Learning to Network Like Jesus
Since networking is part of the very nature of the kingdom of God, to operate successfully in it you must have good networking skills.
by Joseph Castleberry
“Pastors don’t know anything about business.” I have heard statements like this frequently enough that they no longer surprise me, even though they still may irritate me. Such a hyperbolic denunciation of my profession will usually draw a defensive comment from me. But the fact remains — and it really bothers me — I need to improve my business skills if I want to obey my ministry calling and achieve its greatest possible effect.
A particular area of business skills has enormous potential for enhancing a minister’s performance — networking. No one can operate any kind of business or professional practice successfully without establishing a network of relationships that will make the availability of their goods and service known to the people who need them. That fact applies as much to church ministry as it does to any other field of work and perhaps even more powerfully, since networking is part of the nature of the kingdom of God. To operate successfully in God’s kingdom, you must have good networking skills.
After spending several years studying and honing my own networking skills to improve my obedience to my ministry calling, I have written a book, The Kingdom Net: Learning to Network Like Jesus, so I can share what I have learned and empower others to greater influence for Christ. The following excerpts from this book should give you some insights about the spiritual, theological, and practical reasons you should master in the art of networking.
THE KINGDOM NET
The kingdom of God, Jesus said, is like a net (Matthew 13:47). That figurative saying from the Parable of the Net has special meaning in today’s world of Internet, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram, Classmates.com, e-mailing, texting, and other social networking tools. Unlike many languages, English has a specific word for net-like relational connections: network. Since networks describe metaphorical nets rather than literal ones, we could accurately understand Jesus to say, “The kingdom of God is a network.” As a matter of fact, I like to call the kingdom of God the “Kingdom net.”
According to Jesus, the Kingdom is God’s net cast into the world. The net catches both good fish and bad. Sincere and insincere people, true believers and faithless fellow travelers, all find themselves caught up in it. The kingdom of God brings in a lot of people; and, as we will see, some of them become part of the network itself. In the end, God will sort out who belongs and who does not.
Like New Testament-era fishermen working their nets, God constantly works the Kingdom net — weaving it larger, mending its torn places, catching more fish. In another parable-like saying, Jesus told His disciples, “Come, follow me, and I will send you out to fish for people” (Mark 1:17). The disciples of Jesus Christ serve as His fishers — in effect, the network He deploys to catch more people.
CARRYING ON WITH JESUS’ WORK
Jesus meant for His disciples to do more miracles and evangelize and win more people than He had done during His life on earth. In fact, the disciples of Jesus have carried on His works for 20 centuries since His death. The numerical tally of their miracles and their “fishing results” vastly exceeds the total number of people Jesus touched during His life on earth. Of course, Jesus deserves all the credit for our accomplishments since He performed them all through us. And He will also reap all the profits. After all, we are His fishing company. The big one that got away, the little ones we almost let slip through the net, the fish we caught and delivered to His shore — all the “net profits” belong to Him.
If the kingdom of God is a net, then it is primarily a fishnet. The Kingdom does not seek to take the place of earthly governments, businesses, the family, schools, labor unions, hospitals, any other institution of society. The Kingdom net exists to fish. Although the Kingdom embraces and holds sway over every dimension of our lives, it can never truly and fully reflect the reign of God over us without engaging us in the King’s quest to seek and save the lost. The Kingdom net always involves reconciling lost people to the God who loves them. Kingdom networking ultimately focuses on bringing people to Jesus.
When we see the people of God brought together under the lordship of Christ and sense our connection to them through the Holy Spirit who makes King Jesus present in us all, we see the Kingdom. So the kingdom of God is both visible and invisible. The presence of Jesus, at work through His people, makes it visible. The parable of the net[work] portrays the Kingdom as a network of people.
Have you ever wondered why Jesus called so many fishermen to become His disciples? It’s because they were “net-workers.”
No, I am not attempting some lame humor. I am serious. Fishermen were the kind of people Jesus needed. Certainly, Jesus’ disciples did not understand many things when He chose them. None of them were great theologians, skilled writers, trained public speakers, or psychological counselors. They had not received training in any of the subjects so popular in today’s Bible colleges and seminaries. But they all had one indisputable qualification: They were networkers.
At the most literal level, Peter and his friends knew how fishing nets worked. They knew how to make nets, how to cast them over the side of the boat, how to work them in the water, how to draw them back into the boat, and how to mend and maintain them after the day’s work. But they also knew something even more vital.
Running a successful fishing business in first-century Israel required more than just working nets. It also required networking. Fishermen not only knew how to work nets, but also how to work as a team. They knew how to take the fish to market and sell them. They knew how to find people who would transport the fish into the interior of the country and market them in the surrounding communities. They understood distribution, marketing, sales, profit margins, and other business aspects of their work. We would recognize them today as expert networkers.
If you intend to fish for people, then you have to know how to operate people “nets.” Networking is the essential Kingdom task; but, despite this fact, seminaries do not commonly teach courses in networking. I do not think the word ever came up during my own 10 years of academic training for Christian ministry. To be fair, the word network had not entered the vernacular by my time — the early 1980s — except in broadcasting. But even so, how could we have overlooked such an incredibly important skill?
As a college president, I serve as Networker-in-Chief for my school. I love it; since, as a people person, I delight in maintaining friendships, meeting new people, and weaving these relationships into a broader, stronger network that we can deploy to accomplish our mission as a university. I love my job, and I love the people-tasks it entails. I especially love the fact the fruit of our work relates so directly to the mission of God’s kingdom. But my job holds no patent on networking. Any follower of Jesus, regardless of his or her work, can express the kingdom of God through networking.
SACRED AND SECULAR CALLING
All occupations have both secular and sacred dimensions — whether you are a pastor, bus driver, lawyer, factory worker, engineer, farmer, businessperson, artist, doctor, or something else. Callings get their sacredness from the One who does the calling; and, because God has called us all, all callings are sacred. They are all secular too (i.e. “worldly”), because the people God has called us to reach live in the world. (If you allow your profession of faith to make you uncomfortable and awkward around those who do not share your faith in Christ, you will not succeed in allowing God to use you for expanding the Kingdom net.)
A minister who sees pastoral work as only sacred, and not also secular, will stunt his or her church and personal life. Too many pastors spend all their time with Christians, dooming them to a form of leadership that remains merely transactional and hardly ever becomes truly transformational.
According to the leadership theory of James McGregor Burns, most leadership is merely transactional. In other words, leaders trade their performance for goods and services their followers can offer them. So maybe a pastor offers preaching, coordination of religious rituals like the sacraments, weddings, funerals, and other services, in exchange for a place of honor in the community, a (usually) small salary, and perhaps a parsonage to live in. Transactional pastors place a strong emphasis on maintaining the church’s traditions and the status quo. They seldom call on the people in their church to do anything hard or sacrificial, and the people do not really expect their pastor to do much, either. The church does not grow, people do not routinely come to Christ through the church’s ministry, and no one experiences transformation. Over time, the church population grows older and older … and in time … it disappears.
By contrast, transformational leadership centers on a transforming vision. The leader calls on the community to make sacrifices and take risks to achieve the vision. If the vision involves evangelism, the church calls on its members to spend time not only with Christians, but also with people who have not yet entered the Kingdom.
When pastors spend all their time with Christians, you can safely bet that the members of their congregations will do the same. Some churches even make strong efforts to get Christians to do business primarily with other Christians and to avoid doing business with people outside their Christian circle. It sounds like a great formula for creating lawsuits between Christians, but not a sound business or evangelistic strategy.
A pastor friend, an extremely effective evangelist, requires all of his staff to cultivate friendships with unbelievers. He knows they will never bring people to Christ unless they talk to people who do not know Christ. As part of their job reports, they must describe how and with whom they are building friendships outside the church. As a result, over the past 10 years, the church has multiplied five times in membership.
Some might claim they have a calling to minister inside the church rather than evangelize those who do not yet know the Lord. I have no doubt that some people have a calling to work primarily with believers, for example, to teach in a Christian college or school, or to manage a Christian compassion agency, or to lead a Christian denomination. These kinds of agencies play important roles in the Kingdom and have great value for a variety of reasons. And people in these kinds of vocations will often spend more time with Christians than with non-Christians. But even they must realize that their “Christian work” can never take the place of the mission of God. It can support and aid others who focus on evangelism, but it can never relieve them of the basic Kingdom calling to share their faith in Christ with those who have not yet experienced the reality and power of His rule. Those who work full-time in Christian businesses and agencies must take extra care to maintain opportunities to meet, befriend, and influence people who need a saving encounter with the Lord.
PASSIVITY IN NETWORKING
Inside the warm fellowship of a denomination, we find it easy to take a passive approach to building networks. Our elected leaders carry the responsibility for holding the Fellowship together. They plan regional and local meetings. They manage health insurance and retirement plans. They coordinate missionary efforts and promote denominationally sponsored colleges and carry out other denominational tasks.
Missionaries in denominations often network brilliantly, especially in those groups that believe in “faith missions.” Building a group of about 100 or more churches to support their work, they carefully stay in touch with that financial lifeline from whatever far-flung locale they may serve. But often, denominational pastors have the luxury of having the network brought to them. They seem to have no need to get overly intentional about networking. Independent pastors, on the other hand, have to get much more aggressive in their networking. If they do not go out and make a network, they will not have one. An intentional and aggressive commitment to networking — inside the church and outside — may in fact be one of the main reasons that independent churches are growing faster than denominational churches in America.1 Being part of a denomination brings awesome benefits, but it should not become a trap that leads to passivity in networking.
One might think that the essence of pastoral work is networking. I think that a certain kind of networking is indeed the essence of effective pastoral work. But many church leaders do not seem as vigorous in their networking as they might be. The median size for churches in the United States is around 75 members.2 From that fact, it would seem that most pastors manage to carry out their ministry in a fairly small social circle — say, some 500 to 1,000 people.
Such a small circle can result in a warm community of believers, but those communities can often become too inwardly focused. Without a vigorous process of continual, conscious networking, the circle does not grow. And a stagnant church has a hard time explaining how it is following Jesus and obeying the Great Commission. I mean no condemnation here, as reasons may exist as to why a particular church cannot grow in its specific location. But such churches will always feel that something important is missing. If a church really cannot grow because of its location, then it has an extra heavy responsibility to help churches grow in other places. That requires them to get deeply involved in the Great Commission by sending, giving, and praying.
Some people assume that we can live compartmentalized lives where we leave Jesus at home or at church. Many Christians do not welcome Jesus into their workplace. As a result, we share Jesus with our friends who already believe in Him, and we do not share Jesus with those who do not believe in Him. But Kingdom networking will not flow on that short circuit. Developing full-fledged friendships, complete with shared activities outside of religious activities, almost always bears the ripest fruit. Such activities might include helping people move into their houses, playing golf, attending sporting events, making quilts, playing in the local civic symphony, or getting active in a civic organization such as Rotary International. The options are as diverse as human interests.
As real relationships develop, the reality of Christ in our lives begins to emerge. Sometimes, deeper relationships allow us to share our Kingdom networks with people in ways that benefit them professionally or personally in completely nonspiritual aspects. As we support them with our prayers and engage them with the Kingdom net, we will eventually touch them spiritually as well. No matter what else we do to bring our coworkers to Christ, we should be faithful to pray for them.
Jesus expanded the Kingdom net everywhere He went, calling people like the tax collectors Levi and Zacchaeus to repentance and forgiveness and a changed life that put their skills to work in new ways. He interacted with sinful people and religious people, powerful people and the oppressed, the sick and the healthy. He received crucial support from a young boy with a few loaves and fishes, which He multiplied to feed a large crowd. He had a meal with just about everyone. In all these encounters, He conducted a master class in human relations. Given the spectacular spread of Christianity since Jesus first began to declare the Kingdom net, the wise networker will make the study of Jesus’ way of dealing with people his or her best textbook on networking.
This article is excerpted from The Kingdom Net: Learning to Network Like Jesus,(My Healthy Church, 2013)
- Russell D. Moore, “Where Have All the Presbyterians Gone: Nondenominational churches are the fastest growing in the country.”Wall Street Journal, February 4, 2011.
- Hartford Institute for Religion Research. http://hirr.hartsem.edu/research/fastfacts/fast_facts.html#sizecong. (accessed 15August 2013).