I have been thinking about a few of the common issues that arise with missional works. Namely, the tendency of small communities to turn inward in focus, the development of intolerance for other models of being church, and the need for metrics, just not the metrics of numbers. I want to share briefly some of my thoughts on these issues.
The first one seems like a bit of an oxymoron for missional communities. But because missional communities are often focused on building intentional community amongst a small target group they can easily turn into an exclusive club. I've experienced this with a couple of the groups I've run over the years. Part of the problem is the rejection of numerical metrics for measuring church health. I think this is a good thing to reject in a missional context, but if those metrics are not deliberately replaced with better metrics, which I will get into later, the community will replace them with metrics based on the continuation of the current structure and status quo. In other words the missional mission can end up defeating its own missional intentions. This is a big reason I am convinced that groups need to change up every couple of years. Ideally groups will train and spawn new groups, ever increasing the circle of mission. But that is easier said than done. It will never be a popular decision to pull the plug on a group that has turned inward - but it is necessary to prune these groups if the mission is to stay in missional.
The second problem comes out of the novelty of missional approaches. Another local area pastor recently expressed to me concerns over the attractiveness of missional churches to those who have been hurt within traditional models of church. This is a reality I am all too aware of, and unfortunately finding people who have been hurt by churches is far too easy these days. This is a critical issue to tackle because we could just be setting people up for being hurt again, this time by missional churches. The reason this is so hard to address is because many of us in the missional world really want to reach new people but we need folks to come along side and help - and many of these broken people are quite willing to help, at least initially. There are a few things we can do such as watch for the signs of people making the church more about themselves and their needs than about the mission. Brokenness longs for comfort, not always healing, but comfort. Our role as leaders is to always point people towards healing and remind them that discomfort is part of that journey to wholeness. We have actually encouraged folks to go back to the churches that they left and make peace with their decision to leave. We did not tell people to go endure abuse, but to find ways to face the things that caused them pain so that they would not take that pain into their next church home. I actually wish we had done this more often. Another way we can address this issue is to foster relationships with traditional forms of church. Break down the us-them lies by actively looking for ways to bless other congregations. The reality of missions is that we need each other. Many of the people who find their way back to Christ through missional churches will end up in traditional churches. If missional is really being missional it won't be for everyone. Help people find place they thrive. A final way of approaching this issue is through metrics.
The third problem is one where the traditional church has adopted an ideology of numbers. I think this needs to be critiqued, but at the same time this sort of metric should not be vilified. Big churches have different problems than small missional communities. Not worse problems, but different problems. I think it is counter-productive to criticize the structures that traditional churches used to support their ministries. A building might not be a priority for many missional communities - but that doesn't make buildings evil. Actually what it makes them is costly and every choice in ministry has associated costs.
So what kinds of metrics would be helpful in a missional context?
First there needs to be a way to measure faithfulness to the missional identity of the church. Missional churches often get that evangelism is not about confrontation, but about relationship and allowing Christ in you to shine into the lives of others. Yes, we all need to be prepared to give an account of the good news that so captured our hearts. But missional churches have pioneered ways of doing this that actually work for the urban post-modern context. There is a commitment that I often see amongst missional folk to be committed to people long before they are committed to Christ. As a metric we could look at how well we are part of our communities. Are we isolated or engaged? Do we love our neighbours or do we hardly know them?
Secondly there needs to be a way to measure the health of a missional group. Are people growing in their love for God? Are people finding the community helpful for facing lifes issues head on? Are people feeling supported in their relationships outside the community? Do we pray together? Do we laugh together? Do we cry together?
The first place I saw the kind of community I'm aiming for was in California. It was a small Vineyard house group in the Bay area. There were no more than 12 of us including kids (who often hung out in another room after worship). And aside from the worship in song there seemed to be little formal structure to the group. But no matter what the conversation started on it always came back around to God. Sometimes there might be a small devotional woven in, but it was more of a conversation. And then the conversation would lead into a delicious time of praying for each other. While I find this form of church great, what struck me the most was that within that small group people were engaged in all kinds of outreach. Three different ministries to the poor were represented there, serious dedication too. One couple were part of a group that BBQed food for homeless in a park every week. In other words they talked the talk, and walked the walk. I think missional churches have every chance to be like this community. Sure they will take on different important issues. Sure they will be structures in different ways. But the culture that was fostered is translatable. It was focused on God as a central part of their lives and that made a huge difference.