Note: This article has been excerpted from MissioRelate by M. Scott Boren.
I consulted a small church of 50 members in Pennsylvania that embarked upon a small group journey ten years before they contacted me for support. They hired me to assess why they were not growing. In our first discussions about their history, they shared the titles of books they initially read, promising spiritual and numeric growth, relational evangelism, and "success" if they launched small groups. A decade later, they remain a congregation of less than 50 but didn't know why they had not grown numerically.
During my initial visit, I found a few things they could do differently to grow larger in numbers. More than any other discoveries for improvement, I found that they were doing a lot of things right. There was so much good going on in this small church! Sadly, it was all hidden beneath the discouragement that resulted by asking the common, normal questions about their small groups.
So I asked a different set of questions oriented around MissioRelate. I discovered that group members were actually sharing life together; they were counting the cost of being in relationships that mattered; they were investing in people who did not know Jesus and helping them find the cross and then Lordship; they were involved in their communities, shared their lives with the poor; and they practiced simplicity and mutual sharing. When I entered with MissioRelate questions, I found small seeds of something awesome, yet the church and groups were not seeing the explosive growth promised in all the small group literature.
This church is practicing an alternative way of being the church, a way that stands in stark contrast from our culture and from the "easy believism" found in many churches in their area that are experiencing numeric growth. What they've developed over the last ten years is beautiful, but it does not fit conventional expectations. They are a mustard seed movement of something different, a remnant that is now asking far more powerful questions and is forming a grass roots movement of group life that moves beyond small group structures and numbers.
I've identified 21 different practices that groups can do to promote mission. I break these practices into three basic rhythms, which I call Missional Communion, Missional Relating, and Missional Engagement.
In the book, The Tangible Kingdom, the authors write of rhythms of communion, rhythms of community, and rhythms of mission. The use of such language implies that rhythms of communion and community are meant for the life of insiders and the rhythms of mission are the things that the insiders do for outsiders. In my experience, I have found that such a distinction does not match reality. Some of the most missional things that we do as groups are praying together and sharing food with one another. The way we relate to God and one another is not simply insider ministry. It is indeed missional. Consider Jesus' prayer, paraphrased by Eugene Peterson from The Message:
The goal is for all of them to become one heart and mind—
Just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you,
So they might be one heart and mind with us.
Then the world might believe that you, in fact, sent me.
The same glory you gave me, I give them,
So they'll be as unified and together as we are—
I in them and you in me.
Then they'll be mature in this oneness,
And give the godless world evidence
That you've sent me and loved them
In the same way you've loved me. (John 17:18-23)
Reflecting on all of the chapters found in The Tangible Kingdom, I see plenty of evidence where, if challenged, the authors would concur with my conclusion. They tell stories of how unity and devotion to God has had an impact upon outsiders. I also don't think that the authors would say that their experience draws such a hard and fast line either.
Even if these authors don't purposely draw a dividing line between insider and outsider ministry, we as readers have been shaped in the church to think this way so we draw the line for them. We compartmentalize our church programs around such distinctions: Hospitality is a ministry to build community; prayer is for the purpose of building up the body; and serving the poor is a missions project.
Reality is far messier than our categories. To be on mission means that we enter into our communities with our whole lives before God, not just the part we take with us when we want to evangelize. In addition, when we engage our neighborhoods and share Jesus' life with those who don't follow him, the communication is never one sided. Those of us inside the church don't have all the answers for those outside of it. Instead, when we go on mission we sit and have conversations with those the church has traditionally deemed outsiders to include them in life so they can taste and see that the Lord is good.
Here are some MissioRelate questions to help guide you as you assess your own group:
- To what degree is our group experiencing God's presence when they gather?
- What specific actions are individuals taking to simplify their lives so that they have time to share in community life with others?
- What kinds of sacrifices are people making to be shaped by God for leadership?
- How are people who are not Jesus followers experiencing the presence of God through the group?
- How is our group working through conflict and difficult relational situations?
- How frequently are we sharing meals together outside of official meetings?
- How are group members sacrificing their personal priorities for the sake of other people in our group?
- How are people who are not Jesus followers experiencing the relationships that are distinct from the world through our group?
- How is our group being led to minister outside of predetermined expectations and meet needs spontaneously?
- How are people using their money in unique ways to invest in redemption?
- How is our group (and individuals within our group) investing in relationships in our neighborhood?
- How is our group (and individuals within our group) embracing the poor and seeking to bring redemption to social outcasts?
- How are people who are not Jesus followers encouraged to participate in the process of serving the world together?
When church leaders and groups start asking these questions, they discover they are responsible for a different set of outcomes. Instead of the typical or normal expectations about meeting attendance, group growth and other external factors, they expect to produce a life that generates a new social fabric, to use Block's terminology. The group sees itself as the context for the creation of an alternative future.
When I started asking MissioRelate questions, the old, normal questions by themselves became dissatisfying. We can still ask the old questions, but their purpose is different. For example, I now ask numbers questions to discover how many people are practicing the rhythms of missional community, not how many people are attending group or how many groups we currently have in operation. The questions that challenge us to live out the rhythms of missional community are the questions that empower groups to own the vision and challenge them to do life in radical ways.
—Excerpted from MissioRelate by M. Scott Boren, copyright 2011 by Touch Publications, Inc. Used by permission. All rights to this material are reserved. Material is not to be reproduced, scanned, copied, or distributed in any printed or electronic form without written permission from Touch Publications, Inc.