Steve Collins: Small Fire

August 2002
Network church and portfolio church
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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 and communication.

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 and unresourced.

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 the surface.

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.

Click 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, Small Ritual, or on Seven Magazine. Thanks for reading.

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