Bite-Sized Missional Communities are Changing the Identity and Priorities of Local Churches
If you were to check out the weekly activities at Church of the City in Guelph, Ontario, you would see a big emphasis on its 14 “missional communities.” That’s basically where members of the congregation meet in smaller groups outside of Sunday. But it’s really just the tip of the iceberg, so the speak, of what these gatherings are all about.
Missional communities,” says missional living pastor Spencer Adams, “are not just a slot of time during the week. What we’re trying to accomplish together is how to follow Jesus in everyday life — trying to figure out how to be Christian when we’re going to the grocery store, when we’re at work, and when we’re having fun on the weekend. What does it mean for the gospel to affect all of that just as much as it affects a Sunday morning?”
“They are not small groups by another name,” says Cam Roxburgh, the team leader of Southside Community Church in Surrey, British Columbia, which has ten missional communities. “They are people who recognize that it’s in community we follow Jesus, not just individually. They’re joining God on mission in the place to which he’s sent them. They recognize that God’s at work in the neighbourhood and not just in them.”
Missional communities, or MCs, first began appearing in Anglican churches in England in the mid-1990s. The concept soon spread to Europe — resulting in more than 720 churches being planted between 2006 and 2009 — and the United States.
American missiologist Reggie McNeal is a fervent advocate of missional communities. He believes they have the potential to transform Christianity in ways not seen since the Reformation 500 years ago. “I think — I hope — there is a coming pandemic within the Church that will manifest itself as missional communities: smaller groups of people that will form spiritually-centered
communities around public projects, life passions, even workplaces, the things that really connect us,” he said in a 2010 interview.
While more and more Canadian churches seem interested in going this route, Roxburgh cautions there is still “way too much” misunderstanding to overcome before MCs can really take off. “We’re still hearing the missional-communities conversation as a strategy for how do we grow our church rather than as participating in what God’s doing,” he says. “And until we get past that, I don’t think I’d call it a movement.” (Roxburgh is also the national director of Forge Canada, a network of leaders and churches dedicated to transforming neighbourhoods with the gospel.)
At Church of the City, no two MCs, each comprising 10 to 20 people, are exactly alike. “That’s intentional,” says Adams. “There are certain parameters that each is asked to live within. But then they’re absolutely encouraged to explore their own unique identity within that.”
All of them host a weekly potluck where members will share what’s going on in their lives and pray for one another. At a separate time in the week, they will meet in small study groups called DNAs, short for Discover, Nurture, Act.
A third common thread seeks to deepen their Trinitarian identity as missionaries — how to live together as a family (Father), how to grow together as disciples of Jesus (Son), and the spiritual empowerment to take the gospel to their neighbours (Holy Spirit). Then each MC creates a covenant that includes specific ways they will engage with their community over the next year, such as organizing a block party for their street, sponsoring refugees, or partnering with others to come alongside the homeless.
Unlike the familiar church model where only a few people exercise top-down leadership, the missional community model requires many more leaders as well as constantly having others who can someday become leaders themselves.
“The vision, of course, is that as missional communities go out, they ought to be growing as people come to faith,” Adams says. “If that’s the case, then multiplication will always be on the horizon for a missional community — and there’s going to be more leaders needed. You always have it on your mind: Who are we training up as our apprentices?”
But no matter how a church implements the missional community model, Roxburgh sees it as being in some ways an upending of past church practices — and perhaps even the end of Sunday worship as the central defining feature of church life.
“It’s always going to be important to gather,” he says, “but rather than gathering as a big group from all over the place being the primary identity of the church, I think its primary identity will be a group of people that learn to live on mission in their neighbourhood who then happen to gather together — so it becomes a response to their being sent into the neighbourhoods rather than the old model when I planted, which was ‘let’s attract a crowd and then send them.’”
In other words, churches considering whether to go on this journey of faith need to understand that they likely will be taken far outside their comfort zones. Here are some of those challenges:
BEWARE THAT THIS IS RADICAL AND ALL-CONSUMING
“This is about reorienting your entire life to join God on mission. We’re asking Christians to die to themselves and live a new kind of life. I think that’s what God’s up to and what he’s trying to help the Church recapture,” Roxburgh says.
“I think that message still needs to get through to people,” Vancouver-based urban missionary Dennis Wilkinson adds. “It’s very difficult because people think in terms of timeslots: ‘What day of the week is missional?’ No! It’s a lifestyle that shows itself in community-building endeavours in your neighbourhood with your Christian friends to try to have this sort of layered approach of the good news in people’s lives.”
SUBMIT TO LIVING IN COMMUNITY
“Certainly, there’s a place for individual Bible-reading and prayer and solitude and all of those things,” says Adams. “But so much of what Jesus did was done in a community of twelve guys. Even within that, you see the especially intimate relationship he had with Peter, James, and John. We kind of view that as what happens in a DNA, a space where you can be maybe on a deeper level authentic and vulnerable with a small group of men or women who know you quite well, know some of the challenges in your life, and can speak the gospel into those things with you.
“Being in community also includes mission. So much of the sending, so much of the missionary work that we see happen in the New Testament wasn’t done by individuals. Paul went out with a team. Wonderful things can happen when we go out together and people see a community of believers and the love that we have for each other.”
SHOW INTENTIONAL HOSPITALITY
“I would be exaggerating to say that every week we’re doing it, but lots of Sundays we make sure we’re home, we’re trying to invite friends and neighbours over for a meal,” says Roxburgh. “And then we tell stories of where we’ve seen God at work. You don’t phrase it like that with non-Christians, but it opens up space to be able to have more spiritual conversations.”
And over the course of the week, he adds, “we’re encouraging each other to find a way to have a meal, have coffee, have a conversation with neighbours. We’re quite intentional.”
BE PREPARED TO FACE REJECTION
For almost eight years, Wilkinson had labored to build a community of Jesus followers in the West End, a self-contained, radically secular neighbourhood in Vancouver’s downtown core. But due to what he calls “a web of activism” coupled with the loss of their home in the community, that ministry is now effectively over.
“We put so much effort into so many different ventures, and criticism was all that operated,” he says. “My wife and I both genuinely believed that if we were present and available and helpful, that even if people never believed the gospel, they would like us, they would respect us — and they haven’t. A lot have, but key people haven’t. They’ve never been able to get beyond the fact that we are Christians. How do you deal with that? I don’t know.”
CELEBRATE EFFORT AND NOT JUST SUCCESSES
When Church of the City gathers on Sundays, people are invited to share stories of what their MC had done missionally in the past week. But recently Adams and his fellow pastors realized that they had been, in his words, “perhaps selling our church family short” by limiting the storytelling to only the breakthroughs that had occurred in their neighbourhoods.
“I essentially apologized,” he says. “I said I know that for every story of success, there are three, four, five stories where you tried something and it didn’t go the way you’d hoped. We’ve begun making that part of our rhythm, that we celebrate not just success, but we celebrate effort.”