Over the past several weeks, our friends at EXPONENTIAL have been engaging a conversation regarding the top 7 QUESTIONS asked by church leaders about missional community. Since I’ve recently done some writing on the topic in my upcoming book, “Barefoot Church“, and since Austin New Church is a missional church focused on missional/incarnational community, I couldn’t help but take the time to think through the questions myself. I hope this is helpful:
(1) What is a missional community?
I think guys like Alan Hirsch, Hugh Halter, Matt Carter, and Mike Breen have already done a great job of defining missional community. So I won’t attempt to do any better. Instead I hope to add a perspective: From a “functional” standpoint a missional community can be described as a group of people who gather for the sake of mission with the hope of fostering deep relationships that shape culture. They don’t do so as a hobby or with the motive to create community just for the sake of connecting. They do so because they understand the theological implications and requirements that accompany the life of a disciple centered on the Gospel. True missional community responds to context and culture in determining its form. Just as church is not biblical church without community, community is not biblical community without mission. While traditional community groups and small groups often exist for the believer, missional community exists equally for the believing and unbelieving. It provides a place for anyone to explore faith while being a part of something they might consider “good news”, possibly even before they fully understand the “Good News”.
(2) How is a missional community different than a Bible study and small group?
This is a question of both function and form. Small groups and Bible studies function as connecting point often focusing on the relational and spiritual needs of those already within a church body. Missional Community functions as a sending point with a commitment to focusing on those outside the group. Both groups create forms to serve the function of their group.
There are at least four new perspectives that accompany a community focused on mission:
1. Missional Community comes with a new PURPOSE: A people who recognize their “priesthood” and calling to “go”, who understand that church does not exist to meet their needs, and who are willing to address the issues of Individualism, Consumerism, and Materialism within modern Christianity.
2. Missional Community comes with a new POSTURE: The church does not have a good reputation among our onlookers. Yet scripture says repetitively that when we are good news, we will gain favor among men. When others see our good deeds, they will assign glory to God. That’s the hope of a truly missional community, to change the posture of the church to those on the outside.
3. Missional Community comes with a new PRIORITY: In our current western context – while it’s a shrinking demographic – people will still show up for the first time on Sunday. However, when we place a priority on creating a place where people can come and belong even before they believe, we gain a new front door for church. A place that may offer safety, security, and authentic relationships without perceived “agenda” of typical church. Many times church leaders feel the pressure to make Sunday gatherings sensitive to our “neighbors”, often resulting in a seemingly schizophrenic experience without clarity on it’s purpose. Prioritizing community for mission offers a place for “loving our neighbor” (incarnation) and frees the gathering for the priority of “loving our God” (exaltation).
4. Missional Community comes with a new PERMISSION: Church structure and strategy has become pretty complex. Just he idea of “simple church” is refreshing to most church leaders. Our current structures keep our people so busy that they rarely have time to live on mission. By transitioning our traditional small groups to missional community, we are not only placing priority, we are giving permission. And by doing so, often we’re utilizing forms that already exist, instead of creating something new. Ultimately we’re giving our people permission and the margin to live on mission. We’re saying, yes, this counts. Yes, spending intentional time with a neighbor is a part of discipleship. Yes, we’d rather you spend time in your front yard than on our church campus.
(3) How do I transition my church from Bible study programs to missional communities?
That depends on your starting point. The short answer is to know who you’re leading and lead them the way they need to be led, not the way you want to lead. For most of us with existing structures, that will mean it to be a slow process. Educate your people and start with pilot groups. Ask them to just “try” it and ask for feedback. Learn from them. Stop doing what didn’t work. And reproduce what did. Don’t expect everyone to be where you are after one conversation. Many of us as leaders, eat, sleep, and breath this stuff. We’ve been praying, suffering, struggling for years on what God wants us to do. Don’t expect your people to be there overnight. Some will. But not all will.
With that in mind, one of the greatest things a church leader can do is to foster a culture of change. If we’re going to respond to the Gospel in our context and continuously shifting culture, and lead our church to do the same, we have to realize that change is a big part of it.
1. Make it a Priority: In order to create a culture of mission, we have to communicate and structure mission as a priority, not an add-on or optional event. We can do this in a number of ways:
- Platform: The most underutilized platform is Sunday morning. We need to use it not only to preach our sermons, but to also cast vision regularly. The mistake we sometimes make is waiting until we have it all figured out before we share. Bringing your congregation in on the journey, possibly even starting with a confession of neglect, can be one of the most powerful ways to lead. This is a great time to proactively address anticipated objections, concerns, or misunderstandings. If we are not willing to utilize our Sunday mornings to regularly communicate serving, it’s simply not our priority.
- Prayer: We need prayer without change. How much more do we need it while leading others through change?
- Scripture: We would never make a point during a sermon without building a scriptural foundation, yet we tend to expect people to be willing to live on mission just because they should. Share not only from your heart, but also from your Bible. Scripture has plenty to say. We can have confidence that the Word will not return void.
- Leaders: The best leaders don’t have to search for something significant to do; they are being asked by everyone to join their effort. One of the most effective things we can do is to schedule a lunch or a coffee with a key leader, share our heart with them, and ask them to be a part of it. Don’t expect them to fully understand what you’re doing or why, but ask them to be a part of exploring and evaluating the process. Starting pilot groups or “test” ministries are some of the best ways to find early adopters.
2. Protect Margin: We simply cannot ask people to keep adding things to their ministry life. If we do, mission will be the first to go. We have to simplify our forms and find ways to create margin in our current structures. Celebrate addition through subtraction. It’s worth the effort to give your people (or yourself) the time to do what you’re asking them to do well. Some of the greatest ways to protect margin are to:
- Evaluate: Cut events and projects that don’t serve the mission.
- Consolidate: Identify your most effective existing forms and find ways to utilize them as a funnel for involvement.
- Reshape: Consider adding purposes that can free up other days of the week. This will increase buy in for each group and increase involvement exponentially.
3. Find a Common Language: Often the turning point for creating a structure to support a new vision comes when we land on a common language to communicate that vision. Finding a common language requires you to do the necessary groundwork of landing on a structure that supports the vision. (Examples: “Love your Neighbor. Serve your City.” or “Exposing, Experiencing, Engaging Need).
(4) How do I transition my small group to a missional community?
While much of the answer to this question is addressed in the prior question’s answer, you must first start by asking the questions: (1) Why does this small group exist? (2) What biblical purpose are we not meeting? (3) If not here, then where? (4) Are we at least willing to try?
From there we must consider our structure and form. How we do what we do and why we do what we do. Is there a better meeting format? Would or non-Christian friends feel like they could “belong” at this gathering? Why or why not? What changes need to be made?
Ask the questions. Answer them honestly. Collectively propose some possible solutions. Don’t be afraid to fail, keep trying. Part of authentic community is navigating tension, disagreement, failure, as much as it is experiencing success. The journey will end up being as important as our hope to arrive.
(5) How do I train missional leaders?
I think you first have to identify what kind of leaders you need and what will they do. We recruit and train three types of leader for every missional community. The reason we do so is to involve as many people we can in leadership and to divide responsibilities so each are done well. These are the positions we’ve found to be helpful:
1. Facilitators: Responsible for teaching and spiritual direction.
2. Hosts: Responsible for communication, location, snacks, and childcare.
3. Restore Leaders: Responsible for making sure the group engages need (neighbor & city).
For our first round, we trained each leader type together but separately for two months (facilitators with facilitators, hosts with hosts, restore leaders with restore leaders). We networked them. And encouraged them to call each other to see what they are finding to work even before they’ll call a pastor. We taught missional theology as it relates to incarnational community, context, culture, and purpose as it relates to the bigger picture of church. We give clarity on their roles. Help them understand what the “other” leaders are doing in each of their groups. Explain how the structure supports their role. Then release them into ministry. We typically try to stay in contact with each leader once a month but are available at any time.
We require new leaders to have been actively involved in an existing missional community for a period of time. In this group they are essentially apprenticed. They’ve typically seen leaders at work and can easily adopt a similar model. During the transition and launch period of a new group there is weekly involvement between staff and key leaders. This goes on for about 8 weeks then they are released to lead.
(6) What do missional communities do?
Mother Teresa taught that there are three kinds of need in every community: (1) Spiritual Need (2) Relational/Emotional Need and (3) Physical Need. These are key distinctions with implications every missional community must consider.
With this in mind, we’ve found that one of the best ways for a community to be missional is to first recognize need in their community – and as missionaries to that community – create a plan to address those needs.
1. EXPOSING THE NEED: We know about spiritual need. It’s everywhere. But often a skeptic of faith and/or church cannot see through their physical or emotional need to their spiritual need. In the same way, often a believer sees only spiritual need in their community, failing to see the obvious physical and emotional need. An invite to dinner, helping a neighbor with a project, or lending an ear without a lecture can lead to authentic relationship, offering hope to a person in need of hope. A missional community that takes the time to evaluate need will find it’s mission defined by need that actually exists, not by what they think their community needs.
2. EXPERIENCING THE NEED: Engaging need relationally and as a part of community takes time. We can easily find ourselves over committed in an area that we’re not equipped, called, don’t understand, or don’t have the bandwidth to meet. After gaining a greater understanding of real need in a community, it might be best to plan some intentional activities to simply “taste and see” what each need feels like. That might be through volunteering to HELP instead of offering to LEAD an event in the neighborhood. Don’t over-promise prior to getting your feet wet. The key is being around people, being present, and being willing. Earning trust as an individual as well as a community is often a prerequisite to engaging spiritual need. (If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? – James 2:16)
3. ENGAGING THE NEED: Once a missional community gains an informed position on how they can become good news to their “neighbor”, they can move forward creating a strategy to engage those needs together. That must include creating a structure for mission. Often groups make the error of meeting every week for traditional small group activities (bible study, prayer, etc…) and add any intentional missional efforts on top of an already busy schedule. A community truly committed to mission needs to consider a structure that “gives away” as much time as they keep (“Love your neighbor as yourself.” – Matthew 22:39). With this in mind, we’ve adopted a model we call “Love Your Neighbor. Serve Your City.” Every other week we gather for fellowship, prayer, and bible study. Then every other week we do something intentional either as individuals or collectively to “Love our Neighbors” (often engaging a emotional or relational need) and then every other week we do something intentional to “Serve our City” (often meeting a physical need). Essentially we are committing two gatherings a month to “mission” and two gatherings a month to “community”. This can create a strong framework to ensure mission in any context.
Q: Who are the churches doing this and what struggles and successes have they experienced?
Mission is messy. Always has been. I think the churches handling missional community the best are the ones who realize the organic nature of mission and allow it to exist in it’s various forms (in fact, they encourage it). Just as we can’t force community, we can’t control mission. We can create a framework and structure, but from there we have to be willing to release our people into their mission field. This is foreign territory for many of us.
I think Adullam in Denver (Hugh Halter and Matt Smay) is doing a great job with missional community. And locally here in Austin, Austin Stone Community Church (Matt Carter) is doing great on the mega level and churches like Austin City Life (Jonathan Dodson) and Soma Austin (Jacob VanHorn) are doing well on the church plant / organic level. Many of the churches doing this really well aren’t in the spotlight. I find myself encouraged and challenged each time I hear about some of the new efforts