Missional Communities After a Year

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by Nate ViskerOne year ago, Ferrysburg Community Church in Spring Lake, Michigan launched a missional community in a neighboring apartment complex. Pastor Nate Visker shares some reflections on what they expected, current reality and what they have learned..

Just over a year ago our congregation launched its first missional community.  We’ve defined a missional community (MC) as a Christ-centered community of 15-50 people sent to announce and demonstrate the kingdom of God in and to a local neighborhood or people group.  We think of them as missionaries sent to a local mission field rather than an overseas mission field.  Our first MC is a group of people from our congregation who felt called by God to announce his kingdom in a nearby apartment community.  They hold a Sunday gathering in the community center and offer a simple meal.  At this gathering they spend some time discussing how they experienced God that week.  Over the last year relationships with people in the apartment community have deepened considerably.  Transportation is a major issue for many people in the neighborhood.  This MC has put a lot of miles on their vehicles giving people rides. 

We had a number of expectations when we started this journey.  Some of them have held up.  Others have been blown away.  Still others were way off base.  Here’s a random list of things I’ve learned about starting missional communities and their impact on our church.

  • Never a dull moment.  Mission is exciting.  It’s hard, but rarely boring.  What a wonderful way to breathe life into a church experience that can sometimes be a bit, um… boring.  MCs aren’t for the faint of heart.  Peoples’ lives are messy.  But you could write a book.
     
  • We didn’t lose them.  One of our fears is that members who joined a MC would lose their connection to the congregation.  It’s actually been the opposite.  We have seen an increased commitment to and longing for our church family.
     
  • Spiritual growth happens on mission.  People involved in an MC have seen dramatic growth in their faith.  This may sound simplistic, but if someone came to me feeling stagnant in their walk with God, I would consider the problem solved the moment they got involved with an MC.
     
  • We’ve set records for church growth.  The numbers we send in to the denomination don’t reflect it.  Our attendance doesn’t always reflect it either.  But through one MC, our church is connected to about 25 people in the last year who consider it their spiritual family.
     
  • You can do “both/and.”  There was some concern that our worship services and education ministries would suffer as we focused time and energy in MCs.  From this view, our worship has only grown in impact.  Our educational ministries have deepened as well.  MCs have been a source of energy and vitality that have spread to other ministries.
     
  • A deliberate process was key.  Our congregation is proud and supportive of our MCs.  We took our time as we moved toward our first MC.  We spent six months discussing it as a Council and a few more months educating our congregation.  It was time well spent.
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Participant

Great to hear.  I've been processing for quite some time now how this may be possible in a more rural setting.

Guide

Hi Allen,

What are your thoughts about launching missional communities in a rural setting? Any ideas?

I attended the 3DM Discipleship and Mission conference in Holland this week. I learned (again) contextualizing is very important. The session leaders make it seem like there is a one size fits all strategy, but as I talked with them I learned they all are adapting the concepts to fit their unique situation. I asked one leader if they only have missional communities.  He said they tried that and learned quickly they needed other types of groups. They have missional communities AND alpha, parenting groups, etc. Good to know

We've drawn on a lot of stuff from 3DM.  Our iteration of MCs is probably a little more oriented around a network or neighborhood than 3DM.  We've decided to start with a missional context, while their MCs start with the community of people in the MC.  So many different ways to skin this cat.  

Allen, if you ever want to talk more, feel free to contact me.

This is quite interesting to me... my one questions however, is how does this missional community tie back into the larger church from which it was sent?  Is that even an option or desired within the MC? 

Hi Brian,

We've been able to maintain a pretty strong connection to the group we sent into the apartment community.  Many of them still attend our Sunday worship service regularly.  We've released them from the ways they were volunteering within the congregation so they could focus on the neighborhood.  But we still see them regularly on Sunday morning.  We make a point of praying for this group in our congregational prayers.  We also try to get a brief update from one of them about once a month during our worship service.

Some of the people from the apartment complex have started coming to our worship service, but most who meet with this group do not.  We were clear that our goal was not to get people to come to our worship services, but simply to help them find a spiritual community on their own turf.  I hope this helps.

Guide

It was interesting to talk to different people at the conference. People are applying the missional community strategy in a variety of ways. One leader told me they learned that they needed to start with vision. They wanted to launch 25 MC's. It didn't work. they regrouped and discovered 12 leaders with a very specific mission focus - local elementary school, a neighborhood, or a topic like homeless people, etc.. People gathered around the vision into 12 MC's of varying size. Some MC's have two or three groups (about 30 - 40 people) others have 8 - 12.

We discovered that about 5% of our congregation had the pre-existing qualifications to lead an MC.  I'll get 2, maybe 3 MCs out of that.  So I've started a process of developing missional leaders that can lead an MC down the road.  It's hard to have patience, but I believe that God will use what we're doing now in wonderful ways in 5 years.  All that to say I really believe you have to start with the leaders and build from there.

Sam, I think I understand what you mean by the term "missional community strategy."  But I want to be clear that I don't see MCs as just another strategy (like direct mail or seeker sensitive worship).  For us, it is the future of our congregation.  It's more than a way to reach unchurched people.  I believe it's what God is leading us to become - a congregation of MCs.

Participant

This is a good discussion on this.  It is heavy on my heart and plate. I've been trying to see if our church could even get back to the missional community aspect of the church.  I long for this in myself.  We already live like this and have begun to more intentionally form a missional community.  Our people don't know what to make of the way we live.  When I bring up the Missional Community to our leadership they look at me with blank stares and wonder what planet I'm from. They're in a programatic mode. I encourage reading.  I can't get anyone to look into this with any sort of desire or initiative.  I'm personally struggling with this and whether or not God is saying something new to my wife and me.

Contributor

Home Missions is partnering with ECO Presbyterian (a new presbyterian denomination) in creating a pathway to bring missional communities into established churches. We had our first gathering/training a couple of weeks ago. ECO is having Faith Alive both edit and publish the materials.  One of the very good things about the ECO missional community strategy is that is has both training and coaching for those who are establishing missional communities. Also because it is working with established congregations it seems to have a good feel for how to bring MCs into that context. This work is just beginning but we hope to see it ramp up in the next 6-8 months.

Great thread on a timely and necessary discussion, especailly for the CRC.

I am currently working on my D.min at Fuller Seminary around this whole community idea, but that doesn't make me an expert in any way.  I am pleased to see something unfold in Larry's comment and Nate's as well.  Both have expressed that there is at least, in someway, the idea that the Missional Communities that have formed or are being formed, are tying back into the larger congregation.  Standing on the window sill of this massive conversation looking out at the landscape, if connection to the originating congregation doesn't happen, something tragic will be on THE CHURCH'S doorstep before we know it.  The unintentional killing off of thousands of churches all for the sake of being missional.  Let's not forget what has brought us this far.

The idea of missional communities, if practiced the way people like Guder, McNeal, Van Gelder, Zscheile, etc. are promoting, then lets call them what they are.  Church plants.  But keep in mind, it's inevitible that missional communities are going to need some sort of institutional or organizational capacity or things like theology and sacrament will derail faster than my fantasy football team at crunch time.  Culture has a sneaky powerful way of shaping any community that is relying on the hospitality of the stranger or "target" of the missional community.  Jesus can quickly become something other than Jesus because we are all broken and fleshly.  Hence, IMHO, the NEED to tie into the larger church.  Accountability with the rule of faith and life is necessary, but accountability is taboo in our me first culture.

two more cents...

   

 

Good thoughts, Brian.  Now that I understand your initial question better, I would also add that our MCs are coached by the pastor (me) and are accountable to the elders.  I sometimes think we worry too much about heresy springing up in things we don't tightly control.  The goal of our MCs is to announce God's kingdom and make disciples.  As long as there is strong accountablilty to that goal, I believe orthodoxy will take care of itself.  MCs described by the names you mentioned are indeed more like house churches.  Soma Communities are a good example of MCs that have a strong tie to an organization.  I wonder, however, if this makes them slower to multiply?

Participant

This stuff if very timely for me as well, Brian.  Kudos on going for the DMin.  I thought about it, but decided I wanted to enjoy my last 15 years before official retirement age -- although I hope I don't HAVE to then.  Anyway, I am in process of discerning the church's (institution) in all off this.  I wonder if there are not some opposing paradigms in the midst of all this that are creating the strain between the "Mission" communities and "Church" communities.  The MC believes they are being church in the intentional everyday, the way it was originally intended with a gathering once a week or every-so-often to corporately celebrate the Spirit's work.  On the other hand, those in the "Church" institution see church more as a place and an event led by the scholars and layity who know their stuff, thus minimizing the need for the rest to "really know their stuff".  Discipleship is minimized and Church is separated from the everyday being on mission to, if nothing else, just living a good moral life.  Those are two very different paradigms at odds with each other.  

How does an immigrant church community see themselves on mission if it was never in their DNA from the outset?  Mission then becomes a program (outreach), is something you sign up for and do from time to time. But like the institutional church, mission is a separate entity from your life -- a thing on your list of things to do.  It's not part and parcel of who you ARE, your identity, like it seemed to be for those early Christians.
 

So my question then is how do we connect those two paradigms in a healthy way and is it even possible?

Participant

Sorry I meant to say, "discerning the institutional church's role in all of this."

Nate & Allen, awesome stuff... thought provoking to say the least.

@ Nate - I am realizing [-bowling reference coming-] the lane of orthodxy is much wider than what seminary taught.  There is a lot of room, but things can still jump into the gutter if not handled properly.  Really excited to see oversight by you and your elders... I think that's critical.   As for the slower aspect...I think slower is better.  Innovation feels great, but innovation unchecked and unordered leads to a fast start but major fizzle down the road.  Releasing missional communities should be like how we handle our children... tight at first, seasoned with grace, fully pushing them out the door, seasoned with grace.

@Allen - What's retirement?  Yes... the two paradigms are certainly at odds with each other, but the answer isn't one or the other, its BOTH / AND (bullet point above).  I am serving a church that has two churches in one.  They fit your paradigm description to the T.  I am convinced that each side needs to "seek understanding, before being understood."  The missional minded people and their directions leaves them isolated from a greater work of the Spirit and the institutional minded people and their directions leads to plateau and even death... So I affirm your vision work and dialogue with your church.  It's not easy and even downright frustrating.  The BOTH / AND is the solution... It's matter of truly asking ourselves, do we really believe the gospel and are we willing to live it out?  If so, both paradigms can live in harmony.  In fact, are dependent on each other.  Which in turn, IMHO, has been the bibical approach all along.  There is nothing new under the sun... 

I don't know much about the the immigrant church, so I can't really comment.  Drawing from the name you've given them, doesn't the immigrant church already have mission in their DNA or they wouldn't have been looking for something better...or bigger...or deeper... a greater expression of the Kingdom?