The early stage of church planting is a unique season that comes with its own share of opportunities and obstacles. We're familiar with the obstacles, but what about the opportunities? Because everything is so new and fresh (and frightening) at the beginning it is an opportune time to network. With who? With anyone who is willing to meet with you. Anyone. I'm not a natural networker, but I found the following to be incredibly helpful.
In my experience, there are four primary reasons to network. First, when you are just starting out, no one knows who you are or what you are doing. View networking as a slightly more formal way of identifying potential friendships and "people of peace". Second, you won't know all that you need to know about the city you're planting in until you meet with folks that represent the various neighborhoods and sectors of the city. Without question, you will find that your heart and burden for your specific context will grow. Third, time spent networking is much more productive than sitting at home praying that people show up. Fourth, networking opens up many relational avenues that God will use in ways you'd never imagine. For example, one my contacts, and now friends, helped us to locate our church's current Sunday gathering location.
How do I network?
Start with the people you already know. Who do they know? Email the members of the city council. Call up local non-profit directors. Make a list of all area churches, arrange them by proximity to where you are planting, and start making calls. Consider who the other players are in your context: neighborhood associations, clubs, apartment or condo boards, etc. When making initial contact the most important thing to remember is to assume a posture of humility. Your primary goal is to learn, that is all. You are not trying to market your church plant or evangelize. With one exception, I have had no one turn down a meeting if I expressed a simple desire to learn more about them and what they're doing in the city.
What do I ask?
Keep it simple. Prepare in advance. Know a couple things about the person and/or organization you are meeting with. I try to go in with 3-5 questions. Those questions almost always included some form of the following. I think its best to start general and then progressively ask more pointed questions as the conversation moves forward. Be discerning. If you sense resistance, pull back. Be clear that your church wants to love and serve the city well, which is why you requested the meeting.
You want to make the meeting about them, so its helpful to begin by saying something like, "Tell me a little bit about what you do" or "What is (your organization) excited about right now?" Follow that up with some of these key questions:
- What brought you to the city?
- What do you think (insert neighborhood/issue) will look like in 5-10 years?
- From your vantage point, what are the greatest needs in our city?
- Are there any needs that the church is uniquely positioned to meet?
- What kind of church do you think the city needs?
- What are (if any) the primary obstacles to the church in this city?
- Who else do you know that I could talk to and learn more about the city?
Do not forget that last question. Often, they may not have specific names for you during the meeting. That gives you an additional opportunity to follow up after, thank them for the meeting and remind them. Asking for additional contacts will ensure that your networking will never run dry, as there will always be more people to meet with. I found it helpful to keep a spreadsheet to track the entire process. Above all, saturate the process in prayer, asking our good and gracious God to go before you. None of this "Now-I-lay-me-down-to-sleep" kind of prayers, but "Jesus-you-love-this-city-more-than-I-do-and-I'm-done-if-you-don't-show-up" kind of prayers. Then, watch Him work.