Metaphorically Speaking: The Joys of an International Network

by Inneke G. Riddell

Six metaphors shed light on how international networks can clearly demonstrate the unity of Christ to non-Christians.

God has placed me in an informal network of teams, groups, and individuals (let’s refer to it as “the network”) in a creative access area. There are around two dozen Christians from various corners of the world and other parts of the country in which we work. As I reflect upon our time together over the last few years (and pray over how we can do better in the future), a few metaphors describe my experience in an international network.    

Greg Livingstone (1993) offers excellent guidelines for reaching the difficult areas of the world. Noting the lack of churches in Muslim cities, he explains why planting churches in those locations should be a team effort rather than an individual one. Of specific help to us is his idea that all Christians, churches, and parachurch organizations in the target area should be approached and viewed as spiritual co-workers, part of the network, as far as they are willing. This fits with what the Bible says about the Body of Christ. We’ve done this, for example, by being in contact with Bible colleges, churches, and student groups in-country that are praying for our area. Then, when job opportunities open up, we check with them to see if they have people who are ready to join us on the field. I have kept Livingstone’s suggestions in mind as I have developed the metaphors below.

Metaphor 1: Body. The need for a network to decide if it is a church (community) or a mission taskforce is endlessly discussed. For example, Don Allen and Abraham Duran suggest that it is usually better to focus on carrying out the task together (2008, 291-292). While they have compelling reasons for this, in many unreached parts of the world the international network is the church there. Whether the network is the only expression of the Body of Christ in an area or not, people’s perceptions of Christ will be formed by the network. “See how they love one another” is the window through which they may first see Jesus, who is not just someone we talk about, but instead is manifested, embodied, and realized in the life of the network.

Like the church in Corinth, we are different shapes, colors, and sizes, with different gifts. Where I work, for instance, ethnic groups are extremely important. The witness of network members from different ethnic groups who work and worship together (or are even married to each other) is very powerful. It is a way to begin a gospel conversation. Our Muslim friends ask us how we get along when we all come from different backgrounds.

Metaphor 2: Migratory Herd. The herd travels great distances to breed and give birth to offspring. When the offspring are independent, the herd returns to its non-breeding season home. The network’s aim is likewise to arrive, be part of the birth of a church where there hasn’t been one, and then leave. Every member of the network needs to buy into this focus. It is hard enough to move into a creative access area, but if some members of the network are not clear on why they are there, then the birds of prey attack.

The national workers in our network do have the option of staying long term in the area to birth a new church-planting movement. Linked to this issue would be leadership—who and what sort of person leads the herd. Although many models abound (e.g., formation flying with rotating leadership), which model is followed will depend upon the cultures of the teams and individuals which make up the network. However, the issue here is that the leadership must be sold out on doing what it takes to encourage a church-planting movement, and keep that focus continually before all the members.

Each year new members come into our informal network—and others return home. We tend to complain about the effort it takes to always be training and mentoring new members; however, this is part of being a healthy herd. Our network includes new believers and seekers. Not every member of the network is directly involved in or has even met these people, but we all pray for them and keep the members who are face-to-face with them accountable.

Metaphor 3: Penknife. Every member of our network has a secular day job and the identity that goes with that. These jobs provide financial support and ways to be an acceptable part of the community. A penknife might be a good metaphor for this part of the life of our network. Each member’s life experience, training, interests, and skills are matched with existing needs in the community. Each person then applies for or creates an appropriate job for him or herself. The job then gives opportunities for various aspects of reaching out with the gospel. Along the way, each person earns a salary. The national workers are mostly self-supporting. Their sending churches either do not have the means or have not caught the vision for financial support. We have teachers, counselors, accountants, farmers, and a veterinarian in our network.

Metaphor 4: A Library. In addition to being out in the community in our day jobs, and playing a part in our own teams and in the network, I and other expatriate team members serve as mentors and resources. Our network is one rack in a library and I am sometimes the librarian. Some members have access to materials in English, have read the books, done the training, gone to the conferences, and networked with others. These people serve as resources and guides for those needing information on certain topics. I am currently on study leave; however, emails keep coming in asking me to find suitable material for a new Bible study group or for help with preparing prayer newsletters.    

One of the strengths of our network is its ethnic and nationality mix. We have voluntarily decided to work together on the main task of church planting. Where teams are sometimes highly structured, the network is not. This lack of structure is often difficult to work in, but I believe it reflects how the Church should function. We have members from traditionally Christian ethnic groups, a few from traditionally Muslim ethnic groups (MBBs), and a few international members. We want the people around us to see that Jesus is the Savior of all people, not only westerners.

In addition, if Christians of various nationalities cannot understand and love each other, how can we expect to understand and love the people around us whom we have come to serve and reach with the gospel? We need to practice what we preach. We all struggle with this, national and international workers alike. Is the cultural gap between national and international members wider or narrower than the cultural gap between national members and the people we are trying to reach?

Metaphor 5: Martial Arts Training. Concerning some issues, Christians have similar values; on other issues, we may work from very different worldviews. Frankly, it is better to make cultural mistakes with one’s network since they are committed to forgiving you. The metaphor which encapsulates this aspect of network life is martial arts training. We practice and make our mistakes with each other before heading out to the competition.

A Chinese network member was upset with me and needed to correct me. I felt chastened but also glad that he desired my growth as a person and a member of the same network. We realized that before he or I could cross cultures to the people around us, we needed to cross cultures to each other. This led to discussions about how to more effectively reach out from our own respective cultures to the one in which we were working. Network members can also role play conversations we are planning to have, gospel explanations we want to share, etc.    

Metaphor 6: Trapeze Act. The last metaphor concerns accountability, which I think of as a trapeze act. Weekly accountability groups of two to three people allow us to keep the goal in focus, grow as believers and members of the network, reflect a stewardship attitude concerning money and financial support, and grow in cultural awareness and evangelism. This enables us to help each other to keep flying instead of falling off. We carry each other when one feels like falling or giving up.

Accountability is difficult for most of us, but it is essential to surviving, thriving, and being effective. I’d like to end with the story of the ongoing formation of one of our network members who struggles with psychological issues. After much discussion, prayer, and treatment, it has been decided that he can stay in our area in gospel work. There are times when he is not doing well and needs our support and time. There are other times when he is doing well and reaches out to his neighbors in creative ways through hospitality, sports and exercise, providing transport, song, and answering questions. We are inspired by him. He keeps us accountable and reminds us why we have chosen to live and work in a Muslim city.

International networks have their joys and sorrows. At their best, the people they are trying to reach see Christ in them, because they are effectively living and working as the Body of Christ.

Allen, Don and Abraham Duran. 2008. “Pre-Field Preparation to Sow.” In From Seed to Fruit: Global Trends, Fruitful Practices, and Emerging Issues among Muslims. Ed. J. Dudley Woodberry, 279-293. Pasadena, Calif.: William Carey Library.

Livingstone, Greg. 1993. Planting Churches in Muslim Cities: A Team Approach. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House.


Inneke G. Riddell (pseudonym) has lived for many years in a Muslim community in Asia. Her concern is to see national and international believers working together in church-planting movements.

 EMQ, Vol. 46, No. 3, pp. 322-325. Copyright  © 2010 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS).  All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.


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