This is a fact of life: when people are talking and listening crucial things get misunderstood. Unspoken expectations and burdens are shared unintentionally between two communicating forces. No one has ever written a book, done a training, or intentionally led people to these missional community misunderstandings. And yet, these three misconceptions are prevalent. It has to do with how we teach. It has to do with how we listen. Regardless, these things have to be cleared up.
1. You Can’t Study the Bible in a Missional Community
I hear this regularly as I coach missional community leaders and brainstorm next steps. I was once meeting with a leader who was wanting to remind his community in the essentials of the gospel, their identity, and God’s mission to make all things new. He was considering various guides and primers. His group had already been through several so I shared this idea:
Why don’t you take several weeks and study 1st Peter? You could read a section at a time and ask one another key questions about what it says about God, the gospel, the church, and following Jesus. You could show them from the source and they could discover as a community from the Bible all the things you want to teach them.
The leader looked at me as I spoke like I was being sarcastic. He responded as though I was testing him, “But we can’t study the Bible, can we? We aren’t supposed to, right?”
How have we been so misunderstood?
“We aren’t a Bible study we are a Bible doing.” “A missional community isn’t a Bible study.” I’ve uttered these two statements many times myself. They sound good and pack a punch on Twitter, but it isn’t the whole truth. Missional communities have to be Bible studies that lead to Bible doing. Our thoughts about the power and authority of Spirit breathed Scriptures are too small if we think you can read it without being compelled to action or that you don’t need it to be faithful. When a missional leader says she wants her disciples to be about Bible doing and less about Bible studies she is saying: Let’s not just hear and read this stuff, but let’s do it (James 1:22). You have to hear it. You can’t make disciples of Jesus without teach disciples with the Bible. You can’t have a thriving discipleship environment without it.
Throughout the New Testament, even in an age that pre-dates the printing press, Jesus, his disciples, and the churches they plant relied heavily on the Old Testament to make disciples, form churches, refute false doctrine, and clarify the gospel. Jesus and his disciples so thoroughly understood its importance they could quote large sections from memory (Luke 4-1-13, Luke 4:18-20, Luke 6:3-5). Jesus uses the Bible to withstand temptation (Luke 4:1-13), announce his presence and the coming of the kingdom (Luke 4:18-20), and rebuke of religious leaders who don’t understand the grace and love of God (Luke 6:3-5). Jesus teaches his disciples the whole of the Old Testament is about him and his redemption of the world. The disciples believed him and went on to preach from the Bible throughout Acts and include references and direct quotes throughout their equipping and clarifying letters. There are over 800 references to the Old Testament in the New Testament. If the very first disciples relied so heavily on teaching and speaking the Bible, why do we think we don’t need it?
Any community that is taking the mission of God seriously and remains a community will regularly read and study the Bible together. If you are committed to following Jesus and living all of life under his authority, you will regularly learn from the Bible. In fact, a lack of urgency to go to the Scriptures is a primary diagnostics test for a missional community. If the community isn’t desperate to learn from it, be encouraged by it, or find meaning and truth in it, they probably aren’t living on mission or in community.
2. Worship Gatherings are a Necessary Evil
We regularly teach people that they, themselves, are the church. We clarify to folks that the church is not an event, a time slot, or a building. No, the church is God’s people sent into the world as servants of Jesus and ambassadors of His kingdom. This is completely true and there is a much needed correction amidst event and consumer driven church culture. People take this truth, however, and understand that events, time slots, or buildings are not part of being the church. Gatherings of the church for worship, teaching, communion, sharing, and learning are seen as optional at best and a curse to avoid at worst. The worship gathering of a collection of missional communities in their city is viewed as a necessary evil and a distraction from being the real church in missional communities.
They reason: if we are the church, why do we need to get together and hear a sermon? If we are the church, why do we have to get together for singing? Isn’t that stuff getting in the way of us being the church? If “real discipleship” is life-on-life, in community, and on mission, how does a worship gathering fit? It seems counterproductive.
Here is the kicker: if you are serious about a scattered missional church, you have to gather your communities regularly in one place.
Gatherings reorient our worship. At gatherings, we are challenged and invited to worship the one true God. We return to worshiping God instead of ourselves, other gods, and idols. Essentially, worship gatherings are rhythmic celebrations reminding of who God is and what he has done. They call us to remember who we are. We proclaim the gospel in song, we hear the gospel in preaching, we pray for gospel understanding and repentance, and we touch and taste the image of the gospel in communion. The elements of a worship gathering remind us of the gospel. Everything we do when we gather reminds us of the gospel, who we are because of the gospel, and our role in God’s mission.
The gathered church points to our unity (Eph. 4:1-5), because we see the local church in one place. We are reminded that there are many of us with the same belief, practice, mission, and leadership. It is in these gatherings of the scattered church we have a picture of our mutual submission to one another and our collective belief in the gospel. In other words, we know we are not going it alone. We know there are other communities out there, other believers, and other missionaries. In the same way that the gathering demonstrates our unity, it also nurtures our unity. They enforce our common language, symbols, story, theology, practices (enacting theology), and mission.
Finally, the gathering commission us into mission together. All of the things mentioned above supports, enhances, encourages, empowers, and equips the scattered (missional communities) in mission. By getting together we stir or spur one another on to good deeds and love, which is why we cannot forsake gathering together (Heb 10:24-25). The gatherings commission the church into life in community and on mission.
3. Multiplying Communities = Success
In our early years in Portland, we multiplied our missional community four times. Every six to nine months we were sending people out. We were teaching the content, modeling the lifestyle, and strategically getting new people in and out of our door. We even baptized a law student who came into our community through a poker game. We were living the idyllic missional movement. It was an exciting time of growth and we witnessed God do extravagant things through those multiplied communities.
This type of multiplication became the standard for success and the picture of multiplying disciples. Each of those new communities we sent out lived a beautiful expression of community and shared mission in regular and ordinary ways. As we gathered leaders to share what God has done they would come discouraged. “All we’ve done this year is figure out how to love one another and cared for a few families in our neighborhood…We’ve all definitely been changed by the gospel, but we aren’t even close to multiplying. We really don’t know what we are doing the thing.” They thought multiplying their community was the mark of success.
You can multiply communities without multiplying and maturing disciples.
What we were doing was rapidly organizing groups, casting vision for what could be, and giving leaders tools to implement. I confused that with making disciples. I thought I could give myself a big pat on the back for that disciple multiplying work. The reality is, the leaders we sent out have multiplied disciples. They’ve done the long work of loving a group of people for years. They’ve taught people the gospel through their long obedience. They’ve stepped into the suffering of their neighborhoods. They’ve wept with the broken and they’ve celebrated with the redeemed. Multiplying disciples isn’t as simple as getting eight people to know and desire living a missional lifestyle together. Multiplying disciples takes years of faithfully speaking and demonstrating the gospel. It isn’t sexy but it’s beautiful.
These don’t need much explanation other than they aren’t true! For some leaders, communities, and contexts they might be true. But don’t carry them as burdens in your leadership, community, and context. There is freedom to be God’s people on God’s mission in your own unique way.
- You have to eat food every week
- The leader has to host
- You have to live in a walkable and bike-able neighborhood
- You have to throw big parties
- Your job and workplace are insignificant and a hinderance