We often say that a missional community is just a vehicle that helps us learn to live a lifestyle of family on mission. If that’s true then we should expect that a missional community will need a bit more structure and definition than you would want to place on the lifestyle which is the destination. So while there are any number of ways to live as a family of disciples united with God on mission in your life, we want to define the vehicle of missional community so that it’s both recognizable to newcomers and easy to replicate in a variety of contexts.
With that in mind we want to answer the question, what exactly is a missional community? Are there common characteristics that are transferable from one context to another? We think there are and find the following list to be a very helpful place to start. This list is adapted from the book Leading Missional Communities (LMC) by Mike Breen and the 3DM Team, and we’ve added our own perspective on how each of these play out in the experience of leading our own MC and coaching other MC leaders.
20 to 40 People
As Mike and the team say, “MCs must be small enough to care, but big enough to dare.”
**It may be helpful to mention right off the bat that while kids definitely matter, we tend to count adults and young adults (middle/high maybe) when we’re talking about this range. It’s especially true on the lower end of things and really has more to do with ratio…
We have definitely found this to be true, but why these specific numbers? Well, in our experience anything significantly outside this range makes the leadership competency required go up dramatically. If you start an MC or find yourself leading an MC of much fewer than 20, then the leadership energy and skill required to gain enough momentum to actually add people to the family goes way up. It’s just hard to foster the kind of culture that is comfortable for outsiders to join and inertia will tend to take hold and you’ll end up with a small (and typically insulated) group.
When your MC reaches (or starts out with) much more than 40, it takes quite a bit of skill as a leader to bring order to the chaos and keep everyone united around a common vision for mission. It’s also difficult to maintain the patterns of family that lead to belonging at those numbers. And so, in order to remove as many obstacles as possible for new leaders and to keep experienced leaders imitable, we try to hold off starting an MC until there’s at least 20 people and make plans to multiply an MC before it reaches more than 40.
UP – IN – OUT Rhythms
We want to practice life centered around the ways of Jesus, specifically the way of life described by the Great Commandment and the Great Commission:
Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind (UP)
Love your neighbor as yourself (IN)
Go and make disciples of all people (OUT)
Living a balanced lifestyle of UP, IN, and OUT is a significant challenge in our culture and well-defined predictable patterns as a family make it easier. We practice the lifestyle together and we learn from each other and eventually it’s the pattern of our life. We have found it works best to set two distinct rhythms as an MC. One that is focused on UP and IN and one that is IN and OUT. The UP/IN rhythm should be frequent (we advocate for weekly) and builds a sense of family while connecting our hearts, souls and minds to God. The IN/OUT rhythm should also be regular (we advocate for monthly) and lets the strength of the family be the vehicle for reaching out in relationship and invitation into the life of a disciple.
Let me say that again in a slightly different way: the IN/OUT rhythm should allow us to “go and make disciples” not go and do and act of service. Serving others can be part of your life together but let’s be very clear about what the great commandment is actually telling us to go and do.
Which leads us to the next mark of an MC:
Clear Mission Vision
“Vision is the magnet that draws people to the community and the engine that keeps the community moving.” -LMC
In order to live into a rhythm that reaches OUT as a family (IN), we need to lead with absolute clarity about who God is calling us to make disciples of in this time and place. Yes, Jesus said to go and make disciples of all nations but then in Acts 1:8 he also seems to suggest that the movement toward “all nations” would happen in steps or stages (first Jerusalem, then Samaria, and then the ends of the earth). It seems to us that if you want to incarnate the good news into a particular place, you need to know who inhabits that place and how the good news intersects with their lives.
Let me just be clear, people often make an act of service to a particular group of people (typically not in close proximity) the “mission vision” of their MC. I do not want to suggest that serving the last, the least and the lost is a bad thing. I do, however, want to suggest that it’s actually something that orients us UP rather than OUT (if out is about making disciples). You see, while we may help make this earth a little bit more like it is in heaven by our service, we rarely get the opportunity to build lasting relationships in the process. For in serving people from a position of power, we often destroy any common ground where we could meet people in friendship. In fact, it was often the way of Jesus to place himself or his disciples in need of the service of others as a means of communicating the good news of the Kingdom of God (but that’s a post for another day).
More than a cleverly-worded mission statement, we want leaders to be able to answer these two questions with clarity and conviction:
Who is God calling your MC to make disciples of?
What does good news look like to those people?
Once you have answers to those questions, then you can build rhythms of life that help you earn a relationship with those people and incarnate the good news among them.
Lightweight / Low-Maintenance
“It’s about learning to live a missional lifestyle together, not attending a series of missional events.” -LMC
The vehicle of missional community should be about adding a little structure to the life of an extended family of disciples so they can grow in faith and join God on mission. They should be easy to replicate and shouldn’t cost much time or money to run.
If what you’re doing as a leader results in the admiration of others who just can’t see themselves doing what you do, then we’re on the wrong track. Leading an MC well is often more about saying no to the myriad of good things we could do so that we can focus on the simple patterns of discipleship and mission in a way that is scalable, sustainable, and repeatable.
If you find yourself leading something that might need it’s own bank account or non-profit status, then you’ve probably left the realm of “missional community”. That’s okay, and it might be exactly what you’re called to do, let’s just not call it a missional community.
An Accountable Leader (Spiritual Parents)
While Mike and the Team say “an accountable leader” in Leading Missional Communities, we like the term Spiritual Parents (which comes from another book by Mike and Sally anyway). It implies there should be more than one, though we would hasten to add that it does not mean that only a married couple can lead an MC.
The family on mission can be structured in any number of ways but it is absolutely essential that there are people called and empowered by God to parent the family. Spiritual Parents should receive investment and coaching from others (we all need it) as well as being held accountable for the long-term health of the family they are entrusted to lead.
We just can’t think of a better metaphor for leading an MC than parenting. It implies that leading is far more than following some formula or curriculum. It is the constant posture of listening for direction from the Holy Spirit and doing what seems best just as a loving parent does constantly for their biological family.
We also think that using the metaphor of spiritual parents helps us to be realistic about the level of character necessary when we’re tempted to turn people loose based solely on their level of leadership competency.
Giving definition to the vehicle of missional community with these five marks is helpful for protecting the language of the culture we are trying build. This is merely a framework to build upon and should lead to significant freedom in whatever context you are called to lead a family on mission.
Language helps to give form and identity to the culture we are leading. If you are still in the early days of shifting your culture toward missional discipleship and away from church programming, it will be especially important to protect the language around where you’re heading and the vehicles that you intend to use to get there. We have found that these five concepts help bring clarity to an important vehicle that can be relied upon to get us closer to our vision of a discipling culture.