Missional community has become a buzz-phrase in the small-group movement. Some churches are tempted to call their small groups "missional communities"—even if it doesn't make much of a practical difference for the groups. But as Todd Engstrom, executive pastor of ministries of The Austin Stone Community Church puts it, being a true missional community is much more than a name change.
The Austin Stone is a thriving multi-site community in Austin. In 2007, it started transitioning to a church of missional communities. Their small groups became more mission-focused and the primary place the church evangelizes. Today they have 330 missional communities, with over 60 percent of their church connected.
Engstrom has lived through the long transition, and he's passionate about missional communities. Amy Jackson spoke to him by phone.
Why did The Austin Stone make the switch to missional communities?
Missional communities for us are a theologically driven vision for what the church ought to look like in the context of a small community of believers. Historically, the church has thought of Sundays as the time we either preach the Word or evangelize the lost, and communities as the place where we teach the Word or foster community. Then the individual is primarily responsible for evangelism and missional engagement.
That's not really a proper understanding of the church. If we've been saved by Christ, if we have been elected before the foundations of the world for the purposes of God's glory, if through regeneration we have a heart's affection for worship, if we've been adopted into God's family and made brothers and sisters in Christ, and if we're continually being conformed to the image of Christ Jesus through our sanctification, then that gives us an identity that ought to be expressed in every facet of the church. We summarize this into four core identities: worshiper, learner, family, and missionary. These drive everything we do individually to communally and corporately. So missional communities are the outflow of a theological vision.
The second piece is philosophical. We really wanted to wrestle with: How are we going to reach the city of Austin? Austin is a unique place. It's in the South so it has vestiges of the Bible Belt, but it also has a truly post-Christian culture. If we want to reach the city of Austin, it's going to take every believer, every community, and our whole church intentionally engaging in God's mission. So that means small communities can't just be about community. They have to be intentionally engaging the lost as well.
How many people are in missional communities?
On average, there are 13 people in each missional community at the Austin Stone. But we have missional communities as large as 50 and as small as 4. We don't prescribe a number. We also try to integrate children into what we're doing.
We have over 60 percent of our church connected to missional communities right now. I realize that's not blowing it out of the water relative to leaders of the small-group movement, but for us that's a very big deal.
What do the missional communities do?
We gather in different ways to express our identities (worshiper, learner, family, missionary). We gather in life transformation groups to express our identity as disciples, which is really the worshiper and learner identities. The first piece is we hear from God's Word and obey what it says. The second piece is to repent and believe, so we confess our sins to one another and repent of it. And then we articulate the good news of the gospel and the promises of God. The gospel is for believers as well as unbelievers. Finally, we consider and pray: Consider opportunities you have this week to share the gospel and pray by name for lost people.
We also gather in a family meal, which is where we express our identity as brothers and sisters in Christ adopted into God's family. We break bread together and share communion. The goal is to cultivate real, authentic friendship. You're never going to have a compelling community to lost people if you aren't friends with one another and live as a family.
And then finally we gather in Third Places, which are spaces where we gather to intentionally invite lost people to be part of it.
We talk about seasons and rhythms of those practices. It's not all three of those things every week. Instead we ask, "What would it look like for you to be faithful to these rhythms, changing in certain seasons when it's needed for your community?"
We want everybody to gather once a week in a life transformation group. We think that's mission critical to faithfully being a disciple of Jesus. We also want them to meet once a week in addition to their life transformation groups, alternating between the family meal and Third Place, as a rhythm. That doesn't mean gather all 15, 20, 25 people to do these things, but gather with Christians to intentionally pursue and live out these identities that you have in Christ.
How does leadership work in the missional communities?
The missional community leader's job is not to execute the practices. Their job is to ensure that the group has clarity in its mission. Their primary job is not necessarily communicator, shepherd, or pastor. It's mission-centered. We want them to be the one who is leading out and saying, "This is who we are, and this is what we're going to do."
The life transformation groups are designed to be leaderless groups. They come having read the Bible reading plan for the week, share what God has taught, and how they obeyed it. It's a pretty easy template to follow. It doesn't really require a leader. It requires good modeling—people have to see it and practice—but it's designed to be something that is simple, reproducible, and transferrable.
We really want the family meal to be centered around a meal. So if you know how to cook or how to facilitate a meal for 12 people, you're qualified to lead that portion.
For Third Place, the leader of the group has to determine where to gather and how to invite lost people to be part of it.
We train leaders with two primary strategies. First, we do a four-week basic training which covers the centrality of the gospel, the motivations for leading community, our four values of community, our four identities in community, and our practices. Then we do ongoing leadership development and training, usually about once a quarter, where we work through issues of doctrine. We want to equip our leaders to have good conversations around character, conflict, and community issues. Last, we talk about skills needed for leadership identification, leadership training, multiplying your community. We also just celebrate together.
I'm a big fan of intrinsic desire versus extrinsic motivation. I want my teams to feel the need to create compelling environments that people want to come to rather than forcing our leaders to come listen to us. Let's not just gather for the sake of gathering. Let's not just create a meeting. Let's create compelling things that people want to be part of.
How have you seen success through missional communities?
About half of our baptisms happen in the context of a missional community. Our missional community leaders and participants are leading people to Christ, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit, inviting them into the communal life of discipleship, and teaching them what it looks like to make and multiply disciples. That is massively encouraging to me.
One of the fun things for me is just watching it play out in my personal life. We have neighbors who won't come to church, but they will actually study Scripture and have good, honest conversations with us.
Plus, I have conversations with a lot of people who think they can't live the life of Jesus with kids, but you can. We have four kids, all under the age of 7. Seeing the fruit of those kinds of conversations is so life-giving.
What challenges have you faced?
It's taken a long time to teach and model this for our church. We started the transition in earnest in 2007, and this is just now becoming the predominant model of community in our church. We thought early on that it would be done very quickly. It really took us seven years.
As we've engaged the multi-campus, multi-site world, that's been a unique challenge. As we've engaged different parts of Austin, our practices have changed. Our heartbeat has not. We've talked a lot about our practices being optional but the commands of the Bible are not. So whatever form we choose, we have to be pursuing those things.
Another piece that's been really hard is assimilation. Because we're a diverse church, because we're a missional church, the standard, homogenous, one-size-fits-all connection strategy just isn't effective for us. We've had to be very creative.
We've used several different strategies and all of them have their pros and cons. Last fall we used a modified host strategy. Before we did that, we were about 39 percent connected, and after we were 61 percent connected. The challenge there was that we formed groups that we had to disciple toward missional community. We're still in the process of helping many of those communities become missional communities.
The primary strategy we use for assimilation is our connections class. We take a demographic-specific group—newlywed, married, single women, single men—and do a class for six weeks. We do a little bit of teaching, a lot of discussion, and introduce the ideas of the gospel clearly and creatively. We introduce the necessity of Christian community and what that might look like given the specific life stage.
After six weeks, we launch them out into homes. We give them a template to follow. The first week, share your stories with each other. The second week, share a meal with each other. The third week, go out to a restaurant with one another. And the fourth week, meet with one of our coaches or staff to discuss your plans for moving forward. Usually out of the 50 to 80 people from the connections class, we'll have 3 to 6 different groups emerge that will pursue community.
What do you do when people have trouble making time for a missional community?
I think ultimately it's a discipleship issue. The individual has to take discipleship seriously. But it's also up to the church leadership to help disciple the congregation. I think both have a role. We are intentionally non-programmatic.
But secondly we call people to greater commitment to Christ. This is not a game that we're playing. This is not just a hobby that you have. Christianity demands all of your life. Christian discipleship is going to take suffering, and it's going to take us surrendering some of the things that we believe are rights in our culture. We do meet you halfway, and we intentionally under-program events in the church. But we're also going to call you to the life of discipleship.
Much of what we do in the church actually caters to consumerism rather than challenges Christians to be self-feeders of God's word, self-leaders in discipleship, and self-multipliers in making and multiplying disciplers. So we wanted to create a structure that stopped the consumerism and helped people learn and grow and be those things.
That's why I believe so deeply in missional communities. Because traditional small groups more often than not are centered on meeting a particular need which just caters to consumerism. It never challenges people to obey in a different fashion. Instead, they often just create and perpetuate consumerism: whether it's a specific Bible study, a community of people that are like you, or a particular need that you have to fill. We're not challenging people to self-lead, self-feed, and self-multiply.
It's easy to fool ourselves into thinking we're successful because we have 80 percent of our church in small groups, but how many in your church are making and multiplying disciples? Not just leaders in the church making and multiplying disciples, but everyday saints involved in the mission of God and making and multiplying disciples. That has to be the metric we use. We can't lose the Great Commission as our benchmark for what it means to be a successful church. The Great Commission is for individuals, communities, and whole churches.
—Amy Jackson is managing editor of SmallGroups.com.