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!
Justin Rhorer says
Extremely helpful thoughts for our season. We are in the very beginning stages of planting, and since the majority of my strengths have been developed for the public gathering, I’ve wondered about this tension, and have seen it first hand recently. Thanks for the insight!
Ben Sternke says
Glad it was helpful Justin!
Dan jr. says
Thanks for sharing this. Our missional communities are wrestling through the same issues with public, social, personal and intimate space dynamics. One thing we keep bumping into is; we have great energy and connection happening at social space gatherings (BBq's, community brunches, etc), tons of traction in our weekly missional community gatherings but all of us in our missional community have people who are so intimidated by community that they can't make the leap further in. They consistently ask do you have a church service of some kind that i can visit (public). We experimented with an Easter gathering and many of our people of peace came. We're not talking about churched people but sojourners. We've been stirring on putting into our rhythm a worship gathering every 5 weeks to allow those who are in that place to connect. But your post causes me to question whether we can create a dynamic that isn't funky. Still we have sojourners around us who seem to only be ready for public space. Just some meandering thoughts.
Ben Sternke says
Dan we've found the exact same dynamic at play. People are fairly comfortable visiting a church service, but MCs can feel intimidating.Something we've begun to do is simply go to another church's worship service once a month. The church we're working with has almost identical vision and values (they went through a 3DM Learning Community with us), so it ended up being a somewhat obvious solution for us.Just an idea that may help you guys going forward.
David Fitch says
Dude, this is good stuff. Heard it before (from the 3DM guys) … but need to hear it again … and it provokes some further thoughts on the limits of public space.
Ben Sternke says
Ben, thaks for the helpful categories! I appreciated your confession that something may be missing without that public space (and the overall emphasis that both are needed).
Yet, I have some questions. You seem to suggest that the size of these categories are set in nature, but I am wondering if there is not a more sociological definition or enculturation. For example, I wonder what the social space number may be for a more communal (as opposed to individual) society–such as an Amish society.
Therefore, are we shaped by our contexts to fit into these categories? If so, is this formation in opposition to the Kingdom – trivial to our formation in the Kingdom – or even necessary for the Kingdom?
Lastly, does your feeling of absence from a public space suggest a guilt in "adapting" the public worship celebration into a more social space? In other words, does our desire for comfort in numbers drive our decision making?
Ben Sternke says
Thanks for your questions Dustin.I've also wondered if these categories have more to do with how we are enculturated, but it's interesting to see that, across lots of history and cultures, the extended family is the basic unit of society almost every time. The one place that has experimented with a nuclear family as a the basic unit (the Western world in the past few decades) has seen unprecedented stress, anxiety and depression because of it. My hunch is that we're talking about something that is hard-wired into humanity.As to your second question: I can honestly say that the kind of guilt you're talking about doesn't play into things at all for us. We are simply trying to make good observations and reflections so we can learn from what's happening.
That is what I was considering on both questions. Thanks for the clarification!
Bryan Long says
Ben, thanks for sharing. This is very helpful. I am an Ecclesia church planter and I was in one of your breakout sessions at the National Gathering. We have a very similar vision for our plant – being a network of missional communities that occasionally meet as a public gathering. Your distinction between public and social space was super helpful and framed some things for me better. Keep sharing!
Ben Sternke says
Glad it was helpful Bryan! Good to hear from you again – hope all is well.
What happens once you reach an above 75 average mark for your Public space gathering though? Especially having set this precedent of Food, Stories, Less Preaching, Prayer? Are you banking on people being ok with a new form of corporate worship (public space)?
Ben Sternke says
Well, Jason, that's the tension we're talking about – once we get to public space numbers, I imagine we'll need to change the way we do things, but this will probably happen gradually, and will likely feel natural because of the changing size of the gathering. Plus the Food/Stories/Prayer stuff can still happen in Missional Communities.Of course any change is always fraught with tension and pitfalls, but this is normal for any kind of change.
Thanks for this. The division of public and social space makes some sense of my experience of missional church.
That said, in my experience of liturgical worship gatherings, the performance of liturgy 'works' (in terms of social dynamic) at any scale. Is it nevertheless a public space at any scale?
Thinking broadly, what was it about, say, the thoroughly superimposed, attractional, sacramental Syriac liturgy that meant people in China were gathering to it in the 8th Century? This is an extreme example of something quite characteristic of the spread of Christianity outside of Imperial Christendom, which was contextual only to a point. Indian Syriac Christians still pray in Syriac.
Was it that these churches retained a sense of guardianship over something Ultimate, and incorporated people precisely through the attraction of difference, otherness, mystery? Controversially I ask whether 'public mystery', a particular, reasonably unchanging and incorporating 'performance' of redemption drama is to characterise our public space while hospitality characterises our social space?
I don't know, just thoughts.
Ben Sternke says
Interesting thoughts! I've wondered about some of the same things as it regards more liturgically structured gatherings. They don't rely as heavily on preaching, which is probably part of the “portability” of liturgies. I like the distinction of “performing redemption drama” at public space gatherings and focusing on hospitality in social space gatherings.Thanks for the comment!