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Suburbs and Missional Communities

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.
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Implementing LTGs in a Small Group

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.


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?

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The Family Meeting – Celebrating Communion

This series will drill down on the missional community practice called “The Family Meeting”.  Although there isn’t a formula, here are some things to consider putting into practice:


Celebrating Communion

For the final post in this series, I wanted to highlight how we practice the ordinance of communion together in a missional community setting.  Corporately, we celebrate communion in our Sunday worship gatherings and monthly we have a dedicated prayer service where we also celebrate the Lord’s Supper.  In addition to these corporate environments, we strongly encourage missional communities to celebrate communion together in the Family Meal or after an Evening of Prayer as well.

The ordinance of communion is an ancient act of worship that Christ instituted 2000 years ago for His church. It’s a visible sermon to our own souls of the concrete promises of God, obtained for us by Jesus’s death and resurrection.  And it is an important opportunity to let lost people who have joined your group know that they still must make the commitment to Christ.

In Jesus’s ministry, He had the large group that anybody could join, but from time to time He brought them to critical decision points (Lk 18:18-24; John 6:52-66; Lk 9:57-62). This gave them the important gift of knowing that they weren’t part of Jesus simply because they liked being in the large group. They still had a major decision to make about Him.  Communion is a similar way to have a decisive conversation with someone who doesn’t yet follow Jesus, as the Lord’s Table is only for those who have trusted in Christ.

Communion in Practice

In the earliest practices of the church, our brothers and sisters in Christ celebrated communion with a meal at the centerpiece.  Early in the meal, they gave thanks and broke the bread to initiate the meal, and to conclude they would raise the cup and remind one another of Christ’s shed blood.  In between was conversation and reflection centered around Jesus and his finished work.  We have tried to include this in our regular gatherings to reinforce that the community is at the heart of Christian discipleship.

For guidelines to practicing communion, first look to the Scriptures in 1 Corinthians 11:23-29:

For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, “This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way also he took the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.

Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself.

When only believers are present a Family Meal, go ahead and break bread at the beginning, reminding those at the table of what is above.  Spend some time of simple quiet reflection, and allow people the opportunity to discern if there is anything that must be repented of or division that exists in the community before you eat.  Similarly, after you have had some good conversation, at the conclusion of the meal, gather some wine and remind the community of what Paul tells us about the cup.

If there are people there who don’t yet know Jesus and you still want to practice communion, I’d suggest that you do the bread and the cup altogether in one period of time, generally after the meal.  You can say something to the effect of “Communion is something that Christians do. It’s not really for people who are still making up their minds about Jesus. It’s for people who have staked their whole hope on Him and have said, ‘I’m all in for Jesus.’ If you are still undecided about Jesus, we’re glad you’re here and you’re completely welcome, but please pass the bread and cup without taking it. It’s not a slight or judgment on you, but something we hold dear.” Make sure they know that it’s not weird or a big deal that they are just there to watch during this short time!

Either way, pray or have multiple people pray and thank God for the enormous reality behind the bread and the cup. Thank God for all the blessings that come from the cross – for example, salvation, reconciliation, a living hope, freedom to love God, eternal life, a promised resurrection, hope of purpose in suffering, etc.

A Final Word

I’ve found that it is important to transition people out of a time of reflection and worship, so make sure after you’ve prayed that you give a next step – whether it’s inviting people to wash up the dishes, or go grab the kids, or something else.  Having a plan is helpful!

How do you go about practicing communion as a community?

The Family Meeting – Sharing a Meal

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The Family Meeting – An Evening of Prayer

This series will drill down on the missional community practice called “The Family Meeting”.  Although there isn’t a formula, here are some things to consider putting into practice:


An Evening of Prayer

Many evangelicals have a “bible studies equal success” mentality, and I’ve found that it can often be a barrier to living life in community on mission.  A lot of people seem to have the feeling that it doesn’t really count in community or group life if you don’t study the bible, but there are plenty of other disciplines to pursue as we gather together.  Perhaps the most neglected is extended corporate prayer, which is one of the core values of missional community.

In our Family Gathering, occasionally we will gather solely for the purpose of spending an evening praying together for God to move in our neighborhood.  I want to unpack how we do it below.

Do One Thing Well Rather Than Many Things Poorly

One of the critical things that makes a community gathering successful, in my opinion, is focusing on doing one thing, rather than trying to accomplish a whole bunch of things.  Prayer is often relegated to the leftovers of a gathering, so why not take a night to do just that?  Some of the most powerful experiences I’ve had in missional community life have come when my community simply seeks God together.  

Pray Through God’s Attributes

In order to put ourselves in a posture of worship and prayer, one of the best ways I have found to start a community prayer time is to pray through God’s attributes and character.  The opening statement of the Lord’s Prayer is “Our Father in Heaven, hallowed be your name.”  Jesus teaches us to pray by focusing our attention on God Himself, so we spend about 10 to 15 minutes praying one by one out loud, simply worshipping God for who He is.

This is both helpful for worship, but also for discipleship.  This prayer continues to help us remember the character of our God and be specific about all His attributes – His love, justice, holiness, independence, eternality, glory, beauty, mercy, and the many more things that God is.  This discipline cultivates an ongoing understanding and affection for God!

Pray for Repentance

After we’ve considered the Lord, we then spend time repenting of sin.  This practice helps to foster honesty as well as an ongoing recognition of our imperfection.  We repent of our lack of affection for God, we confess our sins of omission and commission, and we repent for the ways we have trespassed against one another.

We then conclude our time by praying in thankfulness for the atoning work of Christ on the cross, and for the power of the resurrection to be more manifest in us to overcome sin and have an understanding of, affection for and obedience to God. 

Pray Through Scripture

Often times someone will have a passage of Scripture that the Lord has laid on their heart or that has been impactful throughout the week, and following worship and repentance, we will reflect and ask God to conform us to His Word.  This is yet another way to keep the Word of God at the center of our community, and also moves us to specificity in what we want to ask God to do.

Pray Specifically

Finally, we want to pray by name for our neighbors, our city and the nations.  We want to spend time interceding specifically that God would reveal Himself to those whom we are seeking to share the good news of Jesus with, and that the powers and principalities of Satan would be undone.  We pray for God’s kingdom to come and His will to be done specifically in our neighborhood.

Concluding A Prayer Gathering

The list above is certainly not prescriptive, but has been very helpful in having a guide for how to pray as a community.  Generally we’ll pray for about an hour total (sometimes shorter, sometimes longer!), and often we’ll wrap it up and stay and chat.

Celebrating communion together is also an excellent way to close out this time, which I will talk about in the next post.

What have you found helpful in facilitating prayer in the life of a community?

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The Family Meeting – What Do You Talk About?

This series will drill down on the missional community practice called “The Family Meeting”.  Although there isn’t a formula, here are some things to consider putting into practice:


In the previous post, I covered the meal part of our gathering.  I am also often asked the question “what should we talk about?”  I want to unpack a few different options that I have used, and point out a few others that others I know have put into practice.

Who Will Be There?

The first question I think you need to answer when thinking through discussion topics is “who is going to be there?”  One of the major ideas of missional community is allowing those who aren’t yet following Jesus the opportunity to belong before they believe, and part of that is considering what you talk about.  Often, rather than having a standard bible study, I will simply ask the question “what were your highs and lows over the past week or two?” It’s a great opportunity for those who are believers to speak about God, the gospel, and the Word, and it’s an accessible question for anyone, regardless of your faith, to answer.

Studying the Bible

If you’re going to study the bible together, I’d highly recommend that you do it in such a way that anyone can meaningfully participate in the conversation.  If you’re following a reading plan in your LTGs, then I would just use a chapter from that days reading as the passage you’re going to discuss.  I have found the following questions to be a good standard set if you’re going to do a bible study:

  • What did you like/not like about what we just read?
  • Was there anything you didn’t understand?
  • What did you learn about God?
  • What did you learn about humanity?
  • What did you learn about Jesus?
  • Regardless of where your faith is at right now, if you were to apply what we learned about God to something in your life this week, what would that look like?

These questions give an opportunity to consider the gospel, and reinforce obedience to the Word rather than just learning.

I’m not the biggest fan of curriculum in a missional community, and prefer to focus on individuals reading the bible for themselves and collectively studying that together.  That being said, I think there are some strategic seasons to use curriculum…just don’t rely to heavily on it!

Other Resources

Lastly, my friends at Soma Communities have developed a tool that has proven to be very powerful and effective for missional communities called The Story Formed Way.  I have seen communities at The Stone use this tool, and it has been a great way for believers and non-believers alike to explore the story of God in the bible in a powerful new way.

What are some other ways you have tried to lower the bar of engagement to participation in a discussion?