Definition: A missional community (aka community group, gospel community, mid-sized community) is a group of 20-40 people living as a community of disciples on mission to a specific people group. It functions as a group distinct in its function in church life from that of the large congregational gathering on Sundays, and the smaller discipleship group of 6-10 people.
Here are 10 reasons why I’m such a fan of missional communities as a model of ministry:
- Provides an experience of the biblical style of house church alongside the larger congregational service experience.
There is a biblical basis for large gatherings of God’s people for worship and teaching. We see this for example in Exodus 19-24, 2 Kings 23, Ezra 9-10, Nehemiah 8-10, Acts 2. However, the most common experience of church gatherings in the New Testament was of a smaller household gathering around a meal, in which there was space for many to participate in prayer, teaching and worship, and which operated as a sense of family rather than a crowd. For example, we see this in Mark 13, Acts 2:42-47, Acts 20:7-12, 1 Corinthians 11-14.
The beauty of missional communities is that they allow both the congregational service style of church to operate side by side with the smaller household church style. The church experiences the benefits of both styles of church. Normal discipleship groups of 6-8 people usually lack the social dynamic that is present in the larger community sized group.
- Provides space for non-Christians or fringe Christians to find belonging and community.
Increasingly, more and more non-Christians are wary or negative about attending church services. Many will respond far more positively to being invited to a social environment, such as a bbq in the park, or a party. As they come to missional community activities, they will start to observe Christians doing activities such as praying for each other, sharing their life story, sharing from God’s word, and serving the community. This is a really helpful place for many non-Christians to experience Christianity in a friendly environment even before they come to a church service.
Church services are good places for some non-Christians to come to, if they are open-minded towards the church. They may attend a service and remain fairly anonymous. However, such people often will find it hard to make deep connections with people from church by merely attending services. They will need to develop genuine relationships with people if they are to keep coming. Furthermore, they may feel rather intimidated by attending a small discipleship group in which they may have their ignorance of the Bible revealed. Missional communities are of the ideal size in which they may stand on the fringe of the group and observe the spiritual components of the community, while slowly becoming more confident on spiritual matters, and at the same time building deeply into relationships within the community.
It is also a great place for Christians who are new to church or on the fringe to connect at a deeper level with others. People can be easily invited along to community activities sometimes on their very first visit to church, whereas normally people wouldn’t normally want to sign up for a Bible study group on their first visit to church.
- Provides space for raising of new leaders in safe environment
Missional communities require leaders to run many activities such as:
a) sharing a devotional thought;
b) organising a social event;
c) co-ordinating prayer lists;
d) helping with pastoral needs;
e) lead discipleship groups
f) leading a time of worship
Because a missional community is only of a smaller size- ~30 people- it is ok for leaders not to be perfectly polished in their skills- for example- in sharing a devotion. They get to practice in a zone where they would not usually get so many opportunities to practice in the larger sphere of a normal church service.
- Provides an ability to create multiplying missional foci within a church that mobilizes individuals for mission and is sustainable.
Often a church may have no specific mission focus, other than just having a vision to reach everybody in the community around them. This may lead to a lack of intentionality in thinking about how to reach the specific people of that community.
Alternatively, maybe a church will have a specific mission focus- such as a school community. But because it is the focus of the whole church of ~100 people, many people within the church don’t really feel they are needed to get involved, and all the work is thus done by the small “faithful few” of the church, while a large number remain uninvolved.
Alternatively, maybe a church will have several mission focuses at the same time. However, this may often lead to the same faithful core of the church being pulled in several directions at once, and being unable to invest quality time in a single direction.
Missional communities provide a better solution to these alternatives. By intentionally creating groups of around ~30 people in the church, each of whom have a different major missional focus, this stimulates a greater mobilisation for everybody to have some active involvement in mission, as in a group of ~30 people, everybody is needed.
Although all people will be encouraged to think about how they reach out to the individuals they cross paths with in their personal lives, the group as a whole also has to consider how as a group they can focus on their specific people group. This gives people ownership in a joint mission, which teaches people the skills and thinking for their personal witness, and gives them a role in mission even if they have no personal strong connections with non-Christians.
Having multiple specific mission foci allows a realistic plan for reaching the specific pockets of the local community, rather than people bouncing between different opportunities of people groups in the community. Examples of mission foci could be: a geographical area; a school community; a sporting community; a workplace community; a people group such as disabled families or refugee community.
- Missional communities are “small enough to care, but big enough to dare”.
How can churches keep growing and yet keep the intimacy of community where people feel they belong and are just not individuals in a crowd? Missional communities provide a good solution. They allow a church to grow as large as they like, but also always provide people a community of ~30 people to find their place of belonging in, as well as their smaller group of ~8 to do discipleship in.
Rather than the pastoral care of the whole church being just dependent upon the pastoral staff, missional communities stimulate the provision of (low level) pastoral care being largely provided by the community itself, with this being overseen by the pastoral staff. A missional community of ~30 have the numbers to provide meals for those who are sick, visiting the elderly, helping the needy, when it is understood that the missional community needs to operate as a Christian family caring for one another. This is something which is often too big a task for the normal small group.
Conversely, a missional community of ~30 people is a group big enough to make a real difference and impact on a missional target. For example, a small group of 8 could hardly be expected to take on a state school of 500 as their mission target- they would quickly become exhausted. However, a group of 30 people which had several parents enrolled in that school could be the links with the rest of their community to inform them of opportunities to be involved in serving in the school, and have the manpower to make a real impact.
However, when a whole congregation of say 100 people all adopt the same mission focus, inevitably, many people will not feel as if their participation is really necessary, and the usual pattern will be that the majority of the work falls on the faithful core of ~20 people, and the rest of the congregation has little involvement. A missional community of ~30 means that everybody is needed to make the mission work.
- Provides an integration of discipleship in which all Christians are expected to be involved in discipleship, mission, serving activities, etc.
Often churches seek to provide a wide variety of ministries or activities for Christians to be involved in, such as Bible studies, social justice projects, social connection times, kids ministries, womens ministries, etc etc. These are all good activities and provide benefit for the church. However, the problem can be that they are often done in isolation from each other, and the effect is that they provide a smorgasboard which people can pick and choose from in what they want to get involved in. For example, some people will commit to doing Bible studies because they like to display their Bible knowledge, but not do any social justice activities because they aren’t very practical people. Other people will avoid Bible studies because they will feel insecure about their Bible knowledge, but may be happy to get involved in serving at a kids ministry. Some people will get extremely busy by being involved in nearly all of the activities on offer, leading to a problem of burnout over time.
Missional communities may provide a more holistic, simple and sustainable model. All Christians have one main commitment to a missional community- although they may also be part of other ministries if they wish to, such as music teams, mums ministries, etc. However, the missional community is the main tool for doing both discipleship and mission in the church. As part of life in that missional community, everyone is encouraged to be part of discipleship groups, as well as being involved in missional activities which the community organizes. Although you cannot force everybody to do everything, at least you can present an expectation within a community for everyone to be committed together to a common core of basics which is fulfilled in a holistic way within that community.
- Provides a simple and sustainable model of ministry, rather than one which fragments families and requires large organisation.
One of the challenges of our contemporary society is the busyness of life which many people get swept up in. Many forms of church life unfortunately only add to the problem rather than helping, by offering multiple types of event-focussed ministries which are done in isolation from each other and which require volunteers to run.
Missional communities emphasize a simplicity of lifestyle, in which people have only one main commitment to a missional community, within which different functions are met. Generally speaking, activities are done with families as a whole rather than seeking to cater for the needs of different individuals within families, so this leads to families being brought together rather than split apart. (Teenagers and young adults may be best served by having their own specific missional community to be part of).
The main focus of community activities is building relationships rather than running events, and the result is that while the community may have many connections happening within a given month, not everyone will be required to be at everything and the effort of doing these activities will be minimal. The result is that people have genuine time to spend deepening relationships and authenticity with one another.
- Provides a natural pathway for multiplication and church planting.
Multiplying small groups can often be a difficult process as the 8-10 people form very close relationships, and become reluctant to divide in two to start a new group. After a group has gone through the process of dividing to start a new group once, they may be even more reluctant the next time to split another new group up again. The advantage of missional communities is that this process becomes easier as when a missional community multiplies to begin a new community, it may be divided using existing small groups within the community, and thus discipleship groups may stick together in the creation of a new missional community.
Another exciting benefit of missional communities is that it is a safe and risk-free strategy for church planting. Essentially starting a new missional community is a way of starting a new church without starting a new Sunday service, as a missional community begins to do everything that a church should do, other than run a Sunday service. When your church has multiplied enough missional communities, then church planting becomes a relatively simple and natural step forward, as it is simply a matter of sending 2-3 missional communities which are already operating as a healthy church family to commence their own church service as a new congregation.
- Allows the major focus of church life to remain on a healthy relationship with God, rather than running events.
Often a program-driven church has so many activities requiring organisation that sadly all the energy goes into ensuring a polished production of events and services which the public are invited to come and consume. Christian growth becomes an optional extra when there is time for it, as so much energy is required to run the programs the church is offering.
By contrast, a focus on missional communities provides a refreshing emphasis on the church simply living out their Christian worldview in community together in everyday life, and inviting their friends to be part of that. This is a process which is more focussed on seeing authentic Christian growth occur rather than just crowds attending impressive Christian programs and events.
- They work!
The all important question for many people will just be- but “does it work”? It would be obviously very silly to say that no other model of ministry can work. It would also be a big mistake to put one’s trust in a slick formula or model for ministry, rather than in the sovereign work of the Holy Spirit. There are challenges involved in seeking to establish effective missional communities which may make any numerical growth slower than a model which just seeks to attract a crowd through offering various programs. The reason for establishing missional communities needs to be because of conviction of its principles rather than out of pragmatism for its results, as such motivations may not be deep enough to provide the required persistence when things are not going to plan.
Nevertheless, it may be said that missional communities have a track record of success amongst those who have firmly followed through on such a model with discipleship and mission at the centre. I became intrigued initially with missional communities through reading of their success in secular Europe in the book “Launching Missional Communities: A Field Guide”, in which it is claimed they saw 725 new churches started in 3 years using missional communities. I quickly realised that the sort of incredible growth experience described there will not necessarily be reproduced elsewhere without the hard work required to place the necessary foundations in place, which will take quite some time, and who knows- perhaps the story there may not be as impressive sounding if it was given closer examination. However, my personal (limited) experience with missional communities is that they have been a breath of fresh air for myself, and I have seen more traction gained in mission and discipleship than in any other ministry tool I’ve been involved in.
Furthermore, it is interesting observing the general move towards them in many western churches over the last decade. The Baptist Union in Victoria is encouraging their development, with Crossway Baptist, the largest Baptist church in Melbourne, considering their use as “best practice”. The Anglican diocese in Tasmania also has intentionally supported their implementation throughout parishes. In the UK, the Church of England uses them widely, as is seen in the “Fresh Expressions” movement and 3dm. Groups like 3dm and Soma are having a wide influence amongst church leaders in the US, with the largest church planting conference Exponential recently having a whole conference devoted to the topic of missional communities.
Similar models are also seen amongst other churches who do not formally use “missional communities”. Ed Stetzer, one of the most widely respected church growth consultants, argues for the importance of small groups having a missional component in his book “Transformational Small Groups”. Holy Trinity Brompton, encourages the use of large size groups they call “pastorates” as being the preferred method of integration of new Christians into churches after completing Alpha courses. Willow Creek Community Church implements “Sectional Groups”, where 4-5 small groups sit together in the same section of church and get together every month for a bbq together. Personally I have seen really encouraging traction in mission and discipleship in doing life this way, and have found them so invigorating and refreshing that it’s fairly deeply rooted in my DNA for ministry from here on in.