Recently I was asked by a reader on this blog and partner in our church:
Is the bar so high in missional community that no one can reach it? Or, only a few groups can reach it?
In the end, don’t you essentially have a small group ministry with different terminology? In healthy churches, aren’t they both after the same goal – disciples? By setting a high bar, haven’t you just made it VERY difficult for an immature believer to be a part of the community?
This question is an excellent one, and I wanted to share my response and see what you as readers think. I’d love to foster this dialogue more!
With respect to the questions you bring up, I’d want to back up one step and give some clarity to two philosophical ideas that have shaped our model:
- Scripture sets the bar for a disciple, community and church - when we think through anything in the church, we want the foundation and the aspiration to be those of Scripture. While our culture may present some very challenging starting points for pursuing what the Scriptures call us to, we don’t want to lessen the weight of what the Scriptures call us to.
- The disciple, community and church are not yet fully sanctified - we also recognize that no one is fully conformed to the image of Christ, and therefore must meet people where they are and encourage one another in the Scriptures by the Spirit to become more like Christ in our individual, communal and corporate life together. Sanctification will take the rest of our lives here on this earth, and we will never be fully conformed to the image of Christ, but that can’t be an excuse to simply persist in disobedience.
The definition I use for discipleship keeps these two ideas in tension – “meeting people where they are, and taking them where Jesus wants them to go”. The question I wrestle with every day is how can I simultaneously hold to that tension in grace and truth in my own life, in the life of my missional community, and in the life of our church? That’s a difficult task!
I’ve landed at this point on holding our theology tightly, our philosophy firmly but open for discussion, and our practices loosely and willing to change. Your statement “In healthy churches, aren’t they both after the same goal – disciples?” is absolutely true, and we must hold that firmly. The practices we cultivate should be biblically informed, but these strategies and practices like small groups versus missional communities all have pros and cons.
That being said, every church has some choices to make when it comes to leading people and doing ministry. To respond to why we keep the bar high at The Stone at the risk of alienating some people, I’d say I have three primary reasons:
- Theologically, the community must play a role in our evangelism - When we consider Scripture, it is clear that Christian community is not simply to be about meeting one another’s needs, but is to be about declaring and demonstrating the good news of the gospel (John 17:21-24, 1 Peter 2:9-10, etc.). Whether you call that a missional community or a small group, we must call people to what the Scripture does.
- Philosophically, we must reinforce contribution rather than consumption - I think we need to challenge consumerism with our structures and forms, not just in word. Part of the reason why I don’t want to rely too heavily on things like curriculum, and also challenge communities to even greater commitment to one another and frequency of gathering is to challenge the idea that the Christian life and Christian community are to primarily meet needs of believers. We always must challenge with grace and love in light of where people are in the faith, but at the same time we can’t be satisfied to simply leave people in a consumer posture.
- Practically, if we’re going to reach every pocket of people in Austin, we need missional communities - Our goal is a church is to make disciples of all people, not just those who would attend on a Sunday. Therefore, we need to equip and mobilize the people in our church to engage the people whom God has placed them amongst with a community who can help. Our church has a passion to see more people come to know Jesus, and many of those people would never attend a Sunday service. However, many would participate meaningfully in communal life, and therefore we want to call people to that!
Last, to respond to effectiveness, you’re fair in pointing out that the model doesn’t seem to be producing significant fruit thus far. I would add two caveats to that particular observation, however. As we’ve walked with many people through the idea of missional community, it usually takes about 2 years to get to the “Team of Missionaries” idea. I am actually quite encouraged at the traction we have gained in people understanding their missionary identity and seeking to live it out!
Second, from an effectiveness standpoint, I want to assess a model over the course of a decade, rather than over the course of months. For some longer term data on how things have worked at The Stone, you can see the post here. This last Fall changed our statistics because we rebooted so many communities (that was very intentional by the way!), but we have a long term track record of effectiveness in helping communities take steps over time towards more faithful witness in their networks of people and neighborhoods. Additionally, we are very patient with the process of transition, and try to walk with people through it as we coach, teach and train. For the basic process of group transition over time, you can read this series of posts.
To be honest, I think the jury is still out on the MC model we teach and train towards, but I have high hopes that the vision God has placed in us is richly theological, well thought through philosophically, and practically applicable for a broad group of people at The Austin Stone. While I am a huge fan of small groups and am grateful to God for them, I still think as they are popularly conceived and practiced, they fall short of the task of biblical discipleship.
What do you think?