The story (so far) of DNA Networks
I am a non-stipendiary ordained Public Preacher licensed in the Diocese of Chelmsford. I am married to Janie. Together we lead DNA Networks, which is a church-planting movement. We seek to work within the historic denominations and value cooperative unity among the churches.
In the year 2000, Janie and I returned from Melbourne to Colchester, Essex. My mother had recently been widowed and we felt a happy responsibility to live nearby. Indeed, our spirits had been stirred to live and work in Colchester through late 1998 and 1999. We believed that it was time to integrate our spiritual gifts and concluded that a church-planting ministry was the most appropriate way of expressing the mix of our talents and spirituality.
Whilst I had to wrestle with doubts along the way, we grew in the assurance that we would prepare during 2000 and plant in 2001. Further, we believed that we were to be catalysts to the planting of a network of worshipping communities in Colchester, East Anglia, Australia and other nations.
I had spoken frequently of the shifting mission paradigms facing the followers of Jesus. It was time to stop talking about it; we felt the imperative to shift a paradigm! We set up a partnership bank account called “Paradigm Shifters” and bought a house a few stone throws away from the Mother of the Constantine paradigm shift! I’m talking of St Helena, the mother of the Emperor Constantine. Reputedly from Colchester, Helena stands on top of the Town Hall as the town’s patron saint, holding high the “true cross” which she claimed to have found in Jerusalem.
The Emperor Constantine Christianised the Roman Empire and thereby ended the Apostolic mission paradigm of the first three centuries. While we can mutter about the problems of church-state links, mergers of military and mission interests and Christendom’s subsequent abuses of power, the edict of Constantine was great news for the followers of Jesus who lived in Colchester. Within a few years of that edict, after centuries of persecution, they had built a place for worship in Colchester. The remnants of this worship centre’s ancient walls, discovered in the 1980’s, can still be seen beside the new police station. Indeed, these 4th century remains represent the earliest surviving evidence of a place of Christian worship in these islands. Where better to shift a paradigm than the place that spawned an earlier paradigm shift?
So we created a charitable trust named Dynamic New Anglian Networks. Why this name?
- We wanted to be flexible enough to interact with our culture- hence dynamic; we also wanted to be powered by the dynamic of the Spirit.
- We realised that we had to create something new; Jesus spoke of new wineskins, but he also spoke of the householder taking out treasures both old and new. In creating something that did not formerly exist, we sought also to draw on the wells of 2 millennia of living stories and spirituality.
- We were called to East Anglia.
- We recognised that most people seek their identities in networks of relationships (work, leisure, family, friends) prior to any acknowledgement of those geographical localities we refer to as parish boundaries.
DNA contains the genetic fingerprints of life. DNA Networks seeks to embody and multiply the fingerprints of Jesus. Together with the dynamic of the Spirit, Incarnation and Multiplication are key theological paradigms for us. Acts 1; 8 fired our imagination and faith:
“When the Spirit comes, you shall have power and you shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and the ends of the earth.”
We heard this text ask us a question so we entered into a dialogue:
“Do you believe what Jesus said to his Apostles?”
“Is there any reason why the same promise does not apply to you?”
“Go on then!”
“But this might not be in the denomination’s five-year-plan…we haven’t got all the money in place…what will other churches think?”
I imagined myself making all these excuses at the Throne on the Last Day. A gentle voice would reply,
“Which part of the word ‘Go’ did you not understand?”
Walls, wells and waiting
It takes 30 minutes to complete a brisk walk around the ancient Roman wall of Colchester. During 2000, we prayer-walked the walls virtually every weekday. Gradually, we came to appreciate the spiritual wells that had been dug by our ancestors. The ancient Roman church beside the police station; the ruins of St Botolph’s Priory, the first Augustinian Priory in Britain; the martyrs killed in the 1550’s during the paradigm shift known as the Reformation; and up the road across the river from Mersea Island, the chapel of St Peter, built as a missionary base by St Cedd in the 7th century. These ancient remains, memories and monuments all told stories of faith and witness in earlier days. The prayers of the saints seemed still to be currents of hope reverberating in the air and touching us with encouragement.
As we walked the walls and read the history, we were changed. We came to love the land and to feel a deep sense of provocation in our spirits. Paul was provoked by the idols in Athens. We were provoked by the message sent by the redundant church buildings of Colchester. Instead of the living fulfilment of Acts 1:8, the witness of the Town Centre is that the church is now redundant, a heritage issue and its god has taken early retirement! Museums, an Arts Centre, a Masonic Centre, empty shells; the spiritual heritage of 2 millennia seemed to be like blocked wells.
While we walked walls and noticed wells, we waited. This was difficult for an activist- until we stumbled on Scripture:
“Since ancient times no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any god besides you, who acts on behalf of those who wait for him.” (Isaiah 64,4)
We noticed that Isaiah’s prophecies of return from exile were full of God making things “spring up”. We waited and remained on the lookout to see what God would cause to spring up.
While we longed for the DNA of Jesus to grow into a body, we didn’t design the shape of the body. We believe in church planting not cloning. People with passions sprang up, then finances, then mission.
We met Manik Corea, who arrived in Colchester from Singapore via America. A Singaporean, Manik had been an international student in London in the 90’s. He spoke of his concern for international students in England. Then we discovered that Essex University, just outside Colchester, had the highest concentration of internationals in the country. During the summer of 2000, I introduced Manik to Enoch Kunarajah, whom I had met at Colchester cricket club. Enoch is a Sri Lankan Christian studying for a Ph D at Essex. Manik and Enoch began to pray together.
Our son Shane had gone to Colchester Sixth Form College. Within a few weeks of moving into our house in Colchester, Shane and three friends had brought 15 people home for an Alpha Course. We worked with the students to prepare the talks and facilitate the small groups- and we provided a kitchen for making pizzas. At the end, we booked the Colchester Arts Centre for a celebration concert at which Alpha participants were interviewed about their experiences of the course. 184 people showed up, largely because several members of a popular local band were on the Alpha Course and played at the event.
We met Baptist minister Terry Tennens. Terry was at that time working in business. He’d developed a concern for mission and ministry at the workplace. His passion was to practise a biblical approach to being a Christian at work. We invited Terry to come and pray with us and mingle with us. As he did, he developed a vision for a new workplace ministry in Colchester.
At the same time, we knew a family who had moved to the area from London. We visited them and prayed with them a few times, sharing a vision for planting in 2001. When the time came they joined us.
So each of these “spring-ups” became the origin of a Mission Unit. A Mission Unit is not a church or a congregation. It is an intention to do mission among a particular group of people. The goal of the mission units is to create a community of faith in Jesus.
The paradigm shift is simple. Whereas in the church paradigm, church gives shape to mission, in the mission paradigm, mission gives shape to church. Much church planting is church cloning1, springing out of the church paradigm. Take between 20 and 70 people out of an existing church and they’ll usually plant a church which looks like the one from which they came.
Missionary church planting is like giving birth. An expectant couple will not know what the new person will look like; but they know something of the DNA that has created the new person. They know what they and their parents and grandparents look like. Nor will they know the precise circumstances in which they will parent their child. They’ll do the best they can, with the resources of love and care and wisdom and material goods.
A Worship Community
By mid-2001, 4 mission units were functioning-
- Young Adults,
- Families with pre-schoolers.
On Trinity Sunday, June 10th, we gathered 21 people together to worship God. We met in a leisure centre at 5pm and called the event Live at Five.
During June 2002, we celebrated the first birthday of Live at Five with a week of activities. We remembered what had happened over 12 months and set our faces to continue in mission into the future. During the week, 35 people came on Wednesday to the prayer dedication of the office and meeting room we have recently rented; 60 came on Thursday to a retreat day in the country; 45 came on Saturday to the young adults Identity event; a total of 60 came to the two Sunday services of worship at the Arena Leisure Centre. Live at Five currently attracts 60 regular participants; twice as many take part in ongoing groups and events run by the Mission Units.
Probably 75% of these were not involved in any local church before they participated with us. Many are on their way towards becoming a follower of Jesus. Others have chosen to follow Jesus during the year.
We prefer that people don’t “transfer” from their church to us. Those from other churches who are called to serve in mission with us can be either seconded or sent just like overseas missionaries.
What do we value?
DNA is so complex and intricate, that if a person’s DNA were stretched out entirely it would reach from the earth to the moon. Unravelling our spiritual DNA also generates a lengthy list of values. We have sought to give expression to these values. I hope that our behaviour and communal life gives them away.
We believe in God’s Mission in the World, therefore we value the whole community in which we are placed. Believing that we are called to operate the “Heineken Principle” (“to reach the parts that other beers cannot reach”) we seek to serve people around us from many nations (including students, immigrants and refugees) and those who have no commitments to a local church. Since we aim to embody and multiply the fingerprints of Jesus, we take Jesus’ own manifesto (Luke 4, 19) as the basis of our mission. Our mission goals are:
- To Communicate Good News to the Poor, Glimpses of God, The Favour of God
- To Heal the Broken-hearted
- To Set People Free to Pursue their Godly Dreams
We believe in Evangelising Community, therefore we value worship evangelism2. We Communicate the message of the Gospel; we invite people into Community life; we share our Communion with God. 3 “Com” words; “Com” means “with”, so we conclude that evangelism is a “with” word more than a “to” word. While we seek to equip individuals to speak about their reasons for faith and their story of faith, we recognise the dynamic of the Spirit present in the community of disciples. We seek to make our worship accessible and excellent; yet we have faith that God touches people in preaching, reading Scripture, testimony, prayers, prophetic revelation, worship arts, silence and sacrament.
We believe in Ministry Teams, therefore we value the inclusion of new (and older) followers of Jesus as well as and those on their way towards Christ, into teams for service according to their giftedness. For example, 4 Gap-year students, 2 of whom had become Christians in the previous year, have resourced the leadership of our young adults work. Our young adult volunteers have included quite a few who do not own Christian faith yet desire to be included in serving the community.
We believe in One-to-one Mentoring, particularly for seekers and new followers of Jesus, therefore we value training for disciplers. A common mentoring pattern is to meet for one hour; 20 minutes catch-up and storytelling; 20 minutes of reading the Bible in response to issues and stories raised; 20 minutes prayer (silence included) springing out of the issues and the Bible passage.
We believe in Small Groups, therefore we value some of the “Cell Church” principles. We are not a “pure cell” church; our mission units are sometimes group based and sometimes not. However, we seek to initiate and mobilise holistic small groups to be relational, biblical, prayerful and open to include and serve outsiders.
We believe in Global Multiplication, therefore we value training for potential church planters. We look out for people who may be called to lead a church planting team in the future and encourage them to observe, participate and learn with us. We value theological training integrated into church planting experience. We are currently sending a potential Chinese church planter for part time study at London Bible College while deploying him as a staff member on our International team.
We believe in the Sacramental Character of Marriage, therefore we value the co-operation and integration of couples in ministry. We do not insist on this, since we recognise the value of single people in ministry and honour the individual whose spouse does not want to be included. However, we take the view that a marriage is like a mini-church, where Christ-centred love, trust, mutual submission and as-long-as-you-shall-live loyalty is a sign of the Kingdom of God3.
We believe in Indiscriminate Grace or “The Cornelius Household Factor”, therefore we value the healthy spiritual experiences of unchurched people. The Holy Spirit fell spontaneously upon the Gentiles in Cornelius’ house. Since Peter and Joel have both spoken of the Spirit being poured out “on all flesh”, we anticipate, pray for and expect both dramatic and undramatic manifestations of the Spirit’s encounter with people who don’t know much about Jesus. Visions of Jesus, dreams, revelation of truth, trembling limbs, beating hearts, “butterflies” in the stomach, instant deliverance from extreme pain have all happened to people we would define as “unchurched” or “seekers” in purposefully non-emotional and unhyped environments. The indiscriminate nature of Grace continues to sneak up on us and overturn our sacred cows.
We believe in Mustard-Seeds of Faith to Move Mountains of Finance, therefore we value the spiritual gift of financial contribution, mentioned by Paul (Romans 12, 8) and by Luke (Luke 8, 3). Further, we value the partnership of intercessors, who know about issues for prayer, including financial needs. We began the work without stipend or financial assurances; however, funds have sprung up from individual donors and grant-making bodies. To be strictly honest, this came as a surprise. I thought I’d probably get a job in the Church of England structure but it didn’t work out. (No complaints!) We appear still to be a long way from self-sufficiency as a community of faith. My hunch is that we will be self-sufficient after 4-8 years. I base this hunch on research by John Finney4, who found that the average unchurched British adult takes four years to become committed to serve Christ in the fellowship of a local church. At this point, he or she is unlikely to be positioned financially to contribute a tithe; it may take a further period, up to 4 years, to come to this level of liberality.
The Current Shape and Future Growth
An infant is frail, by definition. An infant faith community is likewise frail, in need of support, care and protection. We are conscious that all the work that has begun could disappear quite rapidly without the necessary nurturing and pastoral support. We struggle to maintain while we push out in mission. This is the current sum of ministry programming:
- 4 Mission Units: – Internationals, Identity, Work Dynamics, Families
- 1 weekly Sunday Celebration: – Live at five
- 1 mid-week International worship event: – Tuesday 10pm
- 1 monthly all-age Sunday morning worship event
- 1 monthly Identity “seeker-targeted” event
- 12 small groups, including 4 open activity groups with young adults
- 3 evangelistic courses- Visa, Alpha, Sound Bites
- 1 international partnership: – a church plant based in Lauingen, Bavaria
Growth Plans in the Near Future
- To grow forward the existing Mission Units and ministries by a factor of 4 over the next 12-18 months
- To create one new Mission Unit: – Sacred Space Alternative Worship
- To shift the Sunday Celebration to a morning slot and turn Live at Five into a regular training event, including music, teaching and group discussion
- To pilot, in partnership with other churches, one new evangelistic course: – Essence, for new agers
- To assist the creation of one new East Anglian
- To cement International partnerships with church plants in USA and Australia
1. See Stuart Murray’s excellent book, Church Planting, for further discussion about the difference between planting and cloning.
2. See Worship Evangelism, Sally Morgenthaler for further discussion on the theology and practice of the function of worship in the evangelising community.
3. We are indebted to the work of Dr Jack Dominian for this view.
4. John Finney, Finding Faith Today
This article originally appeared in “Setting the Church of England Free”, Mark Mills Powell (ed), 2003