What Shape is Your Network?
Network leaders may sometimes ask themselves what shape is their network in, but they probably rarely ask what shape is their network? This question doesn’t only mean, “How healthy is my network?” It means, “What is the structural shape or the topology of my network?”
While a network may internally maintain its shape, it does not mean that it’s structured effectively for 1) scalability such as rapid growth and the duplication of other networks and 2) connectivity such as inter-church relationships and commitment to a unified vision.
Scalability and connectivity are two factors that played a large role in why Baptists and Methodists were able to plant churches faster than other groups in North America during the 19th and early 20th centuries. In church planting movements of the past, not only did churches reproduce themselves, but their networks reproduced themselves as well.
Many networks are structured to reproduce churches, but few are structured to reproduce themselves.
To give you a visual idea of what we’re talking about, imagine the different growth trajectories given these typical network topologies. Let each node represent a church and each line represent a relationship within the network:
These topologies are taken from the field of computer networking and illustrate how different nodes are connected to each other in order to pass information along in a network. Usually, topologies are examined to assess the least number of nodes information has to pass through before it reaches its destination. But also, a topology is used to help us think about the best way to organize a network.
A good structure allows a network to scale with growth and still maintain the focus of its vision and purpose through connectivity.
To apply this concept to church planting, let’s ask this question: How can a church planting network structure itself so that as it grows and spawns other networks, it maintains clarity and consistency of vision throughout the network through healthy church relationships?
Let’s examine these seven network topologies as possible models of church planting networks, pointing out the strengths and challenges for scalability and connectivity:
- The Bus Network. There is no central node or even necessarily direct connections between each church. There may exist a common ministry philosophy or value that convenes the network, but each church is free to scale and grow in whatever way they wish. The strength of this network is its emphasis on innovation and low ecclesiology. The challenge with low ecclesiology is low connectivity and support for each church. Example: A network trying to spur on experimental churches.
- The Line Network. This network scales by prepending new churches to the tail. This is an addition model. The network only adds churches, but does not focus on developing other networks. The strength of this model is that slow growth is manageable growth and needs little infrastructure. The challenge is that it does not have a plan for churches to multiply and provides little connectivity between older and newer churches. Example: A fellowship of churches dealing with decline or status quo.
- The Ring Network. This network scales in two possible ways 1) the ring opens up to add another church to the network or 2) a church spawns off to multiply another network. The strength of this kind of network is that its structure is decentralized enough to allow both addition and multiplication to happen. One challenge with this model is the tension to maintain an egalitarian culture where each church can equally influence the entire network. The second challenge happens when a church spawns its own network and struggles to relate back to the mothering network. Example: A network of smaller networks or a growing family of churches.
- The Fully Connected Network. This network is the Ring Network with greater connectivity between the churches. The connectivity is a benefit in that it ensures the DNA of the network usually through shared resources and central services, but it also can be a drawback in that the maintenance of these relationships can use up energy that could be used to spawn other networks. Example: A tight-knight family of churches with shared resourcing.
- The Mesh Network. This network is usually anchored by a leading node such as an anchor church or a central leader. It can grow similar to the Ring Network, but tends to lean heavily on the anchor church to maintain the vision of the network. So instead of multiplying into other networks, they tend to grow the ring portion of the network. The strength of this model is that some churches like to adopt the culture and vision of an anchor church or its central leader. The challenge arises when that church or figure is removed from the network. Example: Most church-based church planting networks started in the 90s and 2000s that figured out some sort of support infrastructure.
- The Star Network. Different from the Mesh Network, this model is heavily reliant on the connectivity between the anchor church and her church plants. The strength with this model is that most church plants receive high accountability and support as expected from a typical “mother” church. They can, in turn, duplicate the same “parenting” style with a similar star structure. The drawback is that the anchor church can easily become depleted with maintaining so many relationships within the network. Example: Most church-based church planting networks started in the 90s and 2000s that did not figure out some sort of support infrastructure.
- The Tree Network. This is a centralized version of the Line Network that allows for some church reproduction, but not enough to spawn off other autonomous networks. There is a centralized authority that maintains the vision and culture of reproduction that allows churches to participate in. Each church has more of a hierarchical relationship within the network. The strength is that there are probably more streamlined processes and systems. The challenge can be that churches struggle with the lack of autonomy or ecclesial innovation. Example: Denominations or networks with high polity and strong district authority.
These models are adapted for church planting networks and therefore aren’t perfect. But they illustrate how a network’s shape dictates its scalability and connectivity. Multiplication can happen within many of these topologies. But for some, forming new networks is a feature of its shape. For others, it requires having to go outside the model to form new networks. Each shape has its own set of challenges either with growth or with connectivity as represented by the following grid.
If the topology of your network discourages scalability and connectivity or has an unhealthy obsession of one over the other, then it may not be shaped for movement. Regardless of whether or not any of these seven models accurately reflect your network shape, it’s crucial to evaluate whether your network can scale both in size and connectivity.
Networks that are highly scalable and highly connected usually also spawn off other networks rather than just growing their own. This dynamic within a network fosters a movement ecosystem and builds the Kingdom exponentially.