Is Your Church a Community or a Network?

Dear Reader,

So I am reading John Taylor Gatto’s Dumbing Us Down which is about the public school system. I haven’t finished the book yet and will do a more thorough book review when I have, but one idea has really captured my imagination.

Gatto spends quite a bit of time (in a short book) talking about the differences between communities and networks. For his purposes, his goal is to show that schools are networks and not communities and that therefore they do not provide children with the sort of environment they need to grow. But as I was reading his definitions, it occurred to me that we could talk about the same categories within the church.

Networks, as Gatto defines it, are based on only a small subset of characteristics. As such, they tend to diminish people and cause them to show only select parts of themselves. Communities, on the other hand, allow an individual’s whole personality to be expressed, good and bad. Networks are expansive and tend to grow and grow. Communities can only be so big or they fail to be communities. Networks are goal oriented; communities are not. If you have ever felt alone in a crowd, you were probably in a network, not a community. One may for a time feel closeness within a network. There may be things that look like true caring. But in the end, networks are easy to walk away from. They are the college roommates that you thought were the center of your life but who after five years you never hear from again and don’t miss.

I think the Bible makes it pretty clear that churches should be communities. But are they? The fact that networks can for a time masquerade as communities can make it very hard to discern which one has. Size can be one clue. If you church is large, it is probably a network. One elder at our former church used to say that if the pastor doesn’t know the names of all the kids in the church, it has gotten too big. Now, growth is good, obviously. We want more people coming to church. But why mega churches? Why not more churches instead? In my opinion, even 300 is pushing it, not to mention  3,000 or 30,000.

If people leave the church easily or without anyone noticing, the church may also be a network. Now this can be tricky ground because I am not sure everyone sees the church the same way, though they may be in the same congregation. We have had families leave our church only to be shocked that people contacted them and asked what had happened and cared that they had moved on. I believe my church does a pretty good job at being a community, but apparently there are people who just didn’t get that though they were in the church for years.

Communities have to deal with the bad as well as the good. If there is no formal church discipline, there may be no real community. Remember that people can bring only their good selves into networks. Not so with communities. They see the bad as well as the good. And they should care. The Bible tells us that what one member does affects the whole. We need to take that seriously if we really believe we are one body.

How we measure success can also tell us something about our status. Networks, Gatto says, live off of statistics. I read a blog post not long ago that suggested a church’s success should be measured by its divorces (lack thereof really). But any sort of quantifiable measurement is not what a community is about.

We can also look at what ministries a church has and how they go about them. Are personal connections being made? Gatto gives the following example:

“Networks of urban reformers will convene to consider the problems of homeless vagrants, but a community will think of its vagrants as real people, not abstractions. Ron, Dave or Marty — a community will call its bums by their names. It makes a difference.” (p. 51)

Gatto refers to Aristotle who said that “without a fully active role in community life one could not hope to become a healthy human being” (p. 13). So where does your church fall?


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