Why Missional Communities

In the early days of the Church, gatherings of believers looked very different than it looks today. Large buildings were infeasible for the small and growing church, and all the work that goes into sustaining an institution of such a size would be overwhelming. Large numbers of church staff would have been unsustainable, so most functions would have to be carried out by volunteers and professional youth, music, and ministry programs would be unheard of. The modern, Western assumption that church has to involve all of these things is simply untrue. The Church that Jesus established did not require a building or an organization — the first model of church focused on people’s spiritual activities within the context of their normal lives. The fundamental motivation of such a group would not be gathering together or even singing worship songs; it would be mission. These churches would be small gatherings of families meeting in homes or public places. The larger church in a city might be an association of these small gatherings that met infrequently for celebrations, but the primary understanding of church would be the smaller gathering.

This smaller model of church parallels Jesus’ call to discipleship as the fundamental element of Christianity. While very valuable ministry can and does take place in large group gatherings, ultimately one has to return to the fundamental understanding that discipleship primarily takes place in solitude or in groups of just a few. These small settings often appear much like a mentoring relationship and are established through trust. It is easy for discipleship to become lost in a larger setting of ministry. Going through the various roles of a church-goer has allowed people to become Christians without becoming disciples. The shift to a smaller model of church makes this nearly impossible. People cannot easily hide in small groups. Furthermore, this approach closely mirror’s Jesus’ own discipleship ministry. He focused on ever-smaller groups rather than the crowds, consistently choosing the twelve over the crowds or even his followers, and even choosing the three over the twelve. Focusing on fewer allows the impact to go deeper.

A further reason for focusing on fewer is that multiplication becomes the result, rather than addition. A key and central feature of this kind of small and targeted discipleship is the training in further disciple-making. Discipleship should naturally result in more disciples. In his second letter to Timothy, Paul recognized this principle when he instructed his disciple to teach others to teach others. This is fundamental to the principle of multiplication. When one trains three, and each of the three train three more, there are suddenly 13 disciples. After the next iteration of disciple-making, there will be 40 disciples. The growth accelerates rapidly. This takes place in smaller churches.

In a mid-sized missional church, the primary experience of church is in the small group of 10-12 people. The initial missionary trains three or four leaders who will begin small groups in their homes. Once the groups are established, the new leaders begin to train their small group members. Three or four leaders from the group will begin their own small groups. These small groups now come together to form a mid-sized missional church — so named because an external mission forms the core purpose for the existence of the association. Once this process has happened, the initial missionary has established several mid-sized groups and can now move to a new area or remain in a coordinating and teaching role. Mid-sized groups are limited in size to 50-60 people, but new groups may always be formed. This model allows for rapid but organized growth, leading to a balance between the viral growth of the Kingdom and the necessity of maintaining clear doctrine.

Identifying and training leaders from within the community is a key principle. Many missionaries seek to bring outside, trained leaders in to plant the faith communities. Even if they are of the same culture, coming from outside the community with additional training leads to several challenges. First, several ministries have noted that when people are sent off for seminary training to become pastors, they come back with a certain amount of arrogance and a feeling of having earned a salary and the right to be called pastor. This can lead to alienation with the community. Second, these missionaries from outside do not have the existing knowledge of the community and relationships with neighbors that indigenous leaders have. The great networks of existing contacts that local people have allow the church planting movement to grow more rapidly and deeply. Local leaders already know their own specific regional culture and multiply much more quickly. Furthermore, it is often observed that new converts are the most eager to share their faith. When new believers are expected to share their gifts, they will multiply and the church will be strengthened.

Citations:

  • Frost, Michael. Exiles: Living Missionally in a Post-Christian Culture. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 2006.
  • Willard, Dallas. The Great Omission: Reclaiming Jesus’s Essential Teachings on Discipleship. San Francisco, CA: HarperSanFrancisco, 2006.
  • Hirsch, Alan. The Forgotten Ways: Reactivating the Missional Church. Grand Rapids, MI: BrazosPress, 2006.
  • Coleman, Robert E. The Master Plan of Evangelism. Second Edition, Abridged. Grand Rapids, MI: Spire, 1994.
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