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Over the next few weeks, I will be featuring a number of posts from my teammates here at The Austin Stone on a variety of topics related to missional communities.  This is a two part series from our Downtown PM Campus Connections Director, Tyson Joe.  To see part 1, go here.

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Environments Conducive to Missional Communities

Connections at The Austin Stone is not simply giving information that propels individuals towards involvement but rather it meets people where they are or where they begin and moves them toward a greater degree of faithfulness to Jesus in community. In the first part of this article, I wrote about Paul.  In this part, I will provide some practical learnings from his story and ours.

What’s My Next Step?

If the next step happens to be Missional Community for all new people, new people will feel more secure about this significant big step if someone is there to walk with them. With respect to environments, we ask volunteers never to point in a direction but rather walk them there. Additionally, instructions are never indicative, they are demonstrative.  Rather than “sign up over there”, we communicate “I’ll show you how over here.”

Pointing People to One Thing

This is a preference and not a rule. I like funnelling new people to one thing rather than giving multiple connection points. Telling someone, this is THE way to get connected at this church versus, “try nine of these options all of which have nine different people to contact.”

As a result of the “one thing” philosophy, all space and environments can easily “advertise” this next step. For instance at all of our seating areas outside of the Worship Center, on the coffee tables are cards advertising the upcoming “Connect Event.” All of our iPads or displays are opened to sign-ups for that same event and all of our volunteers are briefed on the details.

Involve Missional Community Leaders into Hospitality Teams

One of the best things we ever did was have our best Missional Community Leaders serve and lead Welcome Teams. As they met brand new people, very logically, they invited them to be a part of their own Missional Communities.  It certainly requires some sacrifice on the leader’s part, but I love involving leaders in Sunday hospitality because it also communicates that missional community and Sunday services are not competing with one another, but rather mutually serving one another.

It also helps foster a “same-team” attitude – your teams aren’t working in silos competing for resources with one another!

The Awkward is on You

I have never been the type of person to gravitate to a corner and try to remain unseen and unnoticed. My tendency is to move towards the area with the most activity and make a scene. I’m not everyone. While there is a small minority of people who fit this description and want to get connected and figure it out on their own how to get connected, the majority of people who walk through the doors of a church, while they may want to get connected, don’t have the experience or know-how to get connected.

As a result, there is an element to environments and personnel that needs to disarm and inform. This is where the “Awkward is on You” comes in. It can be terrifying to walk up to a table or a stand and identify yourself as someone who doesn’t know what is going on. Immediately you are isolating yourself as different from everyone else.

Because of this we coach hospitality team to:

  1. Go to them. They don’t come to you. You go to them. (Note: Also rather than asking, “is this your first time here?” ask, “Is there anything you need help finding?” 
  2. Remember names and faces 
  3. Tell good stories and ask for stories. This way, the next time you see them, it’s, “Hey Tyson, how did that job interview go last week?” 
  4. Capture contact information and follow up. This same creed carries into our Missional Communities and again, since volunteer teams and service teams are seeded with Missional Community leaders, the natural disarmament carries into, inviting individuals to Missional Community. 

Gather vs. Go

We face a monumental challenge in our church where a massive, cold, dark high school must be converted into a welcoming, warm environment and up until recently, all of our signage was directional and somewhat confusing. Recently we changed our language with signage from “You’re in the wrong place…go this way” to “Here you are…you’re in the right place.”

So signs that simply said, “Kids with an arrow” now read “Welcome to the Main Entrance, for Kids (arrow sign).” Simple touches like this convey that we want people to feel comfortable and gather rather than feel herded in a direction that is unknown. As a result, spaces give the feel of a living room while info areas take on a more “Apple Store” approach. All of this emphasizes our value for relational contact that carries on into Missional Community.

What are some other things you think can be helpful in cultivating environments that are conducive to missional community?

Over the next few weeks, I will be featuring a number of posts from my teammates here at The Austin Stone on a variety of topics related to missional communities.  This is a two part series from our Downtown PM Campus Connections Director, Tyson Joe.

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Environments Conducive to Missional Communities

Connections at The Austin Stone is not simply giving information that propels individuals towards involvement but rather it meets people where they are or where they begin and moves them toward a greater degree of faithfulness to Jesus in community. Connections is discipleship.

Connecting a Murderer

One of the best “Connections” stories can be found in the book of Acts. We meet the character Saul in Chapter 7 at the stoning of Stephen. Stephen after preaching a Gospel Message to the Sanhedrin incites such a negative response that he is sent out to be stoned. As people come to grab their stones and wield them at Stephen, they “laid their garments at the feet of a young man named Saul (v. 58).”

This is our introduction to the murderous, scheming, Saul, enemy of the Gospel. The following chapter tells of “Saul’s ravaging of the Church,” outlining a life lived with the sole purpose of bringing unprecedented persecution to the quickly expanding Christian church, but in chapter 9 everything changes and Saul is blinded and then converted. What happens next is where his “Connection” story begins.

Saul, now Paul, overwhelmed with this newfound lease on life begins preaching and teaching the Gospel. People have no idea how to respond. Christians did not know if this was a trap, and Paul’s former associates were even more dumbfounded. For a few more verses, Paul “fumbles” doing the only thing he knew to do which was boldly proclaim the Gospel wherever he went. As he does this, his former associate persectors resort to the only conceivable solution of plotting to kill him while Christians in the Church thought only to avoid him.

It was then that Barnabas broke down the barrier. But Barnabas took him and brought him to the apostles and declared to them how on the road he had seen the Lord, who spoke to him, and how at Damascus he had preached boldly in the name of Jesus. (Acts 9:27) Barnabas went outside of his comfort zone, recognized his brother in Christ, and welcomed him in. I venture to say that this “connections” step in boldness was integral to Paul’s trajectory and ministry.

A Philosophy for Environments

All of our Sunday environments need to carry the philosophy and heart that Barnabas demonstrated to Paul. As people walk through the doors of The Austin Stone Community Church for the very first time, the only assumption we can make is that they are walking through our doors from a past life.

The nature of criminal behavior and debilitating shame and sorrow are probably less horrific than the life Paul was leaving behind (or maybe not?), but everyone on a multitude of levels deals with the ramifications of sin. So we welcome them in as Christ has welcomed us.

Our desire at The Austin Stone Community Church is that the “church experience” not be simply confined to the Sunday worship environment but that the Sunday worship environment work in congress with a Missional Community strategy that engages the people of the Church to extend the values and mission of The Austin Stone Community Church into their work places, neighborhoods, and schools throughout the week. It’s the family of God being a family on mission together.

For this desire to be emphasized and displayed, a significant amount of time is spent ensuring that our “front door” experience and our Sunday environments give a glimpse into a familial bond and fuels a desire to be connected to a Missional Community.

People Over Process – the “Be With” Factor

It wasn’t a really good directional sign or database software that connected Paul. It was an actual person. Barnabas invested time and even risked his own personal safety on “advocating” for Paul. When I was in student ministry we called this the “Be With Factor”. You could never assume that someone knew what the next steps were or that if you told them the next steps, they would know how to take them. However, if by the way you interacted and communicated with people, they understood that there was someone who would “be with” them throughout the next steps no matter what they might be.

I’ll unpack our strategy in the next post, but how do you think through environments, especially on Sunday?

The Austin Stone is a church committed to the exaltation of Jesus through the proclamation and demonstration of the gospel to our city and the nations through missional communities.  This blog series unpacks how we approach the difficult challenge of assimilation into smaller communities from our Sunday gatherings:

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Lessons Learned in Assimilation and Mission

As we’ve developed our approach to connecting people from our gatherings into community, there have been a ton of lessons we’ve learned along the way.  In no particular order, here are some random learnings:

  • It’s really difficult to balance assimilation and mission. Bottom line, there isn’t a perfect solution.
  • Putting someone with no paradigm for missional community directly into a group living on mission is a recipe for frustration for the individual and the group leaders.
  • Putting someone with a high value for missional community into a group that isn’t living out missional community is also a recipe for frustration.
  • Starting new groups is way easier to instill a fresh DNA and connect new people than dividing groups and adding new people.
  • It takes about 3 to 6 months for the average person to meaningfully connect into ongoing community at our church.  Encourage people to stick with a group even if it’s awkward at first…connection takes time.
  • Assimilation is not a “one size fits all” process. You need multiple pathways and opportunities to be effective.
  • You will end up with healthier group participants if you train them early on in the life of group.

I’ve also learned a lot about connection from my friend Mark Howell…I’d highly recommend you take a look at his blog and read through it thoroughly!

I’d love for any nuggets of wisdom you have to share!

The Austin Stone is a church committed to the exaltation of Jesus through the proclamation and demonstration of the gospel to our city and the nations through missional communities.  This blog series unpacks how we approach the difficult challenge of assimilation into smaller communities from our Sunday gatherings:

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Overcoming Barriers to Connection

In order to address those barriers that exist to connection, we have found three predominant categories are helpful in responding well: events, environments, and relationships. Below is a discussion on the different categories that will lend to an understanding of what things we actually do.

Events

Events are predominantly based on leveraging the momentum of a crowd. They are designed to be a place of low, short-term commitment. In these settings, we want to make information about the connection pathway clearly accessible, that people are available to ask questions of and connect with, and finally that we are clear and succinct on our vision for our church.

Some examples of events that we have utilized include:

  • Discovery Events – monthly post-Sunday service events for newcomers
  • Missional Community Leader Open Houses – A place to meet a leader in your area
  • Group Link – catalyze a new community from a crowd
  • BBQ and Potluck Events – gathering people around a meal with no formal agenda

Regardless of the event, we are trying to set the table for someone who is disconnected to meet an individual or find the information that they need to connect.

Environments

Environments are different from events in that they require some amount of ongoing commitment to participate in. Typically they involve at least a four-week commitment, and often capitalize on either a particular need or a particular demography. These tend to be the most effective means of connection because involvement in a smaller community is expected and embedded into the environment.

We have found that the best kind of environment for connection involves 6 weeks of a mixture of teaching, discussion, and expected small-group discussion time outside of the classroom. Some examples of these kinds of environments are:

  • Demographic-specific classes – Nearly/Newlywed class, Married Life class, Women’s and Men’s classes
  • Connection Classes – a 7 week class marketed directly at those who desire to connect to community
  • Other Training Environments – Missional Community training, Financial Planning classes, etc.

In addition to these examples above, there is a special kind of environment that we use frequently which is designed to prepare someone to engage in the communities we have. Before someone connects into an existing community, which may be completely unfamiliar territory, we want to provide an understanding of WHY we do things the way that we do.

We simply call this environment “Missional Community Training”, and market it to anyone who has interest in connecting to, learning about, or potentially leading a missional community. The value of having these people altogether is two-fold:

  • First, we can leverage the larger environment for connections purposes. The greater the volume of people, the more likely people are to find someone who is geographically or demographically close to them.
  • Second, we create an environment for emerging leaders to cast vision for and recruit those interested into new expressions of missional community.

Cultivating an environment for preparation to connection has gone a long way towards fostering healthy culture and reinforcement of our vision for missional community.

Relationships

Relationships are the core of any effective assimilation strategy, and we try in any setting to ensure that a person who desires to be connected has someone to walk alongside them through the process. Whenever we are receiving some piece of information about an individual, we are trying our best to personally follow up and walk with someone over time.

Our Welcome and Connections Teams are tasked with connecting individuals they meet with a community that is a potential fit, and walk with them through the process of finding a community when another strategy has not proven effective. Only about 11% of people whom we connect with will end up finding a community to plug into this way, though.

Conclusion

It’s important to understand that our objective in connection is not necessarily a perfect missional community right out of the gate, but taking step one in connecting people to one another.  We do this so we can intentionally disciple individuals and communities toward greater obedience over time, walking them through a process of change.

What else have you found effective in connection strategies?

Barriers to Connection

June 24, 2013 — 3 Comments

The Austin Stone is a church committed to the exaltation of Jesus through the proclamation and demonstration of the gospel to our city and the nations through missional communities.  This blog series unpacks how we approach the difficult challenge of assimilation into smaller communities from our Sunday gatherings:

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Barriers to Connection

As we began to think on the question “why don’t people connect into our communities?”, we realized there were two predominant problems that most people faced when they came into our doors:

  • Informational Barrier – people simply did not know how to connect
  • Relational Barrier – people lacked the relationships necessary to help them find community

These two issues, as we surveyed people in our church, were the predominant issues, and therefore with every method we wanted to always answer these two basic questions:

  • How do I connect?
  • Who can I connect with?

Finally, we also realized there are predominantly three groups of people who are present within our church whom we are trying to connect:

  1. Those with the “want to” and the “how to” – a desire to connect and an clear understanding of the pathway
  2. Those with the “want to”, but without the “how to” – a desire connect, but lacking relationships or information.
  3. Those without the “want to” – a lack of desire to pursue community or mission.

The first category of people is fully capable of connecting themselves. They take the initiative and are able to find the information or people that they need to connect. All we have to do is make sure there is a clearly outlined, easily accessible pathway that they can follow.

The second category of people are where we place the most strategic emphasis. This group of people has all of the desire in the world to connect, we simply need to address the relational or informational barrier that is hindering them from engaging. We put the most effort and energy into relationally connecting and creating opportunities and resources for this pool of people to engage in community.

Finally, the third category of people are those without a desire to connect. We simply focus on setting the proverbial table for this group of people, and hoping that at some point in the future they will get hungry and eat. The major problem is not a knowledge barrier or a relational barrier, but truly a heart barrier. We rely on our preaching and other forms of communication to facilitate God moving in their heart to give them a desire and need for biblical community.  We also try to tell stories of everyday community to create a more compelling narrative for life together.