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.