Previous posts in this series:
Part 1: What’s the Big Deal?
Part 2: What Does It Look Like?
Part 3: The Early Church
Part 4: Oikos in the Bible
Previous posts have defined what a mid-sized missional community is, why it’s important, and some of the biblical and historical evidence of their effectiveness.
Now we turn our attention to some of the sociological dynamics at play in mid-sized groups, and how they play into a larger whole of spiritual formation and mission in the Body of Christ.
Awhile back I read (and blogged: Part 1, 2, 3, 4) Joseph Myers’ book The Search to Belong [affiliate link]which uses sociological research to suggest that people experience a sense of belonging in four different spheres: public, social, personal, and intimate.
- Public belonging is like being a Mac owner, or playing bingo every week with 200 others, or being a Hoosier basketball fan. It occurs when people connect through an outside influence.
- Social belonging is like knowing the barista at the local coffee shop or a neighbor you might ask to pick up your mail while you’re away on vacation. It occurs when we share “snapshots” of ourselves, of what it would be like to be in personal space with us.
- Personal belonging is like a good friendship that just picks up where you left off no matter how much time you may have spent apart.
- Intimate belonging is like marriage, or a very few close friends with whom we share “naked” experiences, feelings, and thoughts.
A few rough analogues to this model: In the Old Testament, temple worship was public space, synagogue was social space, family Sabbath was personal space, and the husband-wife relationship was intimate space. For Jesus, you could say that teaching the crowds was public space, Jesus with the 72 or attending weddings and parties was social space, Jesus with the 12 was personal space, and Peter, James, and John were part of an intimate space with Jesus.
It seems to me that most churches facilitate public space (worship services) and a blend of personal and intimate space (small groups). Most churches don’t have a specifically structured environment for people to experience the kind of social belonging they’re longing for. Mid-sized communities are a kind of “missing link” for most churches.
Additionally, mid-sized communities seem to be revived during times of massive cultural change, when those who used to be at the center get pushed to the margins. This is how the synagogues were developed. Alex Absalom writes:
The synagogue gathering was something developed during the Babylonian exile, when the Temple was not physically available as a center of worship and community life… for the people of God, the question was how they should worship and gather. “How can we sing the songs of the Lord while in a foreign land?” What does faith look like beyond the existing institutions?… For the early church, their answer to the challenge of being excluded from Temple worship was to draw from the wisdom of synagogue ? or oikos ? life, and do what they experienced there. Thus they gathered in natural relationships around food, Scripture, worship and listening to what the Lord was specifically saying to them and their context. They sought to be a blessing to the wider world through service, especially of the lost, the last and the least, and found authentic ways to proclaim the Good News of God’s Kingdom.
Because Christians are again needing to learn how to function on the margins of society instead of the center, and because Western society as a whole has largely lost the social space/extended family dynamic that has sustained most human cultures for most of human history, I suggest that cultivating and multiplying mid-sized missional communities that are networked together in accountable relationships is a way of “doing church” that fits our new post-Christian context beautifully.
Mission becomes a corporate way of life instead of an individual effort, something that is woven into the fabric of everyday life instead of simply a program to participate in on special occasions. Mission, discipleship, worship and friendship are woven together into a way of life that is lived out together in public as we seek to incarnate the life of Christ in neighborhoods and relational networks.
Next time I’ll look deeper into the benefits of mid-sized missional communities, addressing some of the excellent questions people asked in the comments on the first post in this series, and quoting David Fitch, who OFTEN WRITES IN ALL CAPS FOR EMPHASIS. Don’t miss it!
Next post –> On Being the “Right Size”