Over the past few years I’ve spent a lot of time looking into church planting practices, approaches, methods, etc. I’ve also been looking at the mission context we’re working in here in Fort Wayne, listening to the Spirit, and learning about how I am wired as a leader.
One of the practices I’ve come across is that of organizing a church as a network of mid-sized missional communities (MCs). MCs are “extended family”-like communities of 20-50 people with a common mission focus, usually a relational network or a neighborhood. One of the first questions I asked was “What’s the big deal with mid-sized communities? How are they different from small groups with a mission focus? Or from a house church?”
When I first asked the question, I had no idea how deep the rabbit hole went! But after a lot more reading, talking, and observing in various contexts, I have come to believe that organizing a church as a network of mid-sized missional communities holds tremendous promise in reaching post-Christian contexts.
We are making some transitions this summer in our church plant that will allow us to build the foundation we need to move in this direction.
I want to take the next few days to blog about why I believe in mid-sized missional communities from a biblical, historical, and sociological perspective, highlighting how they are different from small groups, and sharing some of the specific transitions we are making this summer in our church plant that will move us in this direction.
In the interest of making this series as informative and helpful as possible, though, I would love it if you would leave some questions in the comments.
As you read what I have written so far, what questions pop up for you?
I’m looking forward to the conversation!
Next post –> What Does It Look Like?
Naomi Lippett says
Hope you are well friend. This looks great and am looking forward to hearing what you have to say.
Part of what I sometimes perceive people wrestle with is the age old equation that large groups of people at a church equals health and God's activity ie. that 'God is obviously doing something significant', etc. and small means the opposite. So no real questions as yet just observations! lol!
Ben Sternke says
Nae, great to hear from you. The big = better mindset is definitely one that needs to be broken if a decentralized network of churches is going to work…
But I also think there's a danger in the opposite direction, assuming that small = better. It's easy for small groups to get comfortable with zero growth/multiplication. I'll talk about it in the series, but I think mid-sized groups offer a "sweet spot" that facilitates growth in relationship as well as fertile ground for reproduction and multiplication.
ed cyzewski says
A wise friend of mine once said that organizations create a problem for Christians because at some point the "good" of the organization will demand sacrifices from the people and prompt us to do things we wouldn't do otherwise. I've seen so many controversies in church erupt over the good of the church as an organization and such. The language is couched in Christian words and even "mission," but it basically boils down to preferences for the organization.
By way of working around this problem, I think small to mid-size communities help a great deal. The larger the organization, the more the leaders will need to struggle against this pull. I won't say it's inevitable, but it becomes a larger problem.
Ben Sternke says
That's a great observation, Ed. As things grow, the need for organization becomes apparent, but the trick is to have organization follow and serve life, like a skeleton "serves" the life-filled tissues of the body by allowing it to stand up and do good work. Without the "structure" of the skeleton, we'd just be unproductive blobs of "life!"
You mentioned the "evil" of people being prompted to do things they wouldn't do otherwise. I would agree that this is bad, when people are doing things to serve the "organization," but people being prompted to do things they wouldn't do otherwise is also a good description of a process of discipleship! And that ends up being the foundation of these mid-sized communities: they are rooted in discipleship and mission, allowing people to move outside their comfort zones as a community, doing things they wouldn't otherwise do if they were simply left to their own devices, or if they simply listened to great sermons every week 😉
Ed Cyzewski says
Good qualifier to that Ben.
Jon Reid says
In the cell church model, there are three sizes of groups: the "cell" or small group, the "celebration" or big worship service, and something in between that I have not heard many people talk about: the "congregation." Strictly speaking, it is a small group of small groups, working together to achieve what a single cell cannot do.
…What you describe is not identical, but I thought I'd mention the cell church echoes.
These are the things I wonder:
* Going to a stranger's house doesn't fit our culture, so small groups do not naturally draw seekers. But post-Christians are not interested in the big church. Where might a mid-sized community sit in the minds of seekers?
* Mid-sized communities offer opportunities to truly focus on particular neighborhoods or niches. This is increasingly important because as our world becomes more globalized, more people are seeking local expression. (For example, locally grown food.)
* Mid-sized communities could bring a better collection of gifting and talent than a single small group. Post-Christians value parties, and I love the photo above. A mid-sized group could host really great local events for worship, service, art, and fun.
I feel like I'm barely scratching the surface! This is very exciting to me, and I look forward to this series.
Ben Sternke says
Jon, thanks for commenting. You anticipate much of what I am going to say, which is great! Mid-sized groups can become extremely magnetic because of their size: big enough to do something substantial for a network or neighborhood (and for strangers/seekers to feel somewhat comfortable) and small enough so that everyone can be known and contribute in a meaningful way.
Adam Bennett says
I'm really looking forward to this series! I've been thinking about this a fair bit lately as our church has been pursuing some of these questions and anxious to hear your thoughts.
One question I have is wonder what is so different about the "missional communities" than a church who has small groups (which have at least the potential for discipleship) and an outward focus (bringing the Good News to the world). Is this just another/new way to engage people again in the same thing that God has always been doing?
It seems that our generation excels at the ability to package info in very appealing ways and I begin to wonder if this is the same thing in a different package. Although I loved the 3DM video, I had to question why I liked it. Was it because it was well done and had a "pretty" face or is it really different? Is it just the next "flavor of the month". It feels very different in ways, but other times it sounds like the same thing everyone else is doing (or trying to do) but with a freshness that attracts people because of our nature to consume something new.
Anyway… really looking forward to hearing your thoughts.
Ben Sternke says
Fantastic questions, Adam – much along the lines of the questions I asked initially too.
I'll address them as we move along, but the short answer is that my hunch is that this isn't just a "flavor of the month" and mid-sized communities concept is quite a bit different from a church with small groups, in some significant but not immediately obvious ways.
I'm glad you'll be following along!
Adam Bennett says
Also, I'd love to see some practical definitions of terms like discipleship and mission focus. I get a little stuck sometimes on the lingo used and wonder if different people are saying the same thing with different words/definitions.
Ben Sternke says
Yes. Terms need to be defined because there is a tendency nowadays to simply slap the new label on what we're already doing to baptize it with an aura of legitimacy. I'll make sure I do that.
I think Ed touches on one thing I was thinking. Does the leadership model exist primarily to serve the people of God and His plan, or is it more the other way around?
Ben Sternke says
Thanks for the comment, Peter. I think leadership ought to serve the people and mission of God, of course. Organization must always submit to, support, and serve the organism, because organization never produces life all by itself. But organization sustains life when done properly.
A good structure is like a trellis for your cucumber plant: it doesn't contribute to the life of the cucumbers, but it certainly does help the plant become more fruitful.
Are the mid sized communities you have seen racially, economically, and otherwise demographically homogenous? Not that it necessarily must be so but this has seemed to plague church for a long time. And in any group, no matter the size (though I know you're going much deeper than size) how do you keep it creative and alive in the Spirit? And, How far can the right size take us? (not being sarastic)
Ben Sternke says
Dan, they usually reflect the same kind of diversity (or lack thereof) of their mission context. Since each community is focused on a relational network or neighborhood, it really depends on who they are seeking to "live among." For example, I know of a church in England that has recently planted missional communities among Slovakian gypsies and Iranian Muslims.
The beauty of organizing around mid-sized communities is that you can also bring all the communities together periodically (monthly maybe) for a larger worship celebration, where you would see the diversity of the community… that would be when you'd see the gypsies and Iranians come together with everyone else, for example.
Your second question is fantastic, because getting the "right size" is definitely not all there is to it. Unless a group knows how to listen to and keep in step with the Spirit, it will ultimately fail. "Without me you can do nothing" and all. The foundation of the communities is in discipleship (being with Jesus to learn from Jesus how to be like Jesus, living in the power of the Spirit).
I don't know that "the right size" by itself takes us very far at all, but I do think that "the wrong size" hinders the Spirit more than we realize.
Hi Ben – I'm wrestling with this question right now both as a church consultant and as a leader of a mid-sized community.
I am thinking through the lens of churches structuring more along geographic lines rather than demographic boundaries. For example, I lead the 20-somethings at my church. Are we simply allowing people to meet with others in a similar stage of life that can relate and share life struggles, or are we missing something by not having a "melting pot" of community?
As a married man in his mid-30's and father of 3 I also know that reality is that convenience tells me I'm more likely to have "life on life" relationships with other families within 5-10 minutes of my home. (My church is located about 20 mins away)
Additionally, I'd love to hear your thoughts on mid-sized communities meeting at various venues, like a bar vs the the church building, vs someone's living room. Is there value in options for venues?
Ben Sternke says
Those are fantastic questions to be thinking through, Sean.
I do think that geographic proximity is a better organizing principle than demographic proximity, and that purely homogeneous groups do miss out on much of the richness that diversity brings to a community.
However, one of the things we're telling people is that your mission context can either be a neighborhood or a relational network, and I have a hunch that there could be incredible power in the gospel moving through a relational network (that might not be based on geography). It's not exactly the same thing as a demographic group like you're talking about (20-somethings), but more of a network of relationships where geography matters less… for example we have a relational network in Fort Wayne related to the independent music and arts scene. You see many of the same people at the arts and music events around town, but they don't all live in geographic proximity. This would be a great mission context, but one would have to commit to incarnating a community within the rhythms of that relational network. This would mean going to art shows, staying up until 1am to watch bands, etc.
In regards to venues, I would say a couple things:
1. A home sometimes feels too "intimate" to be a space to invite acquaintances into. For this reason, sometimes a home is not an ideal place to have a "mingling" kind of event. There are all kinds of ways to partner with existing establishments. For example, why not hold a monthly benefit concert event at one of the local music venues? A missional community could be the team that puts together the bands and organizes the show, and also shows up at the event, prays for people in their relational networks, etc.
2. Church buildings can be convenient places to meet, but many non-Christians would be very hesitant to set foot in one. It can feel threatening to be on "new" turf anyway, and especially new turf that's "religious." If (ala Hugh Halter) evangelism is defying people's expectations of what it means to be a Christian, there are many people you'll never be able to influence if you meet exclusively in a church building, because they will simply never come.