The Field-Based Network

by John Robb

The Chinese have been around for a long time with a civilization stretching back 5,000 years. In that time they have developed a lot of wisdom about life and particularly human relationships in society. An ancient Chinese proverb goes like this:

Though its theology is a bit strange, this proverb is so right in affirming that there is something heavenly about cooperation, about human beings depending on one another and serving one another in relationships that benefit everyone concerned. However, in our efforts to evangelize the world we Christian leaders often look more like the picture of those sitting in "ravenous frustration" trying to go it alone in our independence and isolation from one another.

The main problem: lack of collaboration
David Barrett and James Reapsome in their book Seven Hundred Plans to Evangelize the World identified lack of cooperation and collaboration between Christian organizations as the major hindrance to world evangelization. They write that two-thirds of all global evangelization plans are stand-alone, self-sufficient plans, each viewing itself as at the center of world evangelization. They estimate that 96 percent of all global evangelization plans ignore or write off all other Christian traditions with which they are not like-minded and only four percent seek to network or connect meaningfully with those of other Christian traditions.1 Their conclusion is:

The Global Consultation on World Evangelization by AD 2000 and Beyond held in Singapore at the beginning of January also recognized this problem. The Great Commission Manifesto jointly crafted by over 300 leaders from a wide diversity of Christian traditions stated: In a pre-consultation survey of key Christian leaders around the world, 70 percent affirmed that reaching peoples was the key to fulfilling the Great Commission. Picking up that affirmation, the Manifesto enunciated the following goals, all of which focus on reaching unreached peoples.
     1. Focus particularly on those who have not yet heard the gospel.
     2. Provide every people and population on earth with a valid opportunity to hear the gospel in a language they can
            understand. It is our fervent prayer that at least half of humanity will profess allegiance to the Lord Jesus.
     3. Establish a mission-minded church-planting movement within every unreached people group so that the gospel is
            accessible to all people.
     4. Establish a Christian community of worship, instruction in the Word, healing, fellowship, prayer, disciple making,
            evangelism, and missionary concern in every human community.4

These are all marvelous, worthy goals that most likely all of us would support and work to attain. (I hope we will reaffirm them during our own planning and goal setting at the end of this track.) However if we are to stand a chance of achieving such glorious, grandiose goals, we must give much more attention to the practical, nitty gritty matter of how we can cooperate in reaching unreached peoples. Unless we find a way to operationalize these goals by building effective partnerships between Christian organizations, I think we would all agree that the idea of reaching the remaining 12,000 unreached people groups by AD 2000 is a mirage that will quickly disappear as the next few years go by.

How can we develop structures that will both maintain the autonomy of individual organizations as well as make possible significant partnership? I would like to suggest that it will be through building networks focussed on reaching unreached peoples.

What is networking?
"Networks" and "networking" are terms that have come into recent prominence, first in the social protest movement as a way of mobilizing massive grassroots involvement in causes such as the antinuclear movement, women's rights and environmental protection. Later, they entered the vocabulary of business and industry, meaning the sharing of information and ideas in a more informal, open manner to enhance greater creativity and productivity in the workplace.5 Japanese management and production units built on the network concept have shown the world how exceedingly productive a social structure it can be.

John Naisbitt, the author of the best selling book Megatrends says that one of the major trends of our time is movement away from hierarchical social structures with top-down, pyramid-like, organization to more informal, flexible, horizontal networks that can bring people together to accomplish practically any shared goal. Probably for this reason, the network has been called "the most rapidly growing form of social organization in the world."6

Networks and networking are not new concepts. One anthropologist calls the network the "oldest social invention" since many pre-industrial societies have organized themselves in this way. For example, those who have sought to conquer the squabbling, seemingly divided tribes of Arabia have been amazed by heir rapid ability to coalesce into la unified fighting force.7 Also, Japanese management and production unit structure likely have their roots in the village tradition of all neighbors uniting to help each other bring in rice harvest.

Even scientific research seems to affirm that networking is part and parcel of nature itself. In what is called the "New Physics," the whole universe is seen by physicists as "an interconnected network, an indivisible whole."8

But what is a "network"? According to the dictionary it is, physically speaking, "a fabric or structure of cords or wires that cross at regular intervals and are knotted or secured at the crossings."9 this physical picture is helpful for us in conceiving of a network from the social point of view. Socially speaking, a network is any number of individuals and/or organizations linked together by a commitment to shared values.10 "Networking" is that process by which individuals and/or organizations become connected with one another to achieve particular common goals. The author describes networking in this way:

Advantages of networking
As a social structure, it has numerous advantages:
1. It enables individuals and organizations to maintain a balance between autonomy on the one hand and dependence on the other.12 From the standpoint of world evangelization, it makes interdenominational cooperation more feasible because participants do not have to forsake commitment to their organizations to take part. Network boundaries are fluid and open rather than rigid and closed.
2. Its segmented, decentralized structure enables shared leadership by its members. They relate as equals rather than subordinates to superiors.
3. It facilitates horizontal, free-flowing communication among all participants, making possible more creative, innovative responses in a synergistic manner. It promotes the flow of ideas even across cultural and organizational barriers.
4. It is a flexible, mobile and low profile structure, making it ideal for rapidly changing situations and for politically restrictive societies. This advantage makes the network model ideal for reaching unreached peoples, mostly of whom now reside in limited or restricted access nations, many with repressive regimes. If one segment is closed down or imprisoned the rest of the network continues to function. The church in China has functioned like this for decades. Shared leadership and the decentralized, segmented nature of the house church movement makes it impossible for the state to control or shut the movement down completely.
5. It is inexpensive since there is no heavy administrative apparatus and control mechanism to support. People work together, volunteering their time on the basis of shared interest and vision.

Is it biblical?
Some of us may be put off by the terms "network" and "networking" since they come from secular usage and sound rather technological. But all truth is God's truth, and, if so, might we not expect to find some Biblical parallels for these concepts?

Luke 5 is one place to start. The practice of using nets at Christ's direction to pull in an astonishing catch of fish leads into Jesus' assertion that the disciples will soon be catching men. During that episode they not only learned the importance of going in obedience to Jesus where the fish were, but also the need for partnership in bringing in a catch that was more than anyone could handle alone. They also learned that by working the nets together under the direction of Christ, they could expect Him to work wonders through
their united efforts.

Later in Acts 2, Peter preached that famous sermon that brought 3,000 to Christ -- a  phenomenal response. However, we need to see what was behind that response. It is interesting to note the words of Scripture "But Peter standing with the eleven lifted up his voice . . ."
This was not a one-man show!
There was a unity of heart and mind brought about not only by working and learning together during the ministry of Christ, but afterwards cemented by their regular meeting and praying together mentioned in Acts 1. Their hearts were knit together, their lives interwoven like strands into a net Christ could use to sweep thousands into His Kingdom.

This interconnectedness is a well-known theme throughout the New Testament. Paul emphasizes the oneness of the Body of Christ, a unit though made up of many interdependent parts. It is a Body in which one part cannot say to another "I have no need for you" because all are gifted in different ways and have a vital contribution to make to the whole. This is an emphasis we need to increasingly rediscover in the wider missions community with our common tendency to go it alone, competing with one another for the donor dollar, promoting our own organizations, ministries and agendas rather than working unitedly to reach unreached peoples.

Have you ever been struck as I have by the lack of direct admonitions by Paul and the other apostles in their epistles to evangelize the unreached? The priority in apostolic teaching instead was clearly on maintaining and building up the interconnectedness of God's people. Why is this the case? Certainly because Paul and the other apostles realized that strong relationships between Christians communicating and receiving love and truth, joined together as ligaments in a Body would fit them to serve as a gigantic net that Christ could use to haul in the unreached.

Indeed in Ephesians 4 Paul mixes the two metaphors of the net and Body. There he uses the Greek term for mending nets to describe how the four-fold ministries of apostles, prophets, evangelists and pastor-teachers equip or mend God's people for works of service for the building up of the Body of Christ. He knew that mending people in their relationships to God and other believers would more than anything else enable the church to catch the unbelieving world for the Kingdom. Jesus also prayed that we as Christians might be one, joined together in complete unity so that the world might believe that the Father sent Him.

We have been hearing in the news about the use of drift nets by trawlers in the North Pacific and the outrage environmentalists feel at the use of those nets. Fifty feet high, miles long and made of tough nylon filament that cannot be ruptured, frayed or broken, they are literal vacuum cleaners, sweeping every living creature into their grasp. This image which is negative to some, positively shows us the possibilities of Christian networking in the power of the Spirit to sweep the unreached into the Kingdom.

Getting Practical
Given the awesome potential of networks and networking for advancing world evangelization, practically speaking how can we go about building such structures to reach unreached peoples.

1. We build networks around particular ministries. "The World by 2000: is a prime example of the way in which three missions leaders -- the presidents of HCJB, FEBC and TWR formed a network to coordinate their radio broadcasting efforts. By the year 2000 they plan to make sure that every individual on earth can hear the gospel by radio in a language they can understand.
In 1985, these three leaders simply got together for a time of prayer and sharing their visions. They made an agreement to begin a process of cooperation that has resulted in an end of competition and duplication of efforts so that they can work together to broadcast the gospel in far more languages of unreached peoples that have never had Christian broadcasts before.
Many different kinds of opportunities on both the global level and the in-country level exist for networking around particular ministries.

2. However, the kind of networking I want to emphasize here is that which occurs when two, three or more Christian leaders decide they want to cooperate interdenominationally to reach a particular unreached people group. Over and over again, especially in the last several years, we have witnessed he power and potential of this kind of process to
impact people groups with the gospel.
Simply by starting with two to three others who share your vision for reaching a particular segment of the population and meeting to pray together, listen to one another and coordinate your plans, opens the door for God to do wonders. The Bible says "one shall chase a thousand, but two shall put 10,000 to flight." There is a synergism by which two or more working together are ten times more potent, because in the power of the Spirit 1+1 = 10!

Too often we allow denominational and organizational barriers to keep us from linking up with others on the basis of shared vision for evangelizing a particular group or groups. As a result our interconnections are weak and more on an official basis than on a visionary, spiritual one.

In the past 13 years it has been my deep privilege to facilitate Unreached Peoples Strategy Consultations for Christian leaders in many countries around the world with the purpose of stimulating the formation of ministry networks for unreached people groups. During the course of getting leaders together to think, pray and develop common strategies, I had opportunity to see a similar pattern repeated many times over. When Christian leaders who normally would not associate with one another except on an occasional basis begin to pray and think together about their common concern for a group of people, something wonderful begins to happen. The Holy Spirit begins to knit them together so that at the end of their session, they often say to one another: "We have all been working independently of one another to reach the same group. Why don't we pool our efforts and resources so as to maximize our effectiveness?"

In Taiwan this happened when 15 national workers and Western missionaries, all previously working independently to reach the Hakka people, decided to form an ongoing ministry network. They have continued to meet periodically over the past three years to pray, share lessons learned, and to coordinate their efforts.

In Burundi, 25 denominational leaders and pastors decided to form an interdenominational network focussed on reaching the Pygmies, a people group that had seen many uncoordinated and unsuccessful prior efforts at evangelization.

In India, ministry networks have arisen in almost all the northern states as local leaders have gathered to pray and plan new efforts together.

These are just a few examples of what God is doing by His Spirit to build John 17 unity among Christian agencies and leaders, so that working together as one, the world will know that Christ the Savior has bee sent by the Father. In many multiplied instances the Holy Spirit is doing the same thing all around the world, breaking down those denominational, doctrinal and other barriers that have kept Christian workers separated and working independently of one another. Praise the Lord! This growing phenomenon bodes well for the accomplishment of world evangelization.

One practical way of building ministry networks that we in MARC have found to be useful, and that may be of use to you, is the Networking/Consultation Model:
1.  Gather key leaders together.
2.   Talk about "people group" and "unreached people group" definitions and their meaning in your context.
3.   Assemble list of local people groups and unreached people groups.
4.   Spend time in prayer to the Lord of the harvest for the groups listed (Mt 9:36 38).
5.   Participants identify people groups participants are reaching or want to reach.
6.   Collate participants' responses according to similar people groups identified.
7.   Get them into discussion groups to "network" with one another through thinking, praying and strategizing together
        on the basis of their common vision for reaching their people group.

The first step, gathering key Christian leaders together on a city or national basis, is not easy but is possible if the consultation is planned far enough in advance and held under broad enough auspices, such as that of the National Evangelical Fellowship or Council of Churches. During the course of the consultation we first emphasize the strategic advantages of focussing ministries on particular people groups and how God has been using the people group approach around the world. We also consider the Biblical stress on peoples and people groups rather than on political nations. We use the definitions of "people group" and unreached people group" (see Appendix for these definitions) that have come to be widely accepted in the Lausanne movement. Participants are encouraged to look at their own society through this grid in order to identify as many distinct people groups as possible and designate those that are still unreached. It is often astonishing to see the surprised reactions of leaders who never realized how many diverse groups inhabited their country and how many have been neglected from the standpoint of Christian witness. To use a distinctly American expression, "It blows their minds!"

After identifying unreached people groups, we ask each participant to identify the particular people group he or she is already reaching or is burdened to reach. The responses are collected and participants put in discussion groups with others who chose the same group.

They then seek to "network" with one another by discussing and praying through the answers to the following five questions:
   1.     What people group does God want to reach?
   2.     What are they like?
   3.     Who should reach them?
   4.     How should they be reached?
   5.     What will be the result?

This is where the fun begins! The Holy Spirit often seems to take over at this point and brings to birth new ministry networks.  Some, of course, do not continue, but others do.  It's exciting to watch Him work! I would commend this approach to you as a way of multiplying ministry networks.

Wouldn't it be wonderful to see a network of committed Christians come into being for every remaining unreached people group? I am convinced that such purposeful networking must happen if world evangelization is to take place by AD 2000 or beyond. We must work together to intentionally spawn thousands of new coalitions, task forces, networks focused on particular groups and also around particular ministries. It is a practical, doable way of catalyzing and carrying out evangelization of the unreached on both a global and grassroots level.

During a visit to an Asian country a few years ago, I happened to stroll down to the harbor along with some local friends. As we ventured out on to one of its piers overlooking the water, we noticed a solitary woman fishing, hunched over a single pole, its line descending into the murky depths below. Glancing at her stony expression and the few, tiny fish swimming in the plastic bucket beside her, we asked how long she had been at it. "All day" was the dismayed reply, quickly adding even more gloomily, "I come most every day to catch some fish for my family's dinner or to sell in the market."

I wondered at the dedicated persistence of the woman, keeping at this unrewarding task in the hot sun day after day. "Would I be so committed?" I found myself reflecting inwardly. But my admiration of this rugged individual was short-lived. Gazing over the edge of the pier, I noticed hundreds, even thousands of fish darting back and forth in the shadows. And my wonderment at the lonely fisher woman's dedication abruptly turned to astonishment at her stupidity. For if she had simply enlisted the help of a friend and together lowered a net, she could have harvested a thousand times as much.

How often you and I, in carrying out the Great Commission, are like that woman, dedicated and persistent, yes. But in the final analysis, stupid and shortsighted because we do not work closely with others engaged in the same task. We prefer to go it alone and settle for disappointing results rather than work the nets together at Christ's direction to enjoy a spectacular catch for the Kingdom.

Through networking in the power and unity of His Spirit may we all become true "fishers of men"!

John Robb serves World Vision International.  He also is the Coordinator of the Unreached Peoples<> Network for the AD2000 and Beyond Movement.

AGP: Introduction | Adoption | Cooperation | Individual<> Involvement | Resources