Vision Churches Network: Relationships... Help the pieces of the Puzzle Come Together. This is an excellent Biblical explanation of the value of ‘networks’. Steve Graham presented this at the 2011 VCI Retreat NZ.
The theme for this year’s retreat is: "Relationships... help the pieces of the puzzle come together". I wonder what you think when you read that? I suspect that for many for us we think that it is saying that if we take the time to connect with other leaders then the pieces of the puzzle of our ministry or of our church will begin to come together. I want to suggest that there is a much deeper way to understand that sentence: that as we connect we realise we are one part of "the puzzle", that "the puzzle" is not my ministry or my church but "the puzzle" is actually the network of churches…and things begin to make sense because I find a place to fit within a network of churches.
I want to show this from three aspects of the letters of Paul in the New Testament. I want to look at the little bits that we often skim but when we look at them together, we get a picture of how the early church functioned. A picture that is incredibly energizing and will blow our minds about how strongly they thought in terms of a network of churches and how radically they lived that out in practical ways. Firstly I want to look at the little bits at the beginning of the letters, where we meet Paul and his co-writers; secondly I want to look at the little bits normally at the end where Paul greets individuals and we meet Paul and his co-workers. As I said, normally we skip over these introductions and endings to get to the theology in the middle of the letters but taken together, they have quite an impact and give us a picture of the life of the early church. Finally I want to show how New Testament scholars view the early church and summarize this picture that emerges.
The "big idea" is that the early church was highly networked.
The question then is firstly, what does this say about how we think about our ministries and our churches and being part of a network of churches and secondly what practical steps do we need to take to see the VCI Network of churches develop and move forward into new dimensions - to use the current buzzword, how do we take this network "to the next level"?
We often talk about Paul and his letters. We see Paul as a great apostle and know he wrote thirteen letters. However consider the following.1 Corinthians 1:1 Paul, called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and our brother Sosthenes,
2 Corinthians 1:1 Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and Timothy our brother
Philippians 1:1 Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus
Colossians 1:1 Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and Timothy our brother,
1 Thessalonians 1:1 Paul, Silas and Timothy
2 Thessalonians 1:1 Paul, Silas and Timothy
Philemon 1:1 Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother yes Paul wrote 13 letters. However seven of those thirteen - more than half - have co-writers. If you then consider that three of the other letters, the Pastoral Epistles (1 and 2 Timothy and Titus), involve Paul writing directly to a co-worker, then that leaves only three letters where Paul writes to a church by himself: Romans, Galatians and Ephesians. Then I think it is possible to see reasons why each of these were actually the exceptions to his normal practice of co-authors e.g. Romans was written to introduce Paul to the church in Rome in preparation for his visit and to state his understanding of the gospel, Galatians is a specific defense of Paul’s apostleship and Ephesians is something of a generic circular letter.
I believe Paul was deliberately modeling something by this co-authoring of letters. Paul presented ministry not as the great individual but as a team. This is very countercultural for us Westerners who have been raised on the model of the great heroic individual leader, the John Wayne kind of figure who does not need anyone and boldly leads as a loner. This was theologically important for Paul. We have a Trinitarian foundation to our faith. The trinity says ultimate reality is relational, it is community. Paul modeled this in ministry and he took the trouble to model it in his letters. Ministry was done in relationship and in partnership with others, in a network of ministries.
Imagine a letter to the churches of Vision Network that comes from Nick, Trevor and Sheridyn, that communicates something in itself and has another dimension of authority and breadth.
Secondly let's look at the little bits normally at the ends of the letters where Paul often greets people and mentions people by name, often his co-workers.
Estimates vary, but scholars identify between 81 and 95 co-workers of Paul in the New Testament depending on how "co-worker" is defined. If we just stick to individuals who Paul names in his letters there are 36 (see the Dictionary of Paul and His Letters). These are names we may have heard of - people like Andronicus, Apollo's, Aquila and Priscilla, Barnabas, Epaphroditus, Junia, Luke, Mark, Onesimus, Silas, Timothy and Titus.
Let’s look at some of these little bits at the end of the letters.
Look at Romans 16. Paul is writing to a church he has never visited. He greets 28 individuals, 26 by name (and a mother and a sister of someone named). That is incredible! I have been to Eastside Church a number of times and I could not greet 26 people there by name! And this is in a time and culture without fast and cheap airfares, without Skype, email, conferences at hotels etc. How did he know 26 people there? Part of this refers to the third section below, the highly networked society of that time and the even more highly networked church. Some of these people were business people who had travelled back and forth between other Christian centers (Corinth and Ephesus) and Rome. However many are co-workers who Paul has worked with in other places and are now in Rome or workers that he has heard about in Rome.
vs.1. I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church in Cenchrea. 2 I ask you to receive her in the Lord in a way worthy of the saints and to give her any help she may need from you, for she has been a great help to many people, including me.
Phoebe was one of the leaders in the church in Corinth – perhaps in Rome on business but probably tasked with carrying the letter.
vs. 3. Greet Priscilla and Aquila, my fellow workers in Christ Jesus. 4 They risked their lives for me. Not only I, but all the churches of the Gentiles are grateful to them.
Paul had met this couple in Corinth, later taken them to Ephesus and now they are working in Rome.
vs. 5. Greet my dear friend Epenetus, who was the first convert to Christ in the province of Asia.
A person converted in Turkey now living in Rome, but still connected. It is unclear whether he moved there for business or ministry.
vs. 6. Greet Mary, who worked very hard for you. 7 Greet Andronicus and Junias, my relatives who have been in prison with me. They are outstanding among the apostles, and they were in Christ before I was…
9 Greet Urbanus, our fellow worker in Christ, and my dear friend Stachys…
12Greet Tryphena and Tryphosa, those women who work hard in the Lord.
Greet my dear friend Persis, another woman who has worked very hard in the Lord.
Note the references to people who Paul knows are working hard in the work of God.
13 Greet Rufus, chosen in the Lord, and his mother, who has been a mother to me, too.
14 Greet Asyncritus, Phlegon, Hermes, Patrobas, Hermas and the brothers with them.
15 Greet Philologus, Julia, Nereus and his sister, and Olympas and all the saints with them.
As Paul finishes his greetings he includes greetings from other Christians in Corinth to these people in Rome.
21 Timothy, my fellow worker, sends his greetings to you, as do Lucius, Jason and Sosipater, my relatives.
22 I, Tertius, who wrote down this letter, greet you in the Lord.
23 Gaius, whose hospitality I and the whole church here enjoy, sends you his greetings.
Erastus, who is the city’s director of public works, and our brother Quartus send you their greetings.
This is an extraordinary sense of connection and intentional fostering of relationship between churches and among co-workers in the network of churches. They were one family.
16:10 If Timothy comes, see to it that he has nothing to fear while he is with you, for he is carrying on the work of the Lord, just as I am. 11 No one, then, should refuse to accept him…
Paul is aware of coworkers moving between churches and wants to facilitate this process.
17 I was glad when Stephanas, Fortunatus and Achaicus arrived, because they have supplied what was lacking from you.
So this church had sent a team to Paul.
Vs 19 Aquila and Priscilla greet you warmly in the Lord, and so does the church that meets at their house.
Here are the couple who were in Corinth and now are involved in ministry in another city because they had accompanied Paul in his move there (Acts 18:18).
6:21 Tychicus, the dear brother and faithful servant in the Lord, will tell you everything, so that you also may know how I am and what I am doing. 22 I am sending him to you for this very purpose, that you may know how we are, and that he may encourage you.
This is the first of five references to Paul intentionally and strategically sending one person from one church to visit another church. Paul as apostle says “I am sending him to you”. This is about the grace on Paul’s life to bless churches through sending other ministries he knows will benefit them and meet needs they have.
The references to others are spread throughout Philippians rather than concentrated at the end.
2:19 I hope in the Lord Jesus to send Timothy to you soon, so that I too may be cheered by news of you.
Here is a second reference to Paul sending someone.
2:25 I have thought it necessary to send to you Epaphroditus my brother and fellow worker and fellow soldier, and your messenger and minister to my need, 26 for he has been longing for you all and has been distressed because you heard that he was ill. 27 Indeed he was ill, near to death. But God had mercy on him, and not only on him but on me also, lest I should have sorrow upon sorrow. 28 I am the more eager to send him, therefore, that you may rejoice at seeing him again, and that I may be less anxious. 29 So receive him in the Lord with all joy, and honor such men, 30 for he nearly died for the work of Christ, risking his life to complete what was lacking in your service to me.
Here is a second example of someone who had been sent by a church to support Paul
4:17 Moreover, as you Philippians know, in the early days of your acquaintance with the gospel, when I set out from Macedonia, not one church shared with me in the matter of giving and receiving, except you only; 16 for even when I was in Thessalonica, you sent me aid again and again when I was in need. 17 Not that I am looking for a gift, but I am looking for what may be credited to your account. 18 I have received full payment and even more; I am amply supplied, now that I have received from Epaphroditus the gifts you sent. They are a fragrant offering, an acceptable sacrifice, pleasing to God.
Here a church sent people to support Paul’s apostolic ministry – people and money.
4:21 Greet all the saints in Christ Jesus. The brothers who are with me send greetings. 22 All the saints send you greetings, especially those who belong to Caesar’s household.
Here although Paul does not name co-workers he shows how he seeks to establish links through greetings.
4:7 Tychicus will tell you all the news about me. He is a dear brother, a faithful minister and fellow servant in the Lord. 8 I am sending him to you for the express purpose that you may know about our circumstances and that he may encourage your hearts. 9 He is coming with Onesimus, our faithful and dear brother, who is one of you. They will tell you everything that is happening here.
In vs 8 Paul for a third time speaks of sending someone – “I am sending him to you”- and the church is to receive him as someone sent by Paul. He also sent back with him someone, Onesimus, who had come from that church.
4:10 My fellow prisoner Aristarchus sends you his greetings, as does Mark, the cousin of Barnabas. (You have received instructions about him; if he comes to you, welcome him.) 11 Jesus, who is called Justus, also sends greetings. These are the only Jews among my fellow workers for the kingdom of God, and they have proved a comfort to me. 12 Epaphras, who is one of you and a servant of Christ Jesus, sends greetings. He is always wrestling in prayer for you, that you may stand firm in all the will of God, mature and fully assured. 13 I vouch for him that he is working hard for you and for those at Laodicea and Hierapolis.
Again here is an example of someone from that church who is now based with Paul in another church but still praying for the first church. The final statement about “working hard for you” suggests he had been sent from that church to help Paul.
4:14 Our dear friend Luke, the doctor, and Demas send greetings. 15 Give my greetings to the brothers at Laodicea, and to Nympha and the church in her house.16 After this letter has been read to you, see that it is also read in the church of the Laodiceans and that you in turn read the letter from Laodicea. 17 Tell Archippus: “See to it that you complete the work you have received in the Lord.”
Paul fosters interconnections between churches and sees himself as ministering to a network where letters are exchanged. He also knows the church well enough to have a prophetic word of encouragement for a member there that he knows by name and he obviously knows something of that person’s life and ministry.
3:2 We sent Timothy, who is our brother and God’s fellow worker in spreading the gospel of Christ, to strengthen and encourage you in your faith.
Here is a fourth reference to Paul sending someone to be a blessing to a church he knew.
4: 19 Greet Priscilla and Aquila and the household of Onesiphorus. 20 Erastus stayed in Corinth, and I left Trophimus sick in Miletus. 21 Do your best to get here before winter. Eubulus greets you, and so do Pudens, Linus, Claudia and all the brothers.
Here Paul requests that Timothy come to him to assist him. Paul has in his thinking a range of coworkers in various locations.
3: 12 As soon as I send Artemas or Tychicus to you, do your best to come to me at Nicopolis, because I have decided to winter there. 13 Do everything you can to help Zenas the lawyer and Apollos on their way and see that they have everything they need.
Here is a fifth instance of Paul sending someone – this time moving ministries around strategically – Paul repositions ministries around the churches.
We see a picture of a lot of movement back and forwards between churches. In terms of reflecting on implications, the thing that strikes me is that this was not purely relational and collegial, but Paul exercised a strategic intentional role. He built interconnections between churches and ministries but he also strategically sent people to different locations to help the churches there and churches sent people to assist what Paul was doing.
In 1998 a book was published The Gospel for all Christians: Rethinking the Gospel Audiences edited by Richard Bauckham. It deals with a fairly technical academic issue in New Testament studies about the Gospels and countering the idea that the Gospels were written to address the specific issues of one community. The authors seek to show that the Gospels were actually intended to be circulated to a wider network of churches. What is interesting and relevant on a more general level is the picture they show of the early church as highly networked.
In the introduction Richard Bauckham states: "Of great importance is the extensive evidence that the early Christian movement was not ... a scattering of relatively isolated, introverted communities, but a network of communities in constant, close communication with each other" (2)
Imagine saying that of the Vision network of churches:
"The Vision network is not a scattering of relatively isolated, introverted communities, but a network of communities in constant, close communication with each other". Constant... and close.... communication. This network thing is far stronger, far more powerful and far more organic than we have realised.
Bauckham then goes on to say “ all the evidence we have for early Christian leaders... shows them to have been typically people who travelled widely and worked in more than one community at different times” (3). Leaders served a network of churches, not just developed their own ministry in one church.
Summarising the communities and the leaders he says “both had a strong, lively and informed sense of participation in a worldwide movement” (3)
They saw themselves not just as part of a local church but as part of a dynamic network of churches all around the Mediterranean. They knew people in other churches, they regularly travelled back and forwards between churches, they invested in the development of other churches and people were repositioned around the network for the strategic development of the network.
Bauckham goes on to explain this in terms of the Roman Empire.
"The first thing this information tells us is that mobility and communication in first century Roman world were exceptionally high. Unprecedentedly good roads and unprecedentedly safe travel by both land and sea made the Mediterranean world of this time more closely interconnected than any large area of the ancient world had ever been. People travelled on business as merchants, traders and bankers, on pilgrimage to religious festivals, in search of health and healing at the healing shrines and spas, to consult the oracles which flourished in this period, to attend the pan-Hellenic games and the various lesser versions of these all over the empire, as soldiers in the legions, as government personnel of many kinds and even on vacation and as sightseers... It was certainly not only the wealthy who travelled. Quite ordinary people travelled to healing shrines, religious festivals and games.... therefore people quite typical of the members of the early Christian churches regularly travelled." (32)
Never again has the world been as similar to this as it is again today. We also live in a globally connected world but this time our sense of connection and our capability for connection is massively increased through technology – 24/7 lives news coverage, skype, email, cellphones, cheap travel, hotels, conferences, multinational companies, international sport, tourism etc etc.
However Bauckham notes another factor for Christians: But in addition to Christian participation in the ordinary mobility of society, much communication was deliberately fostered between the churches" (32)
There was another dimension of intentional networking above and beyond the everyday movements of a mobile society.
Bauckham lists references to early leaders moving around: Polycarp bishop of Smyrna visited Rome, Syria. Abercius bishop of Hierapolis (in Turkey) travelled west to Rome, and east to Syria. Bauckham says "other prominent second century teachers seem almost as a rule, to have taught for a time in more than one major Christian centre" (37)
His summary is: "It seems that leaders who moved from church to church, to a greater or lesser extent, are a constant feature of the early Christian movement in the first century and a half of its existence." (37)
One author Michael Thompson has a chapter in the book called "The Holy Internet: Communication between Churches in the First Christian Generation"
He uses the picture of the internet to describe how the early church functioned.
He first considers the paths of communication: "In the ancient world the closest thing to an information superhighway was the grid of Roman roads and clear shipping lanes that made travel far safer and easier than it had ever been before"(50). He points out that though there was no public postal service the Empire depended on a regular secure system of communication that included staging posts and rest stops when towns were separated by more than one day's journey.
Secondly he then considers the "archives of information": "The network 'servers' of the holy internet were the churches" (53) and he notes the importance of "hubs": Jerusalem, Antioch, Ephesus, Corinth, Rome. These functioned as hubs for the surrounding areas. Paul seems to have focused on establishing new hubs of the network which then networked into the surrounding areas (Now there’s a thought of strategic importance!).
Thirdly he considers the access to the internet. Staying with the internet metaphor, he says communication depended on the “protocol software of hospitality” (55). There is extensive writing in the early church on expectations of hospitality towards travelling Christians and specifically travelling ministry. Comments like in the early Christian writing, the Didache, that visitors were to be freely extended hospitality for two to three days but after that they needed to move on or work and if they asked for an offering they were certainly to be rejected as false prophets! I realise the pendulum has swung to “honouring” visiting ministry and people being worth their labour and churches being stretched to have faith but maybe we need to also rediscover another simpler model of travelling ministries being hosted in homes and ministry as service to the network of churches.
Finally Thompson has some interesting analysis of the speed of this "internet". Remember travel was generally by walking or ship: Jerusalem to Antioch took 8-10 days; on to Ephesus another 14-30 days by sea or 35 days over land. Ephesus to Corinth 6-10 days; Corinth to Rome 10-25 days. From Rome directly back to Jerusalem by sea 16-28 days. In our days of email, cell phones and cheap flights it is mindboggling and an enormous challenge to us that they managed to be so highly networked with these kinds of obstacles and challenges.
How can we be less highly networked than they were? They obviously put a high value on being part of a network of churches. They understood it was about a dynamic network churches.
What strikes me about this picture? Three points stand out. Firstly they viewed themselves as part of one network of churches. People knew each other, people regularly travelled back and forth between churches and ministries regularly moved around the network. The focus was on the health and development of the whole network, actually the value and blessing and joy of being part of the whole network.
Secondly there is a sense of intentional networking and even more so, strategic networking, directed by the apostolic leadership i.e. Paul would send a worker to another church because he believed this was significant for the development and health of the receiving church.
Thirdly churches sent people and resources to partner with and support Paul in the initiatives he was undertaking. I suspect they saw him in his apostolic ministry as something of the spearhead or cutting edge of the development of the network. Combining the last two, apostolic leadership was welcomed, received and invested in through sending support (people and money) to what Paul as an apostle was investing in and he in turn deployed people for the development of the network.
Now just to earth all this, without seeking to either copy or react, we can be provoked by the example of Equippers. There is an Equippers church in Christchurch and I notice that every few weeks there seems to be a speaker from another Equippers' church. After pastoring a small church I must confess I wonder how they do it. When our church was small we had a budget for visiting ministry of maybe $600 per year which meant maybe one out of town visit and a couple of local visits. Even as a medium size church the budget was maybe $1200 which, with the culture of increased payments did not really go much further! One question is how do we make networking viable particularly for smaller churches?
I thought of two practical steps.
Firstly while I can be intentional in developing my connections I understand that there is a dimension to the network of Nick knowing the needs of various churches and making strategic decisions to send ministries to churches. Bearing in mind the financial constraints of some smaller churches I thought one thing I could do would be to say to Nick, “I cannot afford to give a lot of money to the network but I can give my time… so I would like to give two Sundays/weekends per year to you that you could send me wherever you want and there would be no expectation of payment or offering – they can give me a box of chocolates or a cheese board if they want! This would be seen as the network investing in the church and for me this would be part of my service to the network”. If a number of us did something like that, that would empower the network and empower Nick to be strategic in developing the network.
Secondly I thought there could be someone who God has blessed with resources and who has prospered and they might like to create a fund initially of say $5000 per year that allowed Nick to say “We need to invest in Whangarei this year, so Trevor I want to send you there in April and Michael I want to send you there in August and we will cover your airfares”.
These two steps, of people offering time to invest in churches based on an expectation of hospitality and without expecting extra payment and then others offering money to create a fund to cover travel would enable some strategic intentional “sending” above and beyond the collegial or peer relational connections and invitations that continue to develop.
It all starts though when we see that the puzzle is the network and my ministry is one piece of the jigsaw puzzle of a network and even more when we begin to feel how liberating, empowering, safe and exciting it would feel to find where my ministry fits within the network.