Over the next few weeks, I’ve asked several members of our team at The Austin Stone to write on different aspects of missional community in different contexts.
Today, Jon Dansby is going to share some learning points from practicing missional community in the suburbs of Austin. Jon serves as a campus pastor at our St. John Campus, and has significantly contributed to the theology, philosophy and practice of missional communities at The Austin Stone.
Suburbs and Missional Communities
When I was asked to write about missional community in the suburbs, I was reminded why I love my missional community. Being in a MC is not always awesome, but now I wouldn’t trade it. We’ve seen some great things happen.
I could go on about my community, but let me describe why I enjoy doing MC in the suburbs and explain why, in God’s providence, I think it’s working so well. As I write, I’ll weave in some experiences and decisions I’ve made.
Suburbs Are Great For Missions
First, let me say that the suburbs are a great place for a community on mission. Usually, the mission to declare and demonstrate the gospel is the missing link that ties MCs together, but suburbs are great for mission! There are lots of reasons that this is so:
- Suburbs are broken up into neighborhoods. Both community and mission happen more naturally in a defined neighborhood. This may seem obvious, but sadly it’s not. You can shoehorn your calendar to make it work far away, but you’ll run out of steam eventually. It’s hard to get focused and passionate about reaching an undefined group of people like “all our friends at different jobs” or “people from all our different neighborhoods.” For the same reason, people don’t move overseas to reach Afghanistan and then all live in different countries. Our MC’s explicit mission is “to make disciples in the Brushy Creek neighborhood.” We are all praying for the same faces and names. This has been life for our MC!
- Suburbs usually have several entry points. Besides just being neighborly, most suburbs have several coordinated things going on. Our biggest break was when my wife began attending Bunco (also called “drunko” by the ladies) with a bunch of other neighbors. Then these saucy ladies invited her onto the Yard of the Month committee. Suburbs do all kinds of things where you can join in (HOA, basketball, Bunco, Xmas parties, block parties, Halloween, parks, sports, pools, your own parties, etc.). As we’ve gotten in deeper friendships, we have a policy to never say ‘no’ to a neighbor.
- Suburbs allow you to know people well enough to serve them. There are people with needs right around you. Rather than serving at some organization over 20 minutes away, you can get to know your neighbors and serve them. We had a single mom living across the street and as we got to know her, I saw that her yard was a constant struggle for her. I told her that her yard was now our responsibility. So our entire MC showed up and worked. She sat in our driveway sharing a drink with my wife and was blown away, unable to comprehend why we would do this. So, get to know people. Is there a couple who hasn’t had a date in over a year because they need a babysitter? A mom who needs English lessons? An elderly recluse who needs a friend? Some neighbors who are looking for a regular central hangout?
Practical Elements of Suburb Missional Community
Let me talk about a few crucial practical elements have been a huge part of my MC.
- Pray. I know, I know. This sounds like one of the Sunday school answers: “Jesus…Bible…God…pray!” But it’s not. Missional Community is truly a work of the Spirit. The Spirit alone makes our testimony about Jesus effective to the world. Jesus rebuked the disciples for their prayerlessness in working for Him against Satan’s kingdom (Mk 9:29). No less for us when we’re laboring to win people out of Satan’s kingdom. We must pray in a way that believes, “you do not have because you do not ask!” Ask often with names and faces in mind.
- Do things differently on purpose. This is crucial. Somebody smart once said, “If you do what you’ve always done, you’ll get what you’ve always gotten.” You and your people won’t drift toward mission any more than you naturally drift towards any other kind of difficult obedience. In past groups, we assumed that studying the right thing would move us to obey it. It never really worked. So, we had to even talk about our MC differently from the beginning.
- Cultivate community while doing mission. Obviously, there are at least 2 parts to missional community: mission and community (duh). So, that means that you’ll have to keep your eye on both. Your community needs mission and your mission needs community. A community without mission is self-focused (and disobedient). A mission without community is hamstrung without the community apologetic. In our MC, we spent time in my home gathering for meals from the very beginning. At these meals, sometimes my neighbors would come by, sometimes they wouldn’t. Cultivating mission and cultivating community isn’t either/or, rather it’s necessarily both/and.
- Mission takes years, not weeks. Adjust your expectations. If you’re going to make a difference, you need to be in it for the long haul. This is where doing MC in the suburbs really shines because your neighbors have to ask the bank before they can go somewhere else. You really want your unbelieving neighbors to find true friendship with your MC. That takes time!
- Move your 3rd Place to your home. This is something that is unique to suburbs. A Third Place needs to be neutral, natural, and regular. Your home isn’t neutral or natural if you’re trying to reach those at your work. In this case, a restaurant, a pub, or something else is more appropriate. However, a home is completely neutral and natural for unbelieving neighbors. We meet in my home at least twice a month for our 3rd Place meal and it has been incredibly fruitful. We’ve basically fused our Third Place and our Family Meal.
- Invest in hospitality! Spend time and spend money to get to know your neighbors. Jesus said, “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Mt 6:21). In the same way that you don’t really care about a stock price until you invest in it, you won’t care about hospitality until you put some time and money into it. If you invest in this, you will want to see it flourish. Hospitality is certainly the most overlooked evangelistic discipline. Hospitality aids proclamation. Over time we’ve bought folding chairs, large folding tables, outdoor light strings, speakers for music, lots of different beverages, more plates, etc.
- Don’t forget to be a community. I’ve talked a lot about mission, but you’ll need to invest some time with people who’ve joined your MC. Quality time requires quantity time. Do stuff on the weekends. Go eat wings, fix each other’s homes up, read the same books, take care of each other’s kids, be friends.