Congregations typically aspire to be stable communities. They want to be the steady, faithful center of a person’s life. The concept of a network, however, offers a new lens for looking at the church, because networks are more fluid than communities. In networks, there is not a single center. There are many overlapping points of connection in which people follow multiple leaders and conversations. Given the rise of networks in our digital media culture, what are the implications for how we teach Christian practice and form authentic community in our churches?
In “Church as Network,” Jeffrey H. Mahan — at the Center for Media, Religion and Culture — invites us to consider the ways that digital culture leads us to new assumptions about religious identity, new beliefs about how people connect and form community, and new ideas about how people follow and give authority to leaders.
The evolving media culture certainly presents us with challenges. Digital technology lets us edit, sample and alter words and images to personalize almost anything — even our faith. How do you respond as a leader when people want to modify Christian practices or narratives to make them feel more comfortable? What does it mean when Christians embrace non-Christian practices or symbols, as if Buddhists and Christians had the same beliefs about the existence of God, for example?
The evolving media culture also expands our horizons. Within traditional models of church, it could seem impossible to build a thriving ministry without youth programs and great music, but Mahan highlights one example of a faith community doing exactly that. AfterHours Denver convenes a group of young adults that meets in a bar to talk about God, provide peer support and make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. The next day, some of them serve the sandwiches to the homeless in a city park, where they also serve communion. AfterHours does not have a permanent address or a Sunday School. However, they have attracted financial and volunteer support from local businesses who want to be involved in their compassionate service.
AfterHours builds networks the way other churches build buildings. How can the concept of a network influence your vision and thinking about church leadership and mission?
By Dan Wunderlich
Before you go…
Worshipping and working from home have taught us that new media are not merely advanced tools for communication. New media are “reshaping our imaginations and practices,” as Mahan says, and they are providing new missional opportunities. I recently discovered the power of networks when I publicly announced a major project at our church. Much to my surprise, non-members in our online audience contacted us about supporting our efforts.
It will be wise for you and your leaders to discern what you will and will not embrace from the digital culture as you fulfill the Great Commission. What are the risks and what are the rewards? Share your thoughts about this with me and the Alban Weekly team at firstname.lastname@example.org. May the blessings of Advent be upon you and your people.
Editor, Alban at Duke Divinity