Network church and portfolio church
Previous Small Fires
YOU'VE PROBABLY HEARD the term "portfolio
career". It refers to making a living from a variety of jobs rather
than working for a single employer. Recently Ian Mobsby of Epicentre has
coined the term "portfolio church" to describe how many Christians
assemble their spiritual lives from a variety of church sources rather
than committing to a single one.
I think this is an acute coinage which accurately captures how many of
us behave nowadays with regard to the church. We don't have allegiance
to just one, and we don't only connect locally. Our spiritual lives reflect
the mobile and dispersed patterns of the rest of our lives.
Once upon a time, a geographical parish was a real community, within which
people were born, lived, worked and died, sometimes without ever travelling
outside it. Few of us in the Western world live such localized lives today.
We move in a series of networks, enabled by our technologies of transport
The internet is not the originator of this phenomenon, but it makes explicit
what is happening and facilitates it on a far wider scale than ever before.
It's doubtful whether the alternative worship movement would exist in
anything like its present form without it. Quite possibly it is the first
indigenous church movement of the internet age.
As Ian points out, portfolio church cuts across the Church's usual picture
of itself, in which believers commit to their local church and through
that are part of the universal church. It seems to me that the institutional
church understands "local" but doesn't yet understand networks
or non-geographical community. So it often tries to tie non-localised
expressions of community into the local thing that it understands
and can control!
The call to Christians to be "local" often reads like nostalgia
for a society that doesn't exist here anymore. A lot of the talking about
community and commitment is wishful thinking about what we'd all
like to happen, or like to kid ourselves is happening. But it isn't, not
because we are slacking or bad but because our lives are a different shape
in reality. Meanwhile the kinds of community that we do have go unrecognised
PORTFOLIO CHURCH sheds new light on the "donut" phenomenon.
For those who haven't heard the term, "donut" started as a serious
joke in English alternative worship circles to describe the way many groups
had a big reputation, spectacular events, funky websites, cool music
and very few people in the centre. All this tasty stuff surrounding a
hole, like a donut!
Since most alternative worshippers come from church backgrounds where
numerical growth is considered important, there is a defensiveness, even
embarrassment, at low numbers. But if groups are acting as nodes in a
network then low numbers of actual team members or attendees may not be
important. What is important is wider influence on people who may seldom
or never show up, but whose lives are nevertheless affected by the stuff
pouring out through various channels.
The internet, in particular, enables small marginal groups or even individuals
to be resources on a level with large institutions. It enables people
to communicate not only with others of their kind, but with everyone without
having to jump through the hoops of permission and publishers.
So "donut" is really about having small core groups of committed
people producing something which is accessed by much wider networks of
people who are not so committed at least in a physical or geographical
sense. But they may be committed in an emotional sense, in that they care
that something exists whether they access it often or not. Even those
of us who form the cores of our donuts (if you'll pardon the metaphor)
are part of the less-committed "portfolio" crowd in relation
to other people's projects.
And growth in this model proceeds by seeding other nodes rather than by
making one node bigger. It proceeds by increasing the flows through the
network more traffic on the spiritual superhighway. Forget donuts,
think of mushrooms. The mushrooms that we see are just the fruiting bodies
of a tangled network of threads hidden below ground that form the real
organism. And the growth of the organism is marked by more mushrooms,
not bigger mushrooms.
I quite like the mushroom metaphor. Mushrooms spring up here and there,
and the network that connects them remains invisible to the casual onlooker.
They seem surprising and random if you don't know what's happening beneath
Network church and portfolio church the two terms reveal different
aspects of the same phenomenon. "Portfolio" reminds us that
we pull together our spiritual lives from a variety of sources, mixing
and matching in patterns that are personal. "Network" reminds
us that all these disparate resources are connected, that they connect
us to other people that we ourselves are the connectors.
WHEN THE SUBJECT comes up there is a recurrent fear expressed that
network or portfolio church means the end of local church and what
then happens to those who are unavoidably local? I think this is a misunderstanding.
The local church remains, but its relationships change as it becomes part
of the network. It becomes a portal, resourcing the local from the global
and vice versa.
In a sense the idea was prefigured in the medieval Catholic church
simultaneously local and international. Roman Catholicism still carries
this sense of itself in a way that was lost in the Protestant churches,
as they splintered into national and local denominations even single
churches in competition. Our networks put new flesh on the word
"catholic" that we all still say in our creeds.
The argument for being local is usually couched in terms of quality of
relationships. For me, relational is good but local is not a virtue in
itself, just something that might facilitate the relational. It used to
be an absolute precondition of the relational, now it isn't. My discomfort
is with the way churches talk as though local were itself the good thing
rather than the means to the good thing.
So we end up in a state of angst over whether we are "local"
enough and whether we shouldn't be trying harder to make "local community",
all the while devaluing the actual relationships and communities we operate
in somehow not counting them as "real" or as arenas for
the Gospel because they're not local or are mediated electronically.
Networks don't result, as people fear, in thin evenly-spread relationships.
They result in a variety of both strong and weak relationships, but the
strength or weakness is not determined by physical proximity. It's determined
by productiveness, frequency of contact, depth of interaction [a little
may last a long time], whether something is a strong or weak resource.
Too many churches are weak resources, not giving enough to keep people
connected. Strong resources get the traffic on the network. But a strong
resource may not be big, or nearby, or the kind of thing one would expect.
It's whatever is putting out. And the network will bring connections from
far and near.
here to see an illustration of network church.
This will be my last regular column for Ship of Fools. As some of you
know, I have been attempting a portfolio career myself over the past year,
hoping to turn my alternative worship interests into a living. This has
not worked out, and I am obliged to return to architecture full-time.
Of course I'll continue to write and do creative things, but I'll have
less time and have therefore had to give up one or two commitments.
The Small Fire column has been every month
for two years. It will be more occasional in the future, from a variety
of writers involved in alternative worship perhaps even me now
and then. That apart, if I have anything to say it will be on my own site,
or on Seven Magazine.
Thanks for reading.
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