Photo by John Schnobrich
So, you’re ready to network. Thanks to the insights you gained from your reading of “Why is Networking Not Working for You: Part I”, you’ve got your business cards ready and you’ve learned all the latest Instant Messaging acronyms. You’ve reorganized your time, and started realizing the importance of ranking your relationships and being intentional about them. But wait-how can you be sure “networking” isn’t just a passing fad, a sort of legwarmers or parachute pants of youth- working methods? Even more - we’ve talked about characteristics that are distinctive of a Christian approach to networking, but aren’t we jumping the gun if we haven’t really opened up our ideas to the testing of the Scriptures? So, let’s put our PDA’s and cell phones away for a few minutes, and consult with our Creator.
But where to start? Perhaps the best place is with the life of Jesus himself. What kind of a networker was he? How did he “intentionally form mission-minded relationships”? [[See Part I of this article.]] Or better yet, what did his network look like during the three years of his earthly ministry, as recorded in the Gospels? [[Thanks go to Vernon Hubbard, with Solid Rock Baptist Church & the Urban Youth Ministers Coalition in Houston, Texas, who provided the initial concept for this article.]]
If we were to graph it, Jesus’ network audit might look like a series of concentric circles, with individuals in his life represented by dots. The people that Jesus chose to associate with less would be found in the outer circles, and those people Jesus spent more of his time with would be towards the center. Of course, Jesus would be at the center of his own network.
Getting more specific, we might place “the multitudes” as the background against which we will graph his network (A). These are the people who might have met Jesus once, or heard him speak, but did not really have any dynamic relationship with him, at least prior to his resurrection. We might also put the Pharisees, Sadducees, Sanhedrin, Pontius Pilate, and others with whom Jesus did not choose to intentionally associate himself, even though they were significantly involved in Jesus’ narrative, in A also.
Then, looking at the outermost ring (B), we might locate the individuals who met and interacted with Jesus, and whom Jesus clearly valued and honored. This circle would include people like the woman at the well, Nicodemus, blind Bartimaeus, and the many others he healed or ministered to at different times. In each case, Jesus saw good reasons to interact with these people at particular times, but by and large they did not feature in his recorded ministry more than in those discreet moments.
In the next two circles (C & D) we would divide up the rest of the people who are mentioned in the Gospels as being his friends. Although we can’t work these distinctions out definitively, we can at least identify that people like Mary, Martha and Lazarus, Mary (Jesus’ mother), Mary Magdalene, and the 12 disciples would be found in one or the other of these circles. Perhaps we could also safely put Peter, James and John in the circle immediately next to Jesus (D), and can also identify that certain individuals, like Judas Iscariot, likely fell into the next outer circle (C). [[For more on understanding the different ways that Jesus related to his disciples see: Coleman, Robert E., The Master Plan of Evangelism. Revell (1993).]] But for the purposes of this exercise, the distinction between these two circles is not profoundly important.
Once we have mapped this out, we can make some useful observations about Jesus’ example as a networker. First, Jesus was clearly not a “micro-relationship” kind of person. That is, today many people feel - and the pressures of our society demand - that we need to have a nearly limitless number of micro-relationships with everyone at all levels of society, and that this is what ensures optimal ministry impact. But such an approach often establishes a network of relationships that are the proverbial “mile wide and an inch deep”. In reality, although some people are certainly more gifted at managing larger networks than others, people with shallow networks such as these seldom bear much useful fruit beyond the occasional warm feeling from others, and often run the risk of raising others’ expectations more highly than can be fulfilled. Although these people are familiar with many others, they don’t have the time to really know or serve any of them.
Jesus’ network was the antithesis of the micro-relationship approach. As can be seen, by focusing his relationship efforts most deeply with just a handful of individuals (circles C and D), he was able to develop the kinds of multifaceted relationships that endured for his lifetime and beyond, and ensured that each person felt valued and equipped for the completion of their particular calling. Of course, he connected with a great many people during his ministry, but he chose to strategically focus his efforts on just a select few of those people.
Yet, recognizing this can be problematic for us today. Our desire to have a broad network is often borne out of the belief that God is fair to everyone, without giving anyone priority over anyone else. Therefore, the logic goes, we shouldn’t be investing more time in one person over another - we should rather be investing as much as we can in every person that God sends our way. However, this does not seem to be the pattern of networking modeled in the life of Jesus
The next key observation we can make about how Jesus chose to spend his relational energy is that none of these people represented recent relationships. Instead, Jesus chose the twelve relatively early on in his ministry and maintained his commitment to them. This consistency of relationship meant that, by the time of his crucifixion, these people were strongly committed to him, and he to them. Even when Jesus announced his plan to go to Bethany after Lazarus’ death, Thomas expressed unwavering devotion despite the real danger to the disciples’ lives. He urged the others to go along, “that we may die with him” (John 11:16).
Considering the frequent youth ministry turnover rate in most communities, it’s often hard to have relationships with other youth workers that last more than a couple of years or so. Yet Jesus’ example makes it clear: long-term commitment to relationship pays off substantially. We know this in our relationships with kids - that without continuity of relationships we can’t expect to have a lasting impact on a student’s life. But when it comes to connecting with peers in ministry, often we fail to apply the same principles. Those who have managed to stick with the same set of peers can testify that there is extraordinary power in slogging through the ministry muck shoulder-to-shoulder with people who are passionate about the same things.
How He Chose
The next logical question to ask is how Jesus went about deciding which people to invite to be part of his inner circle(s). It would seem that, if we go strictly from the Gospel accounts, there is very little we can know for sure about most of the people Jesus called or what he knew about them when he called them. Yet, at the very least, the stories about how the twelve were called reveal the commonality that when Jesus spoke, they responded in faith and obedience. In every case of the calling of one of his disciples they immediately left everything and followed Jesus, without hesitation. And in the accounts we see of other inner-circle people like Mary and Martha, although the Gospel writer contrasts the nature of their service, it is clear that Jesus valued the tasks that both of them were performing as valid expressions of obedience.
This can be contrasted with those who expressed a desire to follow Christ, but who were turned away. Take, for example, the parallel passages of Matthew 8:18-22 and Luke 9:57-62. In both cases, men came to Jesus asking to follow him, and Jesus responded by pointing out the ways in which they were unwilling to be fully obedient to his discipleship. The scribe, who was presumably a learned man accustomed to a good standard of living, turned away when Jesus shared the realities of the nomadic and hard-scrabbled existence he and his disciples lived. The other two were similarly disappointed when it became apparent that they had priorities over and above responding in faith to the commands Jesus gave them - one to burying his father, the other to his family. [[Some scholars suggest that the father who the second man was asking to bury was most likely not yet deceased, since, according to Jewish custom at the time, mourning was always done inside one’s home. Therefore, the fact that this man was out in public meant that his father was not yet dead, and that he was asking to delay his discipleship until some unspecified future time.]]
The question is, how does the standard that Jesus seems to have used, of willingness to follow his commands in faith, mesh with the standard we identified in the first half of this article: “Do the people in whom I am investing the majority of my limited time and efforts represent the best investment I can make towards accomplishing my God-given mission?”
In order to determine this, we need to know what Jesus’ mission was. Helpfully, the Gospel of John records that Jesus proclaimed he had finished the work the Father had given him to do (17:4). What was this work?
I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world. They were yours, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. Now they know that everything you have given me is from you; for the words that you gave to me I have given to them, and they have received them and know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me (vv. 6-8).
According to this passage, Jesus’ mission was to share the words of the Father with those he had been given, and for them to believe the Father had sent him to them. If this was Jesus’ God-given mission, then it only makes sense that Jesus surrounded himself with people who had demonstrated their willingness to hear and obey his words. By choosing to invest in this particular group of people, Jesus’ actions seem to indicate that these represented the best investment he could make towards accomplishing his mission. This is not to say that Jesus shied away from others, or that he closed himself to new relationships. It is also not to say that every investment “paid off” in the sense of actually accomplishing his God-given mission - Jesus himself points out the discrepancy that one of his closest friends would betray him in the end (John 6:70-71). Rather, the helpful insight for us comes in recognizing Jesus’ self-imposed human limitations of time, space, and physical energy. These same limitations mark our own ministries, but we often seem to disregard or forget them.
The Final Analysis
So, was Jesus a good networker? According to our definition of “intentionally forming mission-minded relationships” he certainly was. Instead of simply existing as the personality at the head of a nameless multitude of adoring fans, Jesus chose twelve, along with some other notable people, into which he poured himself. Furthermore, he seems to have chosen these people with an eye to his mission-at the very least, these people demonstrated early on that they had the capacity to catch his vision, and were willing to respond to his call in faith. But perhaps the clearest insight we can draw from this study is the deeper perspective it provides on the grounding of the task of networking in the human universal of relationships, rather than the passing fads of technology. All of us relate to others, even when we don’t have our ringers turned on. Jesus was no exception. Our first task as ministry networkers, then, is to align ourselves with the mission of God, following Jesus and being discipled by him. As we are walking this out, we must consider the mission-minded relationships that might best create a mutually-supportive network to participate in God’s mission among students. Our mission, after all, is not to get other people to respond in obedience to us. Rather, we are looking for a network of others joining in obedience to Jesus through serving students and their families.
One last observation should probably be made. Just as we observed that Jesus’ close followers were devoted to him, we cannot forget that he was even more devoted to them. Jesus claimed in John 6:37-39.
All whom the Father gives me will come to me, and anyone who comes to me I will never drive away; for I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me. And this is the will of him who sent me, that I shall lose none of all those he has given me, but raise them up at the last day.
Passages like these make it clear that far from dismissing those who were not in Jesus’ closest circles, he still felt compassion for all and recognized his ministry as being bigger than just to those who were closest to him. Jesus honored every person who came his way, and still does. Now it is up to us to do our best to walk that fine line between drawing those in close who have the most capacity to minister to others, and ensuring that no one we encounter goes away feeling unheard or dishonored. Good networking never means we leave behind kids or adults who do not know Jesus, or those who show absolutely no potential to further our God-given mission. It simply means that we, like Jesus, only have so much time and relational energy. Networking can be a helpful lens for considering the “where and how” of our relational investments.
- When you audit your network, how do your dots get distributed? Do you have too many in your inner circles, or not enough? How do you determine who belongs where? Are there changes you should make?
- How well have you done at maintaining ministry relationships long-term? Are there any contacts you haven’t been in touch with recently with whom you might usefully reconnect?
- There is an elegant simplicity to the mission that Jesus identifies in John 17. How does your mission statement compare? Can you use it effectively to help you determine how to prioritize your relationships?
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