Stepping2 years ago our Senior Staff began wrestling with an issue that we all had been feeling. There was a general sense among us that in an increasingly unchurched culture, it would be harder and harder to get people to just “show up for church”. We have a great inviting culture at The Journey, but there would be more and more people who wouldn’t even consider coming on a Sunday morning an option (at least initially).

Some years ago we read & then resonated with a phrase that we heard in Andy Stanley’s book 7 Practice of Effective Ministry, where he said you need to think “steps not programs”. We have constantly evaluated ministry based on that premise. And two years ago, although we had roughly 50% of our people in Journey Groups (8-12 people studying the Bible together), there was a sense that for many it was too big of a step to go from Sunday gatherings to a group. We also looked at the cultural context we live in. Smaller communities, a regional church between those communities, high school loyalties, a growing culture of volunteerism, and we live in an area where most people grew up here and have stayed here.

We began to develop a strategy we were calling Networks. We started with four regional serving Networks in our community: Norton Shores, Fruitport, Tri-Cities, and North. We used school colors in their logos. The plan was to have these Networks begin serving in the local community in which they lived. We believed that it would be a much easier step into the life of the church if we were asking people to serve and make a difference in the community in which they lived. We also anticipated that you could invite friends to serve with you whether they attended The Journey or not. We also believed that once there, they probably would know someone else that was there because of the tight-knit communities. Having a couple relationships would make it easier to take a next step into the life of the church and into a group.

We decided to ask around and see if anyone else was doing something like this. We couldn’t find anyone. Lots of churches were embracing a “Missional Community” model of 10-14 people living in the same area and doing very intentional, in-depth life together – really being family for one another and thinking together how they could reach their neighborhood. Although we understand that model and have seen its effectiveness in some places, it didn’t make sense in our context. The lakeshore area is smaller and more spread out, and because most people are from here and have family and school friends in the area, “community” is not a strong felt-need.

We were looking at groups of 30-75, serving together, and being a catalyst for spiritual steps as they served. Then our friends at Gateway Church in Austin, TX came on our radar. I had followed @JOhnBurke for a while, we had both gone to the same seminary, and his book No Perfect People Allowed was HUGE in my understanding of effectively reaching people who didn’t know Jesus. But, we didn’t know that they had started on a process they called “Networks” about 6-10 months before we did.

About a year ago, Mark flew down to Austin, TX to hang out with their team for a few days, and learn anything we could from them. They do Networks a little differently, and their context is totally different: Texas, lots of singles, professionals, artsy. Even with Gateway & their wisdom, they were new at Networks, so we felt like we were plowing some new ground. It was all one big experiment. An experiment that we are still in the middle of. But here are a couple of our preliminary findings now that we are two years in.

  • It has taken two years for Networks to become a part of who we are, not just something we do.
  • We have done WAY more in our community through a decentralized approach than we would do as one big church.
  • We have seen people jump into serving in a network before they come to The Journey (and some who still haven’t come).
  • This year we developed “Connection Nights” to provide consistent communication and touch points with the Network. It’s helping connect people plus gives them a taste of Journey Groups.
  • We are infiltrating our communities with love and are gaining a positive reputation in our communities.
  • We are watching people join a network to serve, develop some connections, then be willing to jump into a group, and all of that is leading to steps in their relationship with Jesus.
  • It has become the easier step for people to take.

We are the same church we were 2 years ago, but we’re different. We haven’t “become missional”. We were always missional (and attractional). But our system of Networks is helping us be more effective missionally.