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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?

Where Do We Do Third Place?

November 22, 2013 — 4 Comments

Recently I was asked:

As I am trying to lead our small groups toward missional communities, my people are starting to get the concept of third place.  One thing that would be really helpful is if you could give examples of what several different missional communities do in terms of 3rd place, frequency of different types of meetings, etc. I know each group needs to establish their own rhythms, but I think I and my people would be helped to see several practical examples to prime the pump of their imaginations.

Here’s some ideas to consider as you’re thinking through Third Place!

Suburban Missional Community, Multiple Ages of Kids

In my own neighborhood, we’ve had a few different iterations of Third Places.  Our first was called “Kenny’s Coffee”, a local coffee shop that served breakfast and coffee.  We would gather every Friday morning with a few friends, and ended up connecting with a number of different families through this.  Early on, it was mostly moms and young children who would gather there, but slowly over time a few other dads would join in as well.

Next, we intentionally joined a soccer team at the YMCA with two other families, and then filled out the rest of the team with random folks from our area.  This afforded us regular gathering times with families with kids of the same age, and ended up producing some really incredible fruit with a single mother needing some help with her daughter.

For young moms, my wife would regularly schedule a park play date with multiple moms and kids, which created some very healthy relationships and intentional time to talk since the kids were more occupied with something to do.  

When we started to have kids in school, we’ve been working on routinely gathering at school PTA functions with our community and extended friends to be a “good news” people at our elementary.  While it’s not quite as regular as some others, it has also opened up all kinds of new relationships with people.

Finally, our front yard is an excellent Third Place.  We’ve tried to intentionally and regularly invite our Christian friends and non-Christian neighbors to our home on Friday evenings in the summer and Sunday afternoons in the fall and spring.  These times have worked well for regular overlap of our friend groups.

Urban Missional Community, Young Singles and Marrieds

For some of our younger MCs that are in the urban core of Austin, several different kinds of Third Places have proven effective over time.  First is very simply a regular happy hour on a Thursday or Friday evening.  Most of our young folks have a social network that is built around their workplace, and so they are intentionally spending time inviting coworkers out after the day is done.  

Another fun one that some friends have tried is Trivia Night.  Several local pubs have regular trivia nights that draw a great crowd, and it’s usually a pretty easy ask for anyone to come join in the fun.

Activity-based groups are also excellent Third Place environments.  We’ve had a missional community intentionally join a running group downtown that would train together.  Although I’m a horrible conversationalist while running because I’m breathing so hard, for those in a little better shape it proved to be fruitful!

Regular game watches for a particular team have also been fruitful – most fans in Texas are going to cheer for UT or Texas A&M, so during the fall football season, MCs have strategically hosted game watches and tailgates.

Seasoned Missional Communities

For some of our more “seasoned” folks at The Stone (high-school aged kids or empty nesters), I’ve seen one of two things work.  For families with high schoolers, doing a Third Place geared around their kids has been a very effective strategy.  This has taken a couple different forms – regular involvement in a high school based ministry like Young Life, or consistent connection with an activity the student is involved in.  Most parents in that life stage have solid friendships, but still are eager to connect and know their kids friends, so the best MCs have taken advantage of that.

For those without children, the flexible lifestyle that is afforded is a double-edged sword.  On the one hand, the flexibility means you have some freedom and time to pursue Third Place in a variety of ways.  On the other hand, people with children post-high school often lose the primary place people in their life stage gather.  I encourage these kinds of missional communities to focus on being a “regular” in a particular place – a coffee shop, a restaurant, or some other establishment.  We haven’t had too many of these communities, so I’m lacking in examples…chime in the comments and share what you’re doing!

Conclusion

Third Place is a muscle that needs to be worked out slowly over time, and creatively approached.  One of the most important things I coach people on is to not quit – these kinds of environments take consistent invitation over time in order to help you pursue mission well.

Faq green

Recently I received the following question on Third Place:

We planted our church in ’07. Currently, our Gospel Communities meet for a meal together and Bible discussion twice a month (every other week), and people meet in tripods (LTG’s) the other two weeks.

While our GC’s have certainly done “Third Place” gatherings, that is not something we have implemented into our DNA like the other two gatherings. Our GC’s are a diverse mix of college students, recent grads, young marrieds, and families with young kids. Finding a third space that is natural and regular for this group is difficult. I’d love any feedback you could give me on implementing a third place into GC’s where life rhythms are wide and diverse.

I’ve actually had a number of people ask this question, so I thought I would post a response.

First, I think this question is so often asked because we primarily conceive of community as an event we attend rather than relationships we have. By and large, the three kinds of gatherings are meant to serve the relationships you have by creating intentionality in what you are gathering for.

You don’t need to have everyone at every gathering all the time! In fact, I think you’ll be far more successful if you don’t have everyone all the time.  We’ve had a number of missional communities who bring 12 people to a particular location, only to have one other friend who doesn’t yet know Jesus join.  That’s a difficult social setting for anyone to walk into!

I’d highly recommend that you work on having multiple different “Third Places” for each Gospel Community. When you have a great diversity of people, focus on having a couple different places where two’s, three’s and four’s of people can gather and invite people they know that don’t know Jesus to spend time with them.

The place or the event is less important than intentionally creating overlap between your community and people who don’t know Christ.

What would you add?

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.

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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.

In a recent conversation with a pastor from another church, I was asked:

“Practically, how do you go about forming Life Transformation Groups in a small group that is used to meeting once a week?”

I actually get that question quite often, so I thought it would make a good topic for a post here.  Briefly, there are three things that will be helpful in launching LTGs from a more traditional small group.

Before you read below, you might want to brush up on Life Transformation Groups.

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Model LTG for the Whole Group

Most small groups have a regular gathering where they study the bible, fellowship, and pray.  As a leader wanting to implement LTGs, this is a great place to start!  Rather than immediately breaking people up into twos and threes, however, I think it is critically important to model what you want to see happen for the whole group.  Try modeling the three aspects of LTG in front of your entire community one evening:

  1. Hear and Obey – as a leader, pull out your journal where you have written your examination and application of God’s word for your life this week.  It’s important to show everyone how you have been reading and applying God’s word, so I encourage people to simply read straight from their REAP journal.
  2. Repent and Believe – as a leader, you will need to be vulnerable in front of your entire group and confess sin that you have struggled with.  It might be a good idea beforehand to share what you are going to share with someone else, so they can be prepared to model gospel-fluency in front of your group as well.  Alternatively, invite the entire group to minister the good news of Christ’s perfect life, atoning death, and resurrection specifically into your sin.  Answer these questions: How did Jesus obey where you didn’t? How did Jesus specifically pay the penalty for that sin? What is true about your identity in Christ? What promises of God can help you fight that specific sin?
  3. Consider and Pray – finally, you can spend time sharing opportunities you may have, or people that you will be spending time with in the coming week with the group.  Ask a few of them to pray by name for those individuals, and that God would use you powerfully to declare and demonstrate the gospel!
Modeling LTG for the group will give them a clear picture of what it looks like to do this in twos and threes, as well as afford you as a leader the opportunity to set expectations for them.

Spend Six Weeks Practicing LTGs in Your Regular Gathering

Once you’ve modeled how to do an LTG, the next step is to practice it in your regular meeting time for a few weeks.  Six weeks is somewhat arbitrary, but it’s enough time for people to get comfortable with the format, and also practice it with a few different people.

The first thing you need to do is clearly cast vision for an expectation of individuals in your group being prepared to share something from what they read in the Scriptures.  Second is that you make sure that the LTG time doesn’t last more than an hour – try to stick to the 15 minutes for Hear and Obey, 30 minutes for Repent and Believe, and 15 minutes for Consider and Pray timeframe.

LTGs tend to fall into a couple ditches.  First, one of the three different parts becomes the dominant portion of your conversation all the time.  Most often, it happens in the “Repent and Believe” portion – people spend a lot of time talking about their sin and diagnosing all the circumstances, and it happens to the exclusion of the Word and Prayer.  

The second ditch is that LTG becomes a mechanical conversation that militantly marches through these different stages without really being a personal conversation.  Ensure that you cultivate flexibility, but maintain a sense of structure – remember LTGs are helping us be faithful as disciples, not a checkbox for discipleship.

In this six week period, I’d recommend rotating through different groups rather than trying to solidify people into a single group of two and three for two reasons:

  1. It reinforces the idea that you can be vulnerable with people in your struggles as a disciple of Jesus even if you don’t know them very well.
  2. It provides the opportunity for people to figure out who they will naturally want to spend time with, and will give a greater intrinsic motivation to launch an LTG that meets outside the regular group gathering time

Launch LTGs and Ask How They Are Going

Finally, after six weeks of practice inside the regular gathering time, encourage people to launch out.  It is critically important as a leader that you don’t “program” the launch, but rather invite the participants to figure it out on their own!  You want to create ownership of the LTG.  Most LTGs fail simply because the participants never really wanted to be in one in the first place.

Have the group members ask someone to commit to an LTG with them, and have the group members figure out a time and a place to meet.  Don’t do it for them!

Give the newly formed LTGs time to settle in and find a rhythm, then after a couple weeks ask your larger group how things are going in LTGs.  Keep bringing it up over time to reinforce the vision and hold people accountable to participating!

What have you found to be helpful in cultivating smaller discipleship groups?