How can the Jesus Network be organized, even though it isn’t an organization?

I understand the Jesus Network to be a network that deeply loves organizations, even though it isn’t an organization

The Jesus Network is intentionally designed to be a network and not an organization. This is rooted in a deep love for all kinds of organizations, but especially the organizations of the church: the organized church at all scales throughout the world.

If I love the church and other organizations so much, why not let the Network become another kind of organization? That’s what I’d like to explore here, although the organizing idea can be captured in a single phrase: differentiated connection.

What the Network can never do, by definition

The Network is designed to deeply connect with and need organizations, as organizations, precisely because it is not an organization. It lacks money or the capacity to receive or use it. It lacks buildings and the capacity to hold property. It lacks paid staff and the capacity to pay staff. The Network lacks the capacity to delineate its boundaries. It lacks the capacity to track and monitor the number of people in it, to articulate metrics, to implement annual plans or centralized plans of any sort. It lacks the authority to command anyone to do anything at all, and it lacks an organizational chart or a hierarchy of roles and jobs. It lacks a lot, by design.

Still there is some structure, and it is intentionally extremely flat, flexible, and only about service to others. The formal role within the network that someone can take on is “network organizer.” Network organizers have a lived experience of training with at least one complete network kit, and have committed to help people access and utilize network resources in a more holistic way. They exercise care for individuals and for the whole of the network, insofar as they can, in ways that can only be deeply personalized and contextualized. They do not give orders, but they can help order things in the sense of helping people organize their thoughts, especially by helping them encounter God as the Speaker whose Word, empowered by the Breath, non-coercively orders everything into being. Network organizers can commission other network organizers who have discerned in community that they feel invited, called and equipped to take on the role of network organizer for some time. There is no requirement or pressure to become a network organizer. People can enjoy any of the Network’s resources freely and for their entire life without ever becoming a network organizer. No network resources are paywalled, nor are they walled off for ‘network organizer eyes only’. All of the Network’s resources help people organize non-coercively, but you don’t have to have a specific vocation as a network organizer to participate in that. The role is a specific calling that some people might have, not the “end game” of the Network. This flat structure is what “staffs” the network insofar as it is “staffed” in any way. (If you doubt that all-volunteer organizations based on simple roles can build great things, consider Wikipedia or a wide array of contemporary disciple-making movements.)

Importantly, the Network doesn’t lack what organizations require because these things are bad. You may disagree, but personally, I think organizations are enormously important! I really, really love organizations and the important work that goes into building and maintaining them. I participate deeply in several, especially my enormously loved local congregation. So much of what I do there could never be done by a network; it must be done by an organization. So the Jesus Network is not an organization, but a network that really does love organizations.

The network might even help love some organizations into being. But like a good parent, the Network will never own any organization that might come out of it, any more than it owns the people who engage with its resources (which I take to be God-given resources, like all resources in the end). Nothing belongs to the Network. It can’t own anyone or anything, although it can help generate new life through connection among people and with God, as both God and people speak truth.

What do all of these weaknesses empower?

The Jesus Network suffers from all kinds of real weaknesses, as a social entity. Nonetheless, there are also strengths that come through these weaknesses.

As a network, one thing the Jesus Network can do is foster trans-organizational third spaces. Among other things, this means that it can form the basis for a trans-denominational equipping movement that can also reach beyond the church and into any social domain. Why do I use the word “transdenominational” instead of the more common word interdenominational here? Interdenominational work is important, and implies that denominational organizations are working together. That’s excellent and essential, in my view. But because the Network is not an organization or denomination, it has some advantages in fostering grassroots coordination among people, even people in institutions that formally have broken ties with each other. By setting aside the work of institutions and instead focusing on personal agency and callings, the Network can potentially help knit back together institutional relations that have been torn. The church throughout the world needs a lot of generations of that, and beyond the church the whole world needs a lot of this kind of mending and stitching work. For example, imagine people from any number of divided denominations forming Jesus Network spiritual friendship groups and finding common ground across old battle lines. The Network can offer a minimally formal structure for grassroots reconciliation work because it is a network and not another organization interposing itself between, or competing with, other organizations. The Network can’t threaten to displace organizations, because it isn’t one. That is one of its powers.

All analogies are imperfect, but I think that an analogy to a neural network can be illuminating here. A neural network cannot live outside of a body, and even the brain is not reducible to a neural network. So if you had a neural network without the structure of an organ (a brain), you still wouldn’t have something living. And a brain can’t live more than a moment, at least in a meaningfully human way, outside of a whole organism. In this analogy, imagine the brain is like a local congregation, the body is like the denominational body in which the congregation exists, and those denominational bodies form a broader society of denominations that comprise the universal church.

The Jesus Network needs to take root in individuals through integrated and lived experiences, soulful experiences that unite our spirits (including our minds) and our flesh in an integrated and integrating way through a shared encounter with God, the giver of life. If that new birth of Christ in us is the goal, then practices like Spiritual Friendship and Plain Training are like mid-wives. (Here, I’m drawing on Margaret Guenther’s imagery; she describes spiritual friendship as a kind of mid-wifery and I think it is one of the most compelling descriptions of the practice I know.)

So how does the Network scale socially? The same way humans act at social scale in general: largely through mirror neurons, which allow us to become more-or-less deeply synchronized through interactions that include voice and tone and posture. In the reflections above, I likened a congregation to a body, but now I’m talking quite directly about neurology. Am I talking about the Network as a literal personal process of prayerful listening and community among individuals, or am I talking about the Network as something that can help congregations (and other scaled organizations) become more connected and integrated? Yes. The processes involved in a kit (the Friendship kit includes Spiritual Friendship, Plain Training and the Connect Ladder) are all fundamentally interpersonal and deeply personal, so they are always already both personal and scaling activities. Through prayer and community, these processes help people explore and restore agency in relationship with God and friends, and the process also helps train people to reproduce this kind of connection in other settings, if they feel invited and called to do so. Importantly, part of what we need to model and mirror is not simply mimicry, but differentiated connection.

Let’s look at how we can cultivate profound connection that is also differentiated in simple and practical ways. We can use “I” statements and commit to personal things, while inviting others to join. As simple as this is, it models both differentiation (not presuming a “we” where there may not be one) while inviting connection (allowing people to freely become a “we” wherever appropriate, and to flexibly split up to cover more ground at other times.) This can produce sustained and flexible group coordination based on shared intrinsic motivations. We don’t need to agree on everything to agree on some things, and where we have deep agreement and authentic intrinsic motivation we can work to build things together. This is why the basic kit is structured as it is, starting with just a single meeting, using a training that the group discerns it wants to engage with. Then groups discern next steps at the end of each meeting. This is a small detail, but notice the difference between this and so many other kinds of cohorts. Top-down structures are often imposed in order to facilitate a level of centralized scaling, and there is a definitely a place for that kind of organizing. There might come a time when the Jesus Network uses some of that. Still, adopting a rhythm of discerning consensus-based next steps is an excellent way for differentiated groups to develop (at a visceral level) a rhythm of meaningful, consensus-based connection and movement. In a very simple and routine way, this helps build a culture of discernment and cooperation that fundamentally honors our agency, because agency is an integral part of what it means to be the images of God. There isn’t some kind of law requiring the Jesus Network to only proceed in this way. Instead, we can be encouraged by this illustration of a small detail that cultivates agency, cooperation, and coordination among people and with God.

One last power that I hope the Network can help people receive, through its weakness, is this: I hope that it gives people the capacity to find or make more home, wherever they are. Some of us are in local congregations and feel deeply at home there, some of us are between them and may feel like we’re totally over church, or totally under church, or all topsy-turvy about church. Some of us sit uncomfortably in congregations that don’t really feel like home. The Network itself can never be home in the way a local congregation can be, but it might equip you to make your house of worship, ever-more, into a home of worship for you and others. I hope that the Network is always fostering a deepening thirst for homemaking, by playing mid-wife to Christ in us, even for people who are experiencing various feelings of spiritual exile at the moment. What would happen if you used a Jesus Network kit to help foster deepening spiritual hospitality in a local congregation, or even plant a church that draws on Jesus Network practices (always free, always open source) from the start? One thing that would not happen is this: the Jesus Network wouldn’t own your congregation in any way, although at least some people in the congregation might find a home in Christ with some help from our resources and practices.

Common ground and the Way of Jesus

In any kind of group setting, including a network, questions about inclusion and exclusion always arise. So what makes someone a part of the Jesus Network? Participation in Jesus Network activities, including spiritual friendship, Plain Training, Connect Ladder training, etc., point toward a good and basic answer. The Jesus Network is as it does, and what it does is simply cultivate a network of Christian faith. I’d also say that the Jesus Network is really about trying to participate more and more deeply in the community of people who are walking in the Way of Jesus, in a way that is deeply respectful of humans as agents who bear the image of God. That broader stream is just vastly larger than any explicit network could ever be, but the hope is that the Network helps some of us move more and more deeply into that joyful mystery together, more deeply connected even as we become more deeply differentiated, in infinitesimal imitation of the perfect unity-in-difference of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. So one alternative to asking “Is someone in the Network or out of it?” might be, “What does faithfulness to Jesus look like for me today?”

I’d also like to suggest two other questions that can also replace stress over who is in vs who is out. First: “Is there common ground that we feel invited to build on here?” Second: “Do we have differences that can be helpful to our movement, because we have at least some common ground elsewhere?”

Two statements by Jesus, arguably contradictory on their face, can help flesh out the power of these questions.

Here’s Mark 9:38–41 (NASB 1995):

John said to Him, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in Your name, and we tried to prevent him because he was not following us.” But Jesus said, “Do not hinder him, for there is no one who will perform a miracle in My name, and be able soon afterward to speak evil of Me. “For he who is not against us is for us. “For whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because of your name as followers of Christ, truly I say to you, he will not lose his reward.”

But then there’s Matthew 12:22–32 (NASB 1995):

Then a demon-possessed man who was blind and mute was brought to Jesus, and He healed him, so that the mute man spoke and saw. All the crowds were amazed, and were saying, “This man cannot be the Son of David, can he?” But when the Pharisees heard this, they said, “This man casts out demons only by Beelzebul the ruler of the demons.”

And knowing their thoughts Jesus said to them, “Any kingdom divided against itself is laid waste; and any city or house divided against itself will not stand. “If Satan casts out Satan, he is divided against himself; how then will his kingdom stand? “If I by Beelzebul cast out demons, by whom do your sons cast them out? For this reason they will be your judges. “But if I cast out demons by the Spirit of God, then the kingdom of God has come upon you. “Or how can anyone enter the strong man’s house and carry off his property, unless he first binds the strong man? And then he will plunder his house.

“He who is not with Me is against Me; and he who does not gather with Me scatters.

“Therefore I say to you, any sin and blasphemy shall be forgiven people, but blasphemy against the Spirit shall not be forgiven. “Whoever speaks a word against the Son of Man, it shall be forgiven him; but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit, it shall not be forgiven him, either in this age or in the age to come.

The verses present a conundrum that is common in community organizing generally. Can conflicting, or apparently conflicting, positions be reconciled? Is there at least some common ground, maybe even between apparently contradictory positions? Surprisingly often, I think that this kind of common ground can be found, if we engage in deeper reflection and soulful reading of situations. (Soulful reading connects the spiritual or abstract elements of something with the fleshy or observable details of a situation, and then it knits them together in a way that reflects our own experience as living, perceiving, mindful flesh.) At the same time, this common ground doesn’t need to rest on artificially harmonizing the two passages, any more than we need to ignore differences between one another in order to be connected. Where common ground can be found, there is the possibility of building on it. If there’s any common ground on something strong, something enduring can be built. But where uncommon ground is found, a distinct opportunity presents itself. Our differences, whether differences of commitments or background, can enable us to be in different places in different ways. There is a real strength in differentiated connection that is greater than the strength that is possible through undifferentiated unity or disconnected difference.

So is some reconciliation between the passages possible? I think so. We might even set the upshots of each account side by side: no good goes unrewarded (even so much as a cup of water!), and almost all evils can be forgiven, which means the moral debt is wiped clean without further consequence. Nonetheless, whether in this life or the next, some decisions do have consequences that really do have to be worked through. There is no need to read the consequence here as endless torture, by the way, and such a reading would tend to render the two passages morally contradictory … unless we envisage God giving people a few eternal cups of water while they also get tortured forever. A much better reading sees real consequences for slandering God directly, and real rewards for the smallest kindness to even a representative of God. Here as well, grace reigns in the contrast, even as the reality of consequences is frankly expressed. Looking just a bit more carefully and letting the pair play off of each other (this is in fact the general mode by which the Bible teaches wisdom) a pattern emerges: God has an uncompromising commitment to reward in even the smallest things, an openness to forgive almost anything at all, and a conviction that some consequences must be borne.

From here, we might venture some guesses about what is involved in “sinning against the Spirit” in this life and the next. I’d suggest that one possibility links back to those texts in the Hebrew Scriptures that describe people suffering instantaneous death where the presence of God has been disrespected. (For example, see Exodus 28:35.) An instant “death penalty” is an excellent example of a penalty that must “be paid”. The implication, here, might then be that precisely because those slandering Jesus are not struck dead, maybe the Spirit of God has simply withdrawn in some way, a merciful response to their accusations. And as with essentially everything else in Matthew’s Gospel, the primary application seems to relate back to the Second Temple and its destruction in 70 AD. He is suggesting that to stand in the Temple and turn it into a fortress, invoking God as if God is a pagan deity, will not bring life after all. Instead, death will result. He is warning them not to fall for such illusions, and encouraging the people to seek a non-violent route forward, instead of the path that brought such complete devastation on his people. The application carries forward, though, as this model of the death of his nation (the end of its lifetime, or aion) becames the model for understanding the rise and fall of all nations (the judgment becomes aionios.) On this reading, it would seem that in this moment the Pharisees are blinded to God’s presence so that their lives might be preserved. Is this the correct reading of the texts? I think the Biblical texts are enormously generative and worth pondering over and over in various contexts, and that this reading is one of many excellent things the texts are meant to generate. So while seeing this reading as good, let’s set another example beside it for comparison, because I suspect that this second reading may be even better. We might also consider how widely Christian teaching reframes all kinds of violent images as symbols of non-violent resistance. Some of the categories that are deeply redefined are the following: swords (replaced with words), tongues of fire (moved from a destructive image in Isaiah to a pun about languages in Acts 2), and death (deeply associated with baptism, and the death of the ‘old man’ in us so that the new person can be born.)

So other exegesis is certainly possible. My broader point holds these readings gently and lovingly. And by holding them all together, this set of readings makes my broader point: where we see apparent contradictions among ourselves, this can be taken as an invitation to more deeply explore common ground to build on, and to discover differences that might empower us to sow the work of Christ more broadly. Scattering, after all, is not always bad. Scattered seeds sometimes bring new life.

A few sayings to sum up

Among other things, this has been a crash course in community organizing. I’ve been trying to convey to you what I learned as a “community organizer mentality” and how I see it relating deeply to Jesus faith. I’d like to briefly close with a few brief statements that can encapsulate the ideas here.

Differentiated connecters organize by honoring agency, uncovering intrinsic motivation, and sharing information, not by giving orders.

We can build wherever there is enough common ground, and we can scatter like seeds where there isn’t. Both can be productive. Differentiated and connected relationships can gently hold both scattering and building.

Organizers don’t order anyone, but they can help bring order to situations by partnering with God, who is the source of all order.

The Jesus Network is not an organization, but it really does love organizations. Differentiated connection allows us, as a network, to love people and things that we aren’t, such as organizations.

 by the author.



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