To say that we live in a connected and networked world is old news. When an immigrant from Mexico cooks my favorite Levantine dish (I happen to be Korean American) at a bodega owned by a second-generation Jordanian, the world just got smaller and more connected. Cultures collide, and the outcome is messy and beautiful. It is difficult to see where one culture ends and another begins. Is the hot sauce in the baba ghanoush a Mexican touch? No one knows, not even the server. Like a good sketch, there is a lot of cross-hatching, and the final product is greater than the parts. The keenest observers of society are those who are incentivized to see—entrepreneurs, financial institutions, and missionaries.
The world has plenty of the former, and they can sniff opportunities years before others. If we tweak Horace’s famous words and monetize it, carpe pecuniam (“seize the money”) might be their motto. In a world where mammon is enthroned, who can fault them? They are just better devotees.
The church, if she is honest, is far slower in analyzing shifts in culture. Part of the problem is, undoubtedly, owing to the church’s inherent traditionalism, not necessarily a bad quality in a world obsessed with novelty. However, if God has created these shifts in culture and networks for the church to accomplish her mission, then failing to see them is to miss God’s design. More importantly, the church might miss open doors. To provoke our imaginations, the apostle Paul offers an example of what can be done by those who use networks in a selfless way.
Paul was a man of his times. He was a Jew, who lived in a Hellenized world under the rule of the Roman Empire. He could expound the Scriptures to his countrymen in synagogues, reason with Greeks in lecture halls, and preach to Roman soldiers in prison (Acts 17:1–9; 17:22–34; 19:9; Phil. 1:12–14). Paul knew how to be all things to all people and to use the networks of the world to further his mission (1 Cor. 9:19–23).
It is interesting to note that Paul did not create much in terms of infrastructure–church buildings, cultural centers, and the like. Instead, he discerned what was already available and used them to their fullest potential. And to put it mildly, there was a lot that Paul could use. Rome’s empire extended from the British Isles to North Africa to Turkey. More importantly, this empire was surprisingly unified. Certain constants were embedded into the Roman world such as trade routes, ports, roads, citizenship, law, and the Roman army. Paul used them all.
Theologically speaking, Paul had an understanding that common grace, God’s blessing to all, was the handmaiden of special grace, God’s work of salvation. Therefore, Paul was unafraid to use what he saw in the world to further his mission. When he first came into a city, he often started in synagogues (Acts 13:5; 13:13–15; 17:1–4; 17:10; 17:17; 18:5–88; 19:8). This act was reasonable. As a former Pharisee, he knew the Scriptures and the worldview of fellow Jews. From there, Paul crossed over to the general population.
Addressing people on the Areopagus in Athens, Paul is remarkable (Acts 17:16–34). He used a monument to “an unknown God” as a segue to talk about the God who created the heavens and earth. He also chose Greek authors to make his point. Paul quoted Epimenides of Crete and Aratus, a Greek didactic poet. Classics scholar E. B. Howell goes as far as to call Paul’s talk an open lecture reminiscent of the great orators of Athens. At the very least, Paul shows that he was conversant with the Hellenistic world and used it to further his mission.
In Acts 28, we see Paul on board an Alexandrian ship with a figurehead of Castor and Pollux sailing towards Rome because he had used his legal prerogative as a Roman citizen to appeal to Caesar. By the end of the chapter, he has rented quarters in Rome and is welcoming people in the largest city on earth—that is until London eclipsed it in the 19th century.
Paul’s activity, to this point, might seem random or predicated on the vicissitudes of the life of a missionary. However, if we read Acts and Paul’s letters with networks in mind, we might discern Paul’s strategy. In a word, Paul used networks to promulgate the good news. By the end of his life, he changed the world.
In 1973 Mark Granovetter published a groundbreaking article on the topic of weak ties. Within a network, nodes exist. According to Granovetter, the ties that connect nodes can be weak, strong, or absent. When ties are strong, information is redundant. “[T]he stronger the tie connecting two individuals, the more similar they are in various ways,” he writes. The benefit of strong ties is that social norms are reinforced. The downside is informational and social redundancy. In other words, your group of friends and you generally know the same things and the same people. When ties are weak, bridges between various social networks are established. “[T]his means that whatever is to be diffused can reach a larger number of people, and traverse greater social distances (i.e., paths lengths), when passed through weak ties rather than strong,” Granovetter says. Therefore, individuals with the greatest number of weak ties are positioned to spread and gain new ideas. These people function as bridges.
The power of weak ties, especially with the advancement of technology and social media, should be obvious. The spread of diseases because of the ease of travel is compounded (just think of Ebola and Zika), and the spread of ideas through the internet happens with alarming speed. However, weak ties also have a downside. The costlier the adoption of an innovation is, the stronger the tie must be. This observation makes good sense. If there is something to lose or if something is unproven, then people are less apt to embrace it. In these cases, multiples points of contact and reinforcement are necessary.
The merits of strong and weak ties offer several insights into Paul’s missionary endeavors. Paul was itinerant. He traveled extensively throughout the Mediterranean world, which the Romans developed to optimize cultural exchange and reinforce their hegemony. Paul traveled nearly 10,000 miles in Acts alone. Through his travels Paul encountered many people. He became close to a few of them, such as Timothy, but for the most part he developed a network of weak ties. Moreover, these weak ties had networks of their own. The result was a quick diffusion of his message.
According to István Czachesz, Paul was the example par excellence of using the strength of weak ties. “[S]ince Paul moved about so much, he was prevented from maintaining many strong social links,” Czachesz writes, “but it enabled him to develop a great number of weak ties…such a position could be best described as that of a between-group broker.” Czachesz makes an important point, but we can go one step further.
Paul did have many weak ties, but if we look at his relationships from the point of view of those whom Paul impacted, then their view of him was not symmetric. They viewed Paul as a charismatic leader, an apostle, a founder, and a father. In a word, Paul was no weak tie to them. The picture of the Ephesian elders weeping over Paul’s farewell in Acts 20:36–38 captures Paul’s influence.
Paul’s interaction with the Thessalonians furnishes an even better example. The book of Acts states that Paul’s stay was abbreviated owing to persecution. Paul reasoned with the Jews in the city for only three Sabbaths (Acts 17:2); yet the impact he made was nothing short of unbelievable. The Thessalonians became a shining example of faith to all of Macedonia, Achaia, and beyond (1 Thess. 1:7–8). These new converts became loyal to God and spread their new faith with zeal through other nodes and ties (not only in Macedonia and Achaia). The result: the spread of the gospel message throughout the world.
From a practical point of view, Paul could create this network because he was itinerant. He was a tentmaker. Ronald Hock is probably correct in stating that, while Paul probably made tents, his trade was likely closer to that of a leather worker. As such, Paul could have made tents, but he could have made other leather goods as well. That Paul chose this occupation shows us something of his heart and strategy.
First, Paul worked with his own hands to support himself so that he would not be a burden to anyone. (2 Thess. 3:7–8; 2 Cor. 11:5–11; 12:14–18; 1 Thess. 2:9). By living in this way, Paul not only preached the message of Christ, but he also exemplified a lifestyle that showed the dynamics of grace. He enriched his hearers at his own expense.
Since the New Testament church was just underway, Paul also wanted to show the purity of his motives. In other words, he did not want to jeopardize the beauty of the message of Christ by having anyone say that he was engaged in ministry for monetary gain. There were plenty of itinerant teachers who charged exorbitant fees. The second Sophistic movement, which saw the rise of traveling rhetoricians, was in full swing. Paul preached because the love of Christ compelled him. He writes, “Unlike so many, we do not peddle the word of God for profit. On the contrary, in Christ we speak before God with sincerity, as those sent from God” (2 Cor. 2:17).
Equally important, Paul could say that he was free and “self-sufficient.” No patron or powerful monarch was looking over his shoulders. He did not have to ask for anyone’s permission to move from one place to another. When he felt compelled by God to go to Macedonia, he went. All he needed was a few knives for cutting leather and a few sewing awls. His craft was transportable. This fact enabled him to travel from node to node and to create new connections.
Evangelism Through Networks
Paul changed the world. Many Christians today want to do so as well. But where do we start? Paul offers a few clues. First, he reminds us to see with new eyes. He impacted the world with comparatively little resources because he saw the power of networks. Paul intuited that networks cost little money and produce far more than what one puts into them. Like the sower in Jesus’s parable, Paul learned to sow generously on fertile ground, and he reaped a hundredfold. From this perspective, Roman rule, Greek learning, Hellenistic polytheism, and Judaism were not necessarily hindrances that he needed to discard wholesale; they were potential networks he could use to point people to a greater reality.
Second, Paul possessed a selfless heart. He labored tirelessly (1 Cor. 15:10), but he never sought recognition from man; for him God’s recognition was enough, and God’s love propelled him. Therefore, slights of honor, false accusations, and even persecutions beaded off him, like rain on windshield. Furthermore, because his eyes were not on himself, he could consider others more significant than himself. He connected people to Christ and to each other, and this network caused the fledgling church to mature.
The challenge is that it is difficult to see these opportunities and even more difficult to be selfless. The bastard twins of pride and short-sightedness constitute the Achilles’s heel for most of us. Perhaps we are unable to see what people and resources God has already provided because we cannot take credit for them. Self-interest and pride have the uncanny ability to close our eyes and harden our hearts in a fallen world.
The church is the most networked community on earth many times over. It is embedded in every land and has members in every field, discipline, and expertise. If it learns to walk in humility and discernment, it will change the world.
John Lee is the head of the Upper School at The Geneva School of Manhattan, a Christian classical school. His book, Paradoxes of Leadership, will be released in November (Elevate, 2017).