Saturday, January 11, 2014

Soma School Notes Bonus | Case Study: The Austin Stone's Transition from Community Groups to Missional Communities (i.e. City Groups)

Soma School Phoenix 2013 Notes Bonus Community Group to Missional Community

Transforming a Community Group into a Missionary Team

With Emmaus City, we want each of our City Groups (i.e. missional community) in our local church to understand that its identity is being a family of servants and witnesses (i.e. missionaries) who follow Jesus in being learners and helping others learn His words, works, and Way.

This is also one of the ways to help distinguish missional communities from other other types of groups like community groups or small groups. Todd Engstrom, executive pastor of campuses and communities at The Austin Stone Community Church, provided some helpful disctinctions on his website back in the Spring of 2013. Because the Austin Stone has changed its organizational structure to a network of missional communities over the past 10 years, they have been able to observe their people in each of these types of groups and have been able to assess approaches to strengthen their people to be active in serving their neighborhoods and communities for the sake of more people encountering Jesus. Engstrom not only provides descriptions, but also obstacles, coaching points, and key transition points for these groups:

  • Community group
  • Small group
  • Team of missionaries
  • Missionary team

(1) A Community Group is one where the people enjoy spending time together, possibly desire to go through a book or Bible study, but lack any impulse towards those who do not know Jesus and do not hear about His Gospel often or at all. Primarily, these kinds of communities come into existence because a group of people have a felt need for Christian community. They have relationships that are newly forming and generally gather only for an event with other Christians.

Main Obstacle to Effective Mission: Collectively, this group has what we call a “want to” dilemma. They may know that they should care about people who don't know walk in the Way of Jesus, but their activity as a community shows that it is not a priority for them. There are often practical obstacles as well (geographic limitations, lack of knowledge, unfamiliarity in relationships, etc.), but primarily people in these kinds of communities do not believe they are actually sent with God to love their city.
Main Coaching Point: In our experience, a community group needs to be saturated with the Good News and the command of Jesus to be with others, love them, share His story. The need is not so much practical, as it is a deeper issue in their understanding of what it means to be a follower of Jesus. Collectively a community group must see the greatness of the Gospel and see the joy in following Jesus in seeking out those who do not know Him. They often will not make a transition collectively if you only train them as individuals. This is the primary reason we train whole communities together.  
Key Transition Point To “Small Group”: This group begins to shift as people’s conversations and prayers begin to become outward focused. 

(2) A Small Group is a community where people have a desire to be with others and share the abundant life that Jesus offers, but don’t quite know how. Rather than needing a change of heart, these kinds of groups need to work through a host of practical challenges. Often times small groups have gone through a significant experience together or their groups just "click." Whereas a community group has a "want to" problem, a small group has a "how to" problem. Generally, they want to make go with Jesus as He sends them to live life in community outside comfort zones and boundaries but have never seen it modeled and are not sure what it actually looks like. A small group needs to be given practices and rhythms that facilitate a life of intentionally engaging with others in a desire. Practically as a community, they need to spend time walking through how Third PlaceThe Family Meal and LTG’s (or DNAs with Soma) would happen each month so they can start putting their desires into action

Main Obstacle to Effective Mission: Often times the biggest hurdle to cross in this stage is helping them understand when they gather in different ways, not every person in the community needs to participate. Our best coaching is to try and think differently about gatherings and to redefine success for them.   
Main Coaching Point: We coach small groups to find places where 3-4+ people can gather with neighbors, coworkers, and friends who are unfamiliar with Jesus, and occasionally try to gather everyone in the community at more convenient times. We have also found that often times a group will try different gatherings a couple times, then abandon them because they "didn’t work." We work hard to teach them that these practices are not a magic potion, but healthy rhythms that will produce more faithful communities who trust Jesus and follow the lead of His Spirit over time. 
Key Transition Point To "A Team of Missionaries": This group begins to shift as people start to put into practice rhythms that enable them to hang out with their friends who don't know Jesus in natural ways. When a small group has actual names of people to pray for and ask God to meet and transform them where they are, and those people start to show up in places with the community, they are learning how to become followers of Jesus who join Him in His work among others.

(3) A Team of Missionaries is a group that is seeking to share Jesus with others in each individual’s separate sphere of influence. As a small group begins to implement the practices of missional communities, there are often some realizations that take place within that community. The first is how life-giving a missional expression of community can be, and second is how challenging this kind of community lifestyle actually is. As individuals in the community understand their identity as missionaries and put practices in place consistent with that identity, a team of missionaries emerges. While the group members may live in different parts of the city, work in different places, and have different interests, each individual is praying for people by name and seeking to share the Good News of Jesus with people they know and love. We often say this kind of community "gathers for community, but scatters for mission."

Main Obstacle to Effective Mission: A team of missionaries is lacking one thing as a missional community – what we call The Community Apologetic. Whereas most church leaders would be elated to have a church full of teams of missionaries, there is still one more major step to be made for us at The Austin Stone. We aren’t satisfied just with a team of missionaries because a gospel-centered community is the most persuasive argument they have to offer their non-believing friends. The major obstacle to overcome for a team of missionaries is to integrate their lives together, overlapping the places they live, rest, work, and play. 
Main Coaching Point: A team of missionaries will need to begin thinking of how they can consolidate their various mission fields. More often than not, we help them practice cohesively and frequently by helping them identify two to four different Third Places that different people in the group are a part of regularly. Primarily, we’re looking for places of overlap in their lives – do they have kids in the same school, do they work in the same place, are there distinct overlaps in hobbies or activities?  Finding places of commonality helps them establish effective Third Places. 
Key Transition Point To “A Missionary Team”: This group begins to shift as their desire for the salvation of others goes from the individuals they know to the larger people affiliations they are a part of. Often this means people starting a new MC to love people they are passionate about once new servant leaders are trained and gather a team or people transition to another MC once they have fulfilled their 1-year commitment with another MC.

Soma Missional Communities Emmaus City Church Worcester MA

(4) A Missionary Team has a core group of committed people going to be with, love, and share the Good News of Jesus with another group of people. This kind of community is the truest form of how we define missional community.

Main Obstacle to Effective Mission: Although a missionary team is doing an excellent job of living life together on mission, more often than not, we have found that missionary teams are discouraged by a perceived lack of progress and the mundane nature of mission that people (those going as well as those we are being sent to love intentionally) often don't change overnight. The Spirit works in mysterious ways in others and in us. Having worked through all kinds of transitions, a team of missionaries can struggle with faithfully and deliberately living life together over time for the sake of others. The second struggle that many missionary teams face is multiplication – "How and when do we multiply?"
Main Coaching Point: On the coaching front, missionary teams will need practical tools when it comes to leading someone to Jesus. For example, "How do you disciple, share the Gospel with, and serve with intentionality and patience, ask to follow Jesus, baptize, etc.?" We also teach them when and how to multiply – you multiply when a new leader has emerged, or you multiply your community when a clear opportunity for mission presents itself after your commitment to the MC is complete. Missionary teams often don’t need more practices or coaching, they need pastoring and encouragement to remain steadfast in their relationships with people who don't believe in Jesus yet even when it seems like nothing is happening, and to watch for how God is changing them to be more like Jesus as well as to trust that He is working in others even when we can't see it.

While no group of people fits perfectly into any of the descriptions above, we at The Austin Stone have found these categories to be very helpful when thinking through training and coaching. We began the transition to missional communities in 2007, and in early 2008 had around:

  • 10% Teams of Missionaries and Missionary Teams  
  • 50% Small Groups  
  • 40% Community Groups

In 2009-2010, we put a significant amount of effort into establishing consistent missional community practices, clarifying core language, and establishing regular training. After two years of training, in early 2011 we had:

  • 8% Missionary Teams  
  • 23% Teams of Missionaries  
  • 33% Small Groups  
  • 20% Community Groups
  • 16% Unknown

Our measurement from late 2012 indicated:

  • 13% Missionary Teams  
  • 29% Teams of Missionaries  
  • 25% Small Groups  
  • 21% Community Groups  
  • 11% Unknown

What Not To Do When Leading a Missional Community-Based Church

These numbers from The Austin Stone help Emmaus City understand how embedded the American version of Christian community is in how we lack teaching and modeling that all of the church  every follower of Jesus   has the freedom, joy, and responsibility to join with Jesus in making disciples where we live, work, and play. It has taken 10 years of investment to shift the culture at The Austin Stone from Small Groups to Missional Communities, and they are still striving forward.

We at Emmaus City don't expect people to change overnight. In fact, these recommendations from City Life Church, are spot on:

  • Don't expect everyone to "get it" immediately. Most of us in the United States are new at being the church this way (i.e. City Groups, missional communities), and the people we are leading are either new Christians (who will act like new Christians) or they have been Christians for a while (which means they have years of experiencing “church” a certain way that does not involve them living out of their identity as servants and missionaries). How do you know if you're a leader who is hung up on you're people not "getting it"? You spend a lot of time being frustrated with the very people you are called to love and lead.

  • Don't just teach people "how to live" and forget "who they are." There is nothing quite like a group of people “doing missional community” that have no idea that Jesus loves them and that they can rest in His grace. Religious people without grace are a mess. Instead of being a missional community, only doing missional community is a new legalism that will lead to all sorts of awkwardness that actually isn’t very missional. Pray, speak, and live with your missional communities with an overflow of the gospel that God can and will do His work in you when you ask Him to help you share Jesus’ relentless love for His people.
  • Don't de-value Sabbath gatherings. Sabbath gatherings are very important. Our unity in Christ together is exemplified, our affections for Christ are stirred, we are reminded of the Story of God we are living in and are encouraged and challenged by God's Word, we are seen by one another and thank God for one another, we enjoy the sacrament of Communion with Christ, and people from our city are welcomed to be with us and to listen to the Good News of Jesus with us (some for the first time). 

We will always need to grow in humility and be discipled with the Gospel in how to pursue others in the context of Worcester. The follower of Jesus still needs the Gospel. The person who doesn't know Jesus still needs the Gospel. And we don't reveal who Jesus has called us to be as a missional community-based church by comparing ourselves to others who are not living this way.

Our deepest prayer is that those who God has called to be part of Emmaus City will be given an unwavering conviction to persevere in being His sent church when the course gets difficult or when we're experiencing more pruning than we are growth. Jesus will build His church and He wants us to become more like Him together. May His Word and His Spirit guide us, empower us, and reconcile others to Himself through us as we seek to see and experience gospel renewal in our city.

Christ is all,

Rev. Mike "Sully" Sullivan

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