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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?

I recently received this question from a partner at The Austin Stone, and I thought it would be beneficial to address here:

Hey Todd, thanks for your faithfulness to getting this information to us. It’s proven to be a great resource for myself in regards to leading my MC and coaching others.  A quick search didn’t bring anything up so I wanted to get your thoughts on gender specific missional communities.

Below is a response.

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Gender-Specific Missional Communities

The idea of gender-specific missional communities probably belongs into a wider question about affinity-based groups in general.  Gender isn’t necessarily an “affinity”, but most churches have a tendency with respect to groups to see it that way.  Men’s groups and Women’s groups typically are part of a wider network that includes life-stage, geography, and various other affinities.

Affinity or Mission?

The short answer to why there are not many affinity-based groups at The Austin Stone is that missional communities ideally define their group around a pocket of people rather than an affinity.  Rather than focusing on creating places for specific genders, we’ve tried to focus on helping communities reach groups of people in our city.

I’m perfectly happy for a group to be all women, all men, or life-stage specific (newly-weds, young professionals, etc.) if that is best for the mission.  If the people you are wanting to live amongst and share Jesus with are primarily women, and that is the best kind of community to help someone meet Jesus, then go for it.

If the affinity becomes exclusive or primarily focused internally on the group, however, then I think it can be unhelpful.  I’ve seen many groups who build an affinity-based community struggle to take steps toward mission because they are primarily meeting needs of individuals inside the group.  

The commitment from The Stone is that we primarily want to build community for the sake of mission, rather than build community for community’s sake.  In my experience, the American Church has primarily done the opposite, so it’s a little difficult for people to comprehend that join The Stone from other churches.

Where Do Men and Women Gather?

Second, I’d say that we really do create gender specific environments through the Life Transformation Group.  Although the wider group may be mixed in gender, we want to hone in on authentic relationships with men and women in a small setting that is more conducive to fostering that kind of relationship.

For me, I know that men need strong relationships with men, and women need healthy relationships with other women, and I desperately want to foster those kinds of relationships.  The LTG, in my experience, is one of the best ways to cultivate Jesus-centered relationships quickly and healthily.

That strategy does have a weakness: it often leaves people only with a few friends.  So how can we help cultivate a wider network of relationships for men and women in the church?

Focus on Gender-Specific Equipping

Having healthy, “best friend” type relationships are critical, but so too is having a healthy network of relationships with many other people of the same gender.  We also seek to cultivate those kinds of relationships in our church, but don’t see them as the primary building block of everyday community.

We mostly gather affinity groups for the purpose of equipping, rather than community on mission.  We have a women’s event, or a class, or a men’s seminar, but by and large we’ve focused on equipping affinities rather than gathering them into ongoing communities.  An excellent example of this is “Women at The Austin Stone” (watch the video for an explanation).  This strategy allows us the opportunity to foster a wider set of relationships, as well address biblically any specific issues that a particular affinity may have.

Although our strategy has had weaknesses and difficulties (and is certainly different than most churches approach) we’ve found it to be more effective in cultivating healthy disciple-making communities in the long run.

What would you add to the discussion?  Feel free to push back or ask more questions!

Friday FAQ

Recently I was asked:

“What would keep you from calling the missional communities “churches”? It seems to me that they are actually functioning and reflecting what a church is supposed to be.”

That’s actually a question I’ve received fairly often, especially from those in the more “organic” or house church world.  I have a great deal of love for my brothers and sisters who are involved in planting organic churches – I have learned quite a bit from their methodology!  My theological convictions, however, drive me to answer that question differently. We don’t call missional communities churches for two reasons: called, qualified, and gifted elders who shepherd and instruct the church are integral to a New Testament ecclesiology, and secondly, we still value the corporate gathering where God’s people come to be instructed by God’s Word under the leadership of the elders of the church.

Called, Qualified, Gifted Leadership in the Local Church

Regardless of practically how you practice eldership in the local church, it is incredibly clear that the church has elders who are called, qualified and gifted to lead:

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. (1 Timothy 3:1-7, ESV)

There is a lot of subjectivity in those verses and others like them, but it is clear that there is a bar for eldership in God’s church.  These men seek to know the flock under their leadership, love the sheep through pastoral care, feed the people through teaching God’s word, and protect the sheep from false doctrine and sin.  The character qualifications aside, it would seem essential that an elder have a firm grasp on sound doctrine and the ability to teach doctrine both formatively and correctively. Missional community life is about being faithful to being a disciple of Jesus, and a missional community leader is primarily keeping a community centered on Jesus and the mission of making disciples.  While this is a lofty call, and certainly will demand many of the functions of an elder, there are plenty of illustrations in the New Testament of leaders in mission who were not elders in the local church.  A disciple does not necessarily need to be an elder. Therefore, while a missional community can certainly be pursuing becoming a healthy church with qualified leadership, a missional community does not require qualified leadership.  In my understanding, therefore, a missional community is not necessarily a church in total, but certainly a portion of the church pursuing community and mission.  A healthy missional community is connected to elders and deacons who are lovingly serving them over the course of time.

The Corporate Gathering

in addition to qualified leadership, I still have a very high value for the church gathering corporately for the sake of hearing the Word preached, engaging in the ordinances, and worshipping Jesus together in song.  While a missional community is certainly capable of doing these things, and I know many that do, I believe there is unique value in having gifted preachers, teachers, and other forms of corporate gifting to minister to the wider congregation. Preaching presents an opportunity for the word of God to be heralded, taught authoritatively, and to set the foundation of the church squarely on the word.  Secondly, it provides an opportunity to address particular needs of a local church.

Conclusion

We want to remain as faithful to a New Testament understanding of the church as possible, both in the organic sense of disciples in community on mission, and in the institutional sense of church leadership and preaching, practicing the ordinances, and church discipline. With respect to missional communities, I would see them as churches in an infant stage.  My hope is that over time missional communities would become autonomous church plants that pursue New Testament ecclesiology under an autonomous plurality of qualified leadership that pursues gathering  to hear God’s word taught as well as gathering for the sake of those who don’t know Jesus.

Friday FAQ

I am often asked:

“What recommendations would you give a church that relies (and has relied for quite some time) on a traditional Sunday-school or small group model?”

While every situation is different and requires specific situational wisdom, generally I would say a few things:

Affirm what is excellent about an existing model

Sunday School has done some excellent things in equipping the church with sound doctrine and providing a place for belonging for many.  Although I’m not convinced that Sunday School is the most optimal strategy, there are still many things that I find incredibly valuable!  If you are going to make a change, it is important to recognize that you’re building off a foundation that has some excellent redeeming qualities.

Also, it’s important to recognize that there were people who invested a lot of time and energy into a particular ministry structure.  Honor the investment they have made by affirming them!  Few things are harder than when someone critiques work that you have put a lot into…put yourself in the shoes of the person who has gone before you!  Also recognize that one day someone will come behind you and point out the deficiencies of your ministry strategy some day.

I’ve learned this one the hard way, and had some great friends in ministry who have rebuked me for being an arrogant punk, and taught me to always affirm what the Lord and people have done in the past.

Pilot what you want to see

Before you start telling people what they need to do, you should probably do it first.  I’ve been around plenty of pastors who see missional communities more through the lens of a sexy effective program that makes sense for their church, but not for them.  Without first-hand knowledge of the trials and struggles of MC life, there is no way you can effectively lead others to the radical and sacrificial life of a missionary.  I love how my friend Seth McBee illustrates this:

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Piloting will give you stories as well as first hand knowledge of the difficulties. The stories and struggles you accumulate during this time of pioneering will help you connect to others who want to change as well as clarify strategy for the future.

Take it slow!

Finally, take your time.  Think through how you can reframe some parts of an existing structure before you go for a wholesale transition.  Ready, fire, aim can certainly be effective, but remember you’re running a marathon, not a sprint.  Meeting people where they are is often difficult for a hard-charging leader, but it’s critical to maintaining trust and relationship with people over the long haul.  Also recognize you WILL make mistakes, and every strategic transition takes at least twice as long as you think it will.

The older I get, the more reticent to change I become, and we need to recognize that reality and help people by not moving too fast!

Perhaps the single most frequently asked question I receive with respect to missional communities is “what do we do with our children?”.  For this next series, I’m going to focus on answering that question from multiple different angles:

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Involving Different Aged Kids

In the first post of the series, I talked about why you should involve your children, primarily from applied theology.  The rest of the posts will focus on the philosophy and practice of involving children.

For this post, I only have experience thus far in Pre-School and Grade School aged missional community, but will draw off the experience of others for Middle School and High School.  What follows are mostly some random and anecdotal thoughts…I’d love for contributions in the comments!

The Challenges of Age-Appropriate Ministry

As a dad, I definitely want the absolute best for my children.  As a Christian, I recognize that best is found in obedience to the Word of God. As a pastor and missionary, I find the greatest joy in obedience in a life intentionally submitted to God seeking out those who are far from Him.  As a dad, Christian, pastor and missionary with different aged kids, I’m often confused!

The first thing to recognize about kids and missional communities is that every age kid has a different learning style and appropriate things they can handle.  If you ask anyone in children’s ministry, they will tell you apart from finding volunteers, the single most difficult part of the job is communicating the truths of God in an age appropriate way.

Bottom line, teaching kids is hard!  Life in missional community is no different – it’s hard to know when to involve kids, what to tell them, and how much we should expect.  I will say this though – if you aren’t making mistakes, chances are good you aren’t trying very hard!

Pre-School

In my experience, involving pre-schoolers in missional community life more centers around the parents then it is the kids.  I’d encourage you to focus attention on caring for the little ones well, teaching them as much as you can from God’s Word (I highly recommend the Jesus Storybook Bible!), and thinking through mission more as adults.

That being said, I think it is a helpful practice to occasionally study the Bible together in community oriented towards children.  Use the Jesus Storybook Bible in your discussion with all families involved – you’ll be amazed what you can learn from a 2 year old!  Also, it’s a great way to teach families in your community who might not know how to have devotions with their own kids yet.

As a missionary though, little kids are an amazing tool – they can make friends with just about anybody!  Pre-schoolers are a great way to connect with people of all ages, and particularly other moms of preschoolers.  Those moms are often in the house all day long with only a two year old to talk to, so take any chance you can to schedule play dates!

Grade School

Grade schoolers, in my opinion, are an American missionaries best friend.  The rhythms of life in my neighborhood are primarily oriented around the grade school – we walk to school each morning, the kids are often on good terms with a large number of other kids, activities usually involve the whole family, and you are in close proximity with most people who are there because of the way schools are zoned.

As far as involving grade schoolers in MC life, they also are becoming more independent and able to articulate complex thoughts, they understand motivations, and are generally beginning to form a worldview.  There is no better time to open up your life and community than now.  I have a friend who says: “You’re parenting your teenager when they are 5 years old”. I want to make sure my teenager understands what the missionary life looks like, and so I involve my grade schooler.  He eats with us, he is learning to study the Bible like we do, I often involve him in activities like serving my neighbors, and he’s spending time with other members of our community as well.

Middle School

I affectionately call middle schoolers “electric chihuahuas”.  Middle school is full of opportunity because your kids are still dependent on you to drive them places, but by and large they are beginning to face many adult problems – hormones, identity, drinking, sex, and all kinds of other issues.  Additionally, in late grade school and middle school, often cliques begin to form and kids’ friend groups and activities begin to narrow in and focus on a particular group and a particular activity.

Involving kids in MC life at this age means two things: allowing some freedom of choice, but also involving them as much as possible.  In my opinion, middle school is a great time to involve your child in the life of a youth ministry where they can hear the same truths you are teaching but from a different voice in their lives.  At The Austin Stone, we focus most of our attention in middle school on what we call discipleship communities, which look a lot like Life Transformation Groups.  We’re treating the kids as individuals who are responsible for their discipleship, but doing it in the context of a group with leaders who are somewhat older.

With respect to involving them as much as possible, I think there are two haymakers for MC life – the first is actively serving the least of these.  Nothing quite kills narcissism like service!  One of our MCs at The Stone serves with a ministry that feeds the homeless in our city, and their kids do most of the front line service while they prepare food…it’s been incredibly powerful.

The second is taking them on a mission trip with your family.  Some of the best stories I’ve heard for middle schoolers come from a family mission trip.  I’d highly recommend that you do it with other families, so the middle schooler has another person to connect with!

High School

In high school, kids are often asserting independence, establishing their own identity, and in many cases self-transporting.  They tend to develop a life rhythm of their own at this point!  In my experience, the best missional communities with high schoolers are often aimed at helping their kids be effective missionaries in their school.  Now is the time for your children to start leading things on their own – cultivating their own missional communities that are trying to live out the practices faithfully amongst a pocket of people.

As far as involvement, I think it’s important to treat high schoolers more and more like adults – full participants in the missional community.  Have them share their highs and lows in Family Meal discussions, let them lead out in ways to serve neighbors, and practice Life Transformation Groups with them.  As far as Third Place goes, I want to have the house that every high school kid wants to be at, and the most effective parents have thought through creating a home that high schoolers are welcome in and want to be at.

Conclusion

By no means are these exhaustive thoughts…I welcome your feedback and ideas in the comments, especially as it relates to middle schoolers and high schoolers.  I hesitate to be prescriptive when it comes to kids and missional communities, because I’ve seen a variety of effective ways of discipling kids and involving them in life together.  I do know this though – our children are looking to us as the pattern for life in godliness, and if we don’t teach them to be missionaries, they likely will not become one!

What have you found helpful when it comes to different ages of children in missional community or group life?