The local church: Discrete group or network?

If pockets of the national and denominational level church can acknowledge the networked realities of our relationships to each other and institutions, how do we begin to think about this at the local church level?

I’ve been thinking about social network theory for the last few weeks. No, not Facebook and Twitter, but the way that we are socially organized into dynamic, porous networks rather than stable, defined groups.

Allow me an illustration from my small, rural high school. Despite our size, we had all of the social categories of a large school: jock, nerd, prep, artist, slacker, Jesus freak. Instead of spreading across campus at lunch time, we sat along two long tables. We moved up and down the table depending on the group with whom we shared the most affinity that week. During basketball season, the basketball players huddled. During the spring play rehearsal season, the basketball players in the play sat with the artists and nerds who were also in the play.

I imagine that despite our caricature of the rigidly divided high school cafeteria (dramatized in films such as “The Breakfast Club,” “Clueless” or “Mean Girls”) few of us self-identified as belonging to any one group. Even more, I imagine that our friends in each group also self-identified as having multiple belongings.

In “Networked: The New Social Operating System,” Lee Rainie and Barry Wellman describe the concept of discrete social groups as a stereotype or a short-cut in the way we think about relationships. It can be comforting to have the stability of a closed, defined group, yet most of our lives play out in “murky, shifting sets of relationships at home, work, and in the community.”

Networked thinking exists in pockets of the church today. Suzii Paynter, the executive coordinator of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, coined the term “denomi-network” to illustrate her understanding of the CBF as an organization that functions like a traditional denomination in some ways and has the flexibility and dynamism of a network in other ways.

In a recent conversation with a friend who attends a growing church plant, she remarked, “Everyone has so many different commitments to the community, their families and friends, and the church. It’s really hard to get people together and on the same page for anything more than Sunday morning worship.”

In part, my friend is seeking a congregational group -- a discrete group of people who engage in spiritual formation together. On the other hand, she is acknowledging the networked diversities of formation and commitment at play in each person’s life.

Her comment illustrates the tension of the local church. Institutionally it is perceived as a discrete group; functionally, it behaves as a network.

Her remark has left me pondering what a “congre-network” (admittedly, not as witty as Paynter’s ‘denomi-network”) looks like. If pockets of the national and denominational level church can acknowledge the networked realities of our relationships to each other and institutions, how do we begin to think about this at the local church level?

We cannot simply dismiss the realities of a networked society. As theologian Greg Jones points out, a networked society desperately needs to nurture “middle-ring” friendships that were once maintained in civic and congregational settings.

Does this change our expectations for the worship attendee and church member? How do we invest in the spiritual formation of networked individuals? What does this mean for the nature of pastoral care and the role of the clergy? How does this change the way that the local church exerts its influence and goes about its work in the community?

More simply put: Given this networked reality of our social lives, what does the body of Christ look like? How does it act? How does it go about its work?