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!

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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?

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For the month of March, the Missional Communities Practices Series continues to be the most read series on the blog.  Apparently practical is good!

As for content posted in March:

  1. Making Disciples is the Job
  2. Building a Staff Team
  3. The Basic Process of Hiring
  4. Understanding the Position
  5. Assessing Candidates – Calling

If there are topics you would like for me to write on, please suggest them in the comments!

Over the past few weeks, I’ve focused on staffing in the local church.  This series will focus primarily on assessing candidates who emerge for potential roles on your team.  There are four primary areas of assessment that are crucial in assessing someone for a position on our staff:

  1. Calling
  2. Character
  3. Capacity/Competency
  4. Culture/Compatibility

This series will provide understanding and tools associated with how we assess these individual areas.

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Assessing Character

A crucial step in assessing the calling of a candidate is investigating their character. Pastoral ministry requires godly character, and too many churches compromise when it comes to this issue.  While a candidate can be wildly impressive in their skills, if they lack Godly character, they cannot be qualified for ministry.

Character and The Bible

As we consider hiring in ministry, we must first take our cues from the Scripture, which outlines two particular offices: elders and deacons.

If we are hiring for a pastoral position, we take our cues from 1 Timothy 3:1-7:

The saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task. Therefore an overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive, for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church? He must not be a recent convert, or he may become puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil. Moreover, he must be well thought of by outsiders, so that he may not fall into disgrace, into a snare of the devil.

For a non-pastoral position, we use 1 Timothy 3:8-13 as our guide:

Deacons likewise must be dignified, not double-tongued, not addicted to much wine, not greedy for dishonest gain. They must hold the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience. And let them also be tested first; then let them serve as deacons if they prove themselves blameless. Their wives likewise must be dignified, not slanderers, but sober-minded, faithful in all things. Let deacons each be the husband of one wife, managing their children and their own households well. For those who serve well as deacons gain a good standing for themselves and also great confidence in the faith that is in Christ Jesus.

Now we realize that not every individual will fulfill these qualifications perfectly, but we desire to see a consistent pursuit of the qualities mentioned above from anyone we hire to be a part of our team.  We utilize a character assessment that asks directed questions consistent with these qualifications of every candidate. This character assessment is the first step in any serious consideration of a candidate.

Practical Considerations

With respect to character, we have found that there are a few key areas that we press into for inspection:

  • A clear and articulate knowledge of the gospel, and evidence that the gospel is still a truth that moves the individual.  The best question to ask is “when was the last time you wept in gratitude for what Jesus has done?”
  • An honest and gospel-centric view of sin in the individual’s life; a maturity in identification, confession and repentance of sin rather than a religious approach of minimizing or rationalizing sin.
  • A candid look at the marriage and family of the individual, focusing on questions about conflict and resolution, as well as healthy patterns of intentional pastoring and discipling of the spouse and children. For a husband, a focus on their leadership at home. For his wife, a look at her attitude of submission, a pattern of supporting his calling both inside and outside the home, and unity about the potential job opportunity. When we bring someone into the family by hiring them, we also bring their spouse into the family.
  • Honest assessments from previous employers regarding financial responsibility and interpersonal conflict.

These are simply snapshots of things we’ve found useful in assessment, and there is far more that could be used to assess character.

What have you found to be helpful in searching out the character of a candidate?

Over the past few weeks, I’ve focused on staffing in the local church.  This series will focus primarily on assessing candidates who emerge for potential roles on your team.  There are four primary areas of assessment that are crucial in assessing someone for a position on our staff:

  1. Calling
  2. Character
  3. Capacity/Competency
  4. Culture/Compatibility

This series will provide understanding and tools associated with how we assess these individual areas.

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Assessing Calling

Calling is a difficult thing to nail down, but it is the most fundamental question to answer when it comes to staffing.  I’ve written previously on some ideas related to calling here, but historically calling is broken down into three areas:

  • Internal Desire
  • External Conformation
  • Providential Opportunity
Tim Keller’s article at The Resurgence is a very helpful resource on the topic.

Two Questions

When it comes to staffing and calling, I think there are two crucial questions that we are attempting to answer:

  1. Is the candidate convinced of their calling to participate in the mission of God with your community?
  2. Is your community convinced of the calling of this individual to join your team?

Prayer is absolutely vital to answering those questions well, both for the candidate and the team doing the hiring.  The candidate must commit to prayerfully seeking the Lord to discern a calling, and the team must prayerfully go to the Lord to see if this is God’s provision for them.

In addition to prayer, I have found there are some helpful questions to ask when it comes to discernment on both sides.

The Candidate and Calling

For the individual to assess their calling, I have found these questions to be immensely helpful:

  • Would you worship with us and participate in our mission if you didn’t receive a paycheck?
  • Do you enjoy and trust the community and leadership that is already present?
  • Do you think the opportunity matches the gifts and skills that God has graciously given to you?
  • Can you support your family?
  • What will you do (or how will you engage through our church) if you don’t get this job?
Part of hiring well is ensuring the candidate has the opportunity to answer those questions with sufficient clarity.  I view the process of interviewing as an opportunity to provide an individual the  means to discern their calling, and consider it a joy to do so.  This helps me to adopt the posture of servanthood rather than critique in any dialogue I am having with a potential candidate, and allows them to thoughtfully and prayerfully.

The Current Team and Calling

If you are in the position of assessing and hiring candidates, the most important question you must answer is “do I believe God is calling this person to join our team?”.  Without being convinced of this, you will only be bought into the individual on a performance basis, rather than sticking through difficulties that are required to actually develop the person.

All of the assessments you do in character, competency and culture are aimed at helping you answer this question, but primarily this is the question you must answer with certainty.  If you’re going to ask someone to leave their previous calling behind, you had better be sure that God is moving and calling that person to be a part of your team!

Discerning Calling is Difficult

I would be remiss not to say that the only surefire guarantee of calling is found in the explicit words of God contained in Scripture.  In the Word we find God’s clear calling to make disciples for His glory, to love and serve Christ’s bride, and to worship God with all of our lives.  When it comes to hiring, I have found it is crucial to recognize that those must be the main priority of anyone’s life, and the questions of when, where and how those are pursued are always secondary.

Finally, the process of discerning calling requires a good deal of trust in God’s providence.  No assessment you can do, no interview you conduct, no research of experience will ever fully answer all the questions you have.  When I move forward with a candidate, I am trusting in God’s providence that through His word, the Christian community, and the perceived needs of the mission, I have a sufficient confirmation of His calling.

How do you think the idea of “calling” plays into staffing?

Verge 2014

March 24, 2014 — Leave a comment

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This week we begin our yearly Verge Conference at The Austin Stone.  For me, it is a chance to process through the past year as we pursue Christ and His mission, and connect with others who are doing the same.

If you are joining us in Austin, I’d love to connect with you!  You can always contact me here.

If you aren’t able to come, I’d encourage you to live stream some of the conference:

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Lastly, in my talk for this year, I’m going to continue from one that I gave in 2012.  I’d encourage you to watch it so that my talk this year will have more context:

I pray this conference is a blessing to all who participate!