Note: This article originally appeared in our digital magazine, The Meaning of Missional.
Scott Boren was sold on missional small groups before they even had a name. But most small-group ministry structures don't have space for missional groups—including the ministry he inherited at Woodland Hills in Minnesota. So he's been on a mission to help churches make space. He serves as a consultant to churches trying to capture the vision for missional small groups and he's written Missional Small Groups and MissioRelate. His third book on the topic is due out in 2013. SmallGroups.com sat down with Scott to learn what it really means to be a missional group.
SmallGroups.com: What experiences made you passionate about missional living?
When I took on the role of small-group pastor at Woodland Hills, there was a guy leading a group of former inmates. Every Tuesday night they'd get together and eat and pray and really connect. But it wasn't an official small group because we didn't have room for a group like that within our system. That's what led me to really recognize that our normal groups were filled with people who just saw small groups as an add-on to their lives. It caused me to realize we were co-opting something that cold be very radical and Americanizing it until it was no longer kingdom-like.
What exactly does it mean to be missional?
We often think of doing something good for people who are under-privileged. But let's pull pack frm the activist point of view It's really about three things. 1) It's about what God is doing to redeem the world—not just people being saved or joining our church or doing nice things for poor people. 2) It's about understanding what's going on in our culture and saying, "God, what are you doing here, and how can we get around that?" 3) It's about asking how we should be the church in this culture in a way that faithfully reflects what it means to be God's people. How do we embody the way of Christ in our local neighborhoods right here, right now in a way that is attractive and beautiful and winsome and demonstrates the kingdom? Not so people will come, but because that's who God has called us to be—whether or not people respond. How do we as teachers, engineers, carpenters, and farmers begin to work with God and move beyond just getting people saved or serving at the homeless shelter? Both are great things, but we need to find out what God is doing in creative improvisational ways and respond accordingly.
What are our small groups currently doing?
Regardless of structure, curriculum, or training, I found four different stories of groups. One was the personal improvement story, in which I come to small group because it is personally beneficial to me.
The second story is lifestyle adjustment, where I actually change up my life (somewhat) to prioritize the small-group meeting. And 90 percent of the churches, pastors, and group leaders I've worked with fall in this category. Let's not beat ourselves up about that. If I'm making a C in math, there's no condemnation, but how do we move beyond that?
The third story is relational revision. This is a group of people who want to learn to be on mission. They're making a C in math, and they don't know how to make an A, but they're ready to learn, work at it, be coached, and see what God can do through them.
The fourth story is missional re-creation. As people learn how to be on mission together, it results in improvisation. As we begin to manifest the kingdom in our local neighborhood, the groups take on the flavor of that neighborhood in how they meet, what they do, and how they do it. It's not one-size-fits-all.
So how do we make the shift to missional small groups?
Leaders need to understand where their group members re and work with them there. What most churches have today are Sunday school classes that meet in homes. There's nothing wrong with that, but let's not call that radical—that's lifestyle adjustment. What I encourage churches to do is set up normal lifestyle adjustment groups, but also do an underground experiment in missional re-creation. And do it with those people who are hungry for more and are willing to learn how to do relationships well, reach out into the neighborhood, and demonstrate the kingdom.
Unfortunately, it seems many of us don't really know how to do relationships well. Should that be our first focus?
One of the fears is if you do community first and do mission second, mission won't happen. Believing that, we swing to the other end and tell people to do mission and the community will result. But have you seen these people relate to one another? It's just ridiculous the things we fight over. Outreach and mission can result in greater community, but if there's not a foundation of healthy relationships, it's not going to work out well. Most of the ways we embody the kingdom are hidden ways—loving one another, working through conflict, sacrificing for one another, praying together, being a blessing to one another. And if we don't do those things that are hidden, how can we have an impact on the world?
We don't see the connection between the things happening on the inside and our impact on the world.
Right. The conflict in Corinth where a man was sleeping with his father's wife (1 Corinthians 5) wasn't just insider information; that's something everyone in Corinth knew about. So Paul's not just talking about it as an internal issue they need to work out as a church. It had an impact on the way the church impacted Corinth. But in the American church we don't see the way we pray or the way we relate with one another as evangelistic—because those are private things the world doesn't see. But it still affects our impact on the world. To counter this, small groups need to think about how they can do life together publicly. Maybe you start meeting at a restaurant, in the backyard, or at a park. Intentionally live life together in a visible way.
How can small groups listen to God and hear how they should be missional?
We tend to rationally think through situations. Instead let's come together and have a night of prayer and see what God says. "The needs are too great, and we don't know how to handle this. What do we do?" Then listen together. What's God saying to us, right here, right now? God might not say anything for three weeks, but you need to resist the urge to fix it on your own.
Plus, we need to allow group members to bring their individual personal encounters with God and share them with the group. If you read a poem this week that had an impact on your life, share it with us. If there's a movie you watched and God showed you something, share it. It creates this bond where people have the wherewithal to hear God from one another. Typically we don't have that bond, and then we say, "Let's go hear God about this." But because we don't know each other well, nobody wants to take the risk to say anything.
How do we know where to start?
We really need to understand our local culture. We need to understand the trends of American culture, and we need to know what's going on in our own backyard. For instance, we talk about human trafficking in a broad way, but what's going on within your five-mile radius with regard to human trafficking? I think we'd be surprised that it's happening right under our noses. Another thing is suburban poverty. And suburbanites don't know where to get help like people who have lived in generational poverty. We really need to understand the local culture, and that requires getting out and getting to know people, just talking with them and seeing what's going on. And instead of immediately reacting and trying to fix them, we really try to listen to what's going on.
What keeps small groups from being missional?
Some groups think missional living is too big and they can't do it. Other groups try to do it, and they bite off more than they can chew. Both of those things are rooted in a lack of discipleship. We need to recognize the connection between missional living and spiritual formation. We don't talk about the cost of discipleship, but then we talk about being missional and people aren't ready for it. It's too big of a step. I'm finding people want to be missional, but they are willing to put in the hard work that leads up to making a difference. But it is possible, so we can't give up. Let your group members know they need to have a part in it all. Missional living is for everyone, not just the leader or the pastor.
—Scott Boren is the author of MissioRelate and Missional Small Groups: Becoming a Community That Makes a Difference in the World; copyright 2012 by Christianity Today.