Aren’t Missional Communities Just Small Groups?

April 3, 2014 — 13 Comments

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?

Todd Engstrom

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Although I was raised in the church and had a knowledge of God, I didn’t embrace Jesus until I heard gospel preached and lived out by some Young Life leaders. God has proven faithful and good to me since that day, even in great suffering and loss. I have learned to treasure Romans 8:28 as a wellspring of hope and truth. God has blessed me with an amazing wife (Olivia), three sons (Micah, Hudson and Owen) and a daughter (Emmaline). Growing up in the northwest, the thought never crossed my mind that I would have four children who are native Texans. Despite landing in the south, I still watch Notre Dame games with my children every Saturday in hopes they will land at my alma mater.

13 responses to Aren’t Missional Communities Just Small Groups?

  1. Thanks for the post Todd. I am in a traditional church and I am praying that we would be able to see the value of MC’s. A friend of mine and I just started a MC with some friends. He just left his small group as did I to belong to something that stretches us in our faith and causes us to live missional lifestyles. Having a small group that plans a mission activity verses living in and with a missional community that is always on mission are two different things, We met last Sunday with 30 adults and their children that were interested. In our next gathering we are looking to invite several others. We are figuring things out and I am reexamining scripture and reading a lot a posts such as this for wisdom and encouragement. I truly appreciate you and your work. Hoping to see a difference in my church and city as we take on this “new way of living” to grow together and reach those in our community.

    Also, I have not seen missional living vibrant in churches in my city, but I have through para-church ministries such as Cru. My friend who is director of Cru in Long Beach, CA shared several outreaches that high school students are doing and the movement that is happening. He challenged me, “if high school kids can do it, then why cant the young adults in your MC?”. I think the church has a lot to learn. I am looking forward to the future and seeing many that will enjoy authentic community and live on mission,

  2. Todd, great stuff and helpful as always.
    I’ve talked to some folks using two basis.
    1. There is clearly a scriptural example that we see continuing today most clearly where the gospel is advancing in places like Asia, Africa and South America. Communities of people faithfully following Christ on mission is the norm where we see the gospel advancing. So, there’s a biblical precedent.
    2. The culture we live in is changing so rapidly and dramatically, Christians cannot afford to continue in their consumer mindset. As post-Christendom continues to become the predominant reality of North America, believers must learn how to live out their faith as a group of people who continue to find themselves on the margins of society. So, there’s a practical reason for community like this.
    I love how you point us back to the Biblical precedent of the “high calling of discipleship”. This is harder, but it’s worth it. It’s important to adjust our perceptions of “success” to the “standard” of scripture rather than making scripture bend to our preferences. What’s more, this is a natural outcome of the joy of knowing and loving Jesus. Logan Gentry’s post on the Verge Network today was a great explanation for that motivation.

  3. Thank you for this Todd! I’m glad you addressed this. In all honesty, I’ve struggled with this very thing for 5-6 years now. Having worked in several churches within traditional small group ministry, I’ve grown intermittently frustrated and confused about the depth of disciples we were creating and developing. My husband and I have led small groups in our home and have also wrestled with this! I’ve seen more consumerism than growth over the years but have also been unsure and skeptical of the missional community model. I have also asked the same questions the partner of the Stone above mentioned and have wondered really what the difference was between the MC and small group model. I now truly see the difference and am in agreement with your firm stance and commitment to keeping Scripture as the bar, not culture. I also appreciate your point on assessing the model over a 10 year span of time, not a couple of months. I think that I would still be skeptical of MC’s if I hadn’t seen the reality of small group ministry’s ineffectiveness. Having a “missional component” to small groups creates the mindset that we are on mission for Christ only at certain times and in certain ways – not as a lifestyle or as a posture of our hearts. I think the Stone gets resistance with MC’s because it’s hard, daunting, and extremely difficult to live out. It is the life of a disciple that we’re called to though and it was never intended to be easy. Thanks again! It’s been a journey for me and continues to be.

  4. Todd, I found your blog and started reading the MC posts right at the same time that I felt the Lord leading me and my family away from a church I had attended for 17 years, and into a new, smaller local church. The previous church struggled with the traditional “small group” approach, while our new church has more of a “team of missionaries” model in place.

    Since migrating to the new church, my wife and I have been so grateful that God has led us to a community of believers that care for one another well, not just meeting our needs, but pointing us to regular repentance, to serving, and to sharing the Gospel. Our marriage has also been strengthened as a result of this awesome community of believers.

    I know the fruits we are seeing are a result of the Gospel of Jesus Christ and not just a particular approach to small groups, but I definitely see how the MC model and its disciplined approach to responding to scripture are so helpful in making and growing disciples.

    I’m grateful for your timely insights!

  5. Hey Todd,
    Thanks for your post. Good thoughts and good honesty. I’m def with you there, that small groups are a very low bar in comparison to what the Bible calls us to be. Real families of missionaries are necessary for many reasons.

    I’m a little confused by your definition of discipleship: “meeting people where they are, and taking them where Jesus wants them to go”

    I agree that the Scriptures set a high bar for discipleship, and critical to that discipleship is sharing our lives, living on mission together etc. But what I push for me in my role is: drawing people to Jesus, helping them to worship Jesus, then live out of that.

    Where has I felt in your definition, people could almost skip over Jesus, and just go to “where Jesus wants them to go”

    I would think that biblically, where God wants us to go, is to worship of Him (and ultimately that is true – new heavens and new earth). Now that can be expressed in song, in prayer, in missions, in evangelism, in the sharing of meals, of lives, but these all have to flow out of coming to Jesus, initially, and time and time again.

    I’d imagine you’ve already thought through this a bit, so just wanted to see your thoughts?

    Thanks

    • Paul,
      Thanks for the critique…it’s always helpful when people push on my ideas! At this point, I would say it this way. A disciple is someone who is a worshipper of Jesus, learner of the Scriptures, a son or daughter in God’s family and a missionary to the world, whereas discipleship is the process of helping someone live out those identities.

      So the distinction for me lies between a disciple and discipleship – a disciple is a person worshipping and submitted to Jesus, and discipleship is helping someone do that.

      While worship is certainly ultimate in our lives, it is not entirely complete without the rest of the biblical framework of how we worship – in community on mission.

      Does that make sense?

      • Thanks Todd,

        Yes that’s a helpful clarification!
        When I read “taking them where Jesus wants them to go” I thought you meant missions or, “where is Jesus calling you to go?” That sort of idea.
        But what you’re meaning is taking them where Jesus wants them to, holistically (in terms of their overall life, walk with god). Which encompasses, studying the word, living on mission, living in community, being accountable, sharing their lives and faith, all of which is an expression of worship to God.
        In that regard I can see it being a helpful definition of discipleship. Discipleship is the process growing people, esp their love for god, and their neighbour. Helping them to be the person that God has called them to be.
        Thanks for the clarification, and thanks for your blog. Always helpful!
        Paul

  6. I didnt see a stated difference between small groups and missional communities…what did I miss?

    It didnt seem like you stated anything different from a small group…or at least what a small group should be. A group of people experiencing God and wanting to bring that joy to the people in their sphere of influence and interest.

    I am all for vocabulary change and it feels like that is what people have tried to do over the years—small group, community group, d group, discipleship group, life group, missional community, etc.

    If your goal was to tell us the difference between small groups and MCs I didnt see it…if it was to define discipleship AS Meeting people where they are and taking them where Jesus wants them to go…where does Jesus want them to go?

    What ideas would you use to describe that destination? :)

    • David,
      Thanks for the question…this post wasn’t meant to be a stand-alone, but a response to a friend who was already in dialogue. For more on what I would consider to be distinctions, you can read here:

      For defining discipleship and leadership, you can find more of what I have written here:

      Let me know if those clear up some of what you’re asking!
      Todd

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