ will organize themselves and those they minister to and with along existing and emerging social networks. Instead of wooing people into church, we need to bring church to the people. Instead of building and maintaining institutions, we need to rethink what “church” might mean in a post-congregational cultural context.
JOHN W. VEST has been in ministry for fifteen years, the last nine of which as the Associate Pastor for Youth Ministry at the Fourth Presbyterian Church of Chicago. In 2014 he served as the Moderator of the Presbytery of Chicago.