As we’ve been attempting to plant a church as a network of missional communities, one of the most important things we’ve learned is that you can’t simply import a “church service” dynamic into a missional community and expect it to work. Steve Cockram of 3DM helped me realize on a huddle call a few weeks ago that the skills required to lead groups of 75 or more (worship services) are very different from those required to lead groups of 20-50 (missional communities).
We discovered this the hard way. When we first started meeting I simply did what I knew how to do: plan and lead worship services. The problem was that we only had 20 adults at the time who were part of our church planting team. It felt “off,” and never quite worked like we thought it would.
The reason is that when there are different numbers of people in the room there are different sociological dynamics at play. Sociologically speaking, worship services are essentially an expression of public space, and missional communities are an expression of social space (more info).
- Public space is where people connect through an outside influence, like watching a football game or attending a lecture, and generally works with 75 or more people.
- Social space is more like a house party or backyard barbecue, where we can informally interact with others, and generally works with 20-50 people.
Essentially we attempted to do public space dynamics with social space numbers. We fell into this because it was what I knew how to do, what I was comfortable with. The result was that our worship services always felt a little weird, and because of that visitors would never really “stick” (even when they loved our vision), and because of that we couldn’t seem to gain any momentum week-to-week, and because of that we all got tired from all the time and energy it took to sustain a weekly public space worship gathering.
We discovered that you just can’t cheat this! It’s like a law of nature. No matter the theological soundness of the gathering, it just doesn’t work if you try to pull off a public space dynamic when there are only thirty people in the room. Likewise it doesn’t work when you try to import the informal social space dynamic into a meeting with 800 people. It just “feels wrong” and everyone knows it even if they don’t know how to put it into words.
So we had to distinguish the purposes of our gatherings. Worship celebration (public space) is about stewarding momentum, hearing a word from Scripture, and inspiring folks to further participation in Christ’s mission. Missional Community (social space) is all about living life as a community together, engaging day-t0-day in mission, and on-the-ground training for leaders.
Here’s the thing, though: even when our two missional communities get together once a month, we still don’t quite achieve numbers that justify public space, so we have had to adjust the expectations of our gatherings, honoring the fact that even our “large gathering” needs to function as a social space.
Four elements have helped us do this:
- Food. Without exception now, we always eat together when we gather in social space. This does something that is difficult to define, but very important.
- More Stories. After we eat, we spend a good 20-30 minutes sharing stories. Thanksgiving for blessing and provision. Stories of mission: breakthroughs, battles, frustrations, and failures.
- Less Preaching. I preach for only 10 minutes or so. It’s more of a devotional thought than a sermon.
- Prayer Ministry. We spend time in prayer for one another, especially for those who have shared stories of frustration or failure.
It has actually been a significant shift for me, because as I said earlier, a different set of skills is needed to lead a social space gathering. I am more comfortable in public space, so I’ve been on a steep learning curve as we engage in almost exclusively social space as a church!
This also presents us with an interesting tension and challenge: the lack of a public space worship gathering. Some might see this as a great thing, but we are realizing that it fills a legitimate purpose, and we don’t have the resources to pull one off right now.
This is one of the major tensions to deal with when planting with missional communities, kind of a “chicken or the egg” scenario: knowing you’ll eventually need some kind of public space worship gathering, but also knowing that this will require extra energy from people who are currently investing in the social space missional communities. Knowing how and when to make those kinds of transitions is part of the learning curve for us right now.
Just thought I’d share what we’ve been learning. Any thoughts from you?
Also: please note that I pre-wrote this blog post and am currently on vacation until June 30. I’ll respond to comments after that!