Discovering Missional Communities
So, is there a structure that isn't a small group, and isn't a church, but lives somewhere in-between? And if so, what is it?
In my denomination, the ELCA, we have definitions for various levels of church organization. We talk about church in its three expressions:
Churchwide (a denomination) -- Synods -- Local Congregations
Some, though unfortunately not many, of our churches also have small groups as part of their DNA.
However, lately I've been thinking we miss quite a lot in terms of what church can be if we don't account for another level of organization somewhere between a small group and a church.
The 3DM movement calls these "missional communities." Mike Breen has made a brief but helpful video defining the term. I recommend you pause and watch it right now. He even mentions Arkansas in the middle of his talk!
Missional communities are small enough to care, big enough to dare. I like this definition. I often find that small groups, though great at caring for each other, studying together, and nurturing each other, don't necessarily feel equipped with the human resources to engage in mission.
On the other hand, many churches are actually so big that the care dimension drifts. They may have the resources to accomplish really amazing ministries, but not enough individual people from the mass of the congregation actually care enough to gather for a proposed all church event.
Missional communities are in between.
I've been working my way slowly through a series of posts Mike Breen offers on his blog defining missional communities, and I recommend you take the time to read them, if you have the interest.
A big part of what fascinates me about Mike Breen's proposal for missional communities has to do with its resonances with releasing missional networks I spoke about recently in a presentation for ELCA leaders.
Almost all of the stories I tell at the end of that presentation about burgeoning ministries here in Northwest Arkansas have what I think are the markers of being potential missional communities. 3DM and Mike's work has been giving me language and concepts to articulate even better what we have seen God up to through our catechumenate, through some of our feeding programs and other ministries.
One participant in a missional community said this, "“It’s like finding something you knew you always needed and wanted, but never knew was actually missing.”
In my life as a Christian there have been just two times in my life where I have thought something similar to that. The first was when I realized that I needed to put a set of mentoring relationships around me, so I was always considering how to have someone in my life who was ahead of me, coaching me on where to go next, plus mentors who were alongside of me, fellow people on the journey, as well as someone I was mentoring and pouring my self into. This was something I always knew I needed and wanted, but didn't realize it was missing until it was brought to my attention.
The second time an epochal shift happened in my Christian walk was in our catechumenate last year. Being with a group of about 30 adults all forming each other in faith in preparation for baptism or affirmation of baptism was simply transformative. Nothing about the catechumenate was completely new. None of it was like finding buried treasure. Yet the combination of everything, it's flow, just felt very right, and God felt very close.
Building a Discipling Culture
3DM folks talk a lot about discipling. They do it on the individual level, at the small group level (in what they call Huddles) and in missional communities. 3DM is 3DM because it is discipleship in three dimensions. They seek to be balanced in the way that Jesus’ life was balanced. He had three definitive dimensions to his life:
Last year I spent the whole year being mentored by Paul Hoffman of Phinney Ridge, who helped our congregation launch a catechumenal process. We plan to repeat this again this year, and I look forward to working with our leadership team and being formed in faith again in the many ways that ancient process offers.
At the same time, I plan to pay very close attention to resources from 3DM, and seek to be in conversation with people who are forming missional communities, huddles, and building a discipling culture, because I really believe much of what I am learning from Mike Breen and other 3DM leaders is how to put into practice the release of missional networks. Learn and plan and do, and then wait for the Spirit. We will see.