Missional communities as a structure and a discipleship conviction are not a one-stop shop and solution for discipleship. Missional communities are way to organize the sending of the church into the world to be faithful to the commands of Jesus in growing in our devotion to God, one another, and our neighbors. Missional communities are a very effective way for the church to grow up in it’s love for God, grow deep in its love for the family of God, and grow outward in its love for the world.

Many people ask me: “Do missional communities work?” Well, in many areas missional communities don’t.

They Don’t Make Friends and Create Social Connection

In an age of increased isolation (in cities and in suburbs) and shallow relationships, many look to missional communities to create social connection. Missional communities are terrible friendship match-makers. To be clear, spiritual friendship is a gift worth praying for and pursuing. I’ve been blessed with deep friends and care, but that’s not the goal or a guaranteed outcome of communities on mission.

What’s most disturbing to me (in regards to community) is how churches promote friendship or connection as the reason for joining a community. Not only is social ‘connection’ vastly unpredictable, it’s counterproductive to fruitful community. When someone joins a community to make friends, they go to each gathering or activity thinking: “These people are supposed to become my friends. I hope I like them and I hope they like me…I wonder what we have in common.” They might be liked, they might form friends, and they might discover they both have a deep affinity for science fiction or have children the same ages. They likely probably wont find this, but if they do, they will only love and care for others as long as they feel ‘connected’.

The church should never be in the friendship and social connection business. We are in the business of pointing people to worship and love for God. We help people recognize their thirst for abundant life and point them towards the only well that satisfies. We are in the work of helping people love, not realize the modern view of friendship.

When we promise people friends as the purpose of community or the ‘benefit’, we are shooting our communities in the foot because we are cheapening the value and sufficient benefit of the gospel. Missional communities work when we promise people we will always point them to the gospel that satisfies. Missional communities work in stretching us to love one-another by bearing each others’ burdens, encouraging each other forward, and enduring with one another through trials and troubles. Missional communities stretch us to lay down our lives and submit to one another because Christ laid down his life in submission to God. We grow in love not affinity.

They Don’t Create Cultural Influence

Do missional communities make you relevant in your culture? Are they a cutting edge strategy to maximize our impact in a city? Do they make the church and the gospel more palatable to our society? No.

We exist in a cultural moment, similar to every moment before, where the gospel is foolishness to those who don’t believe. If you expect missional communities to be a trojan horse through the walls of relativism, secularism, and atheism, you will be disappointed. The people of God, in a missional community, are an incredible force for demonstrating and clarifying the love of God for the world. The Spirit boldly proclaims the gospel through us, the witnesses of God’s grace.

However, the gospel still cuts against the souls of those around us. Our friends and neighbors stumble over the message of Jesus on our couches like they do in cathedrals. The audacious claims of Scripture remain audacious. The challenge of Jesus as Lord, salvation being a gift of God, and of life redeemed is still a stumbling block for our neighbors who want to be kind, can’t accept a gift without merit, and can’t imagine redemption. In essence, the gospel remains as hard to believe for those around us as it is for us.

Missional communities foster an environment where believers grow in their love for their neighbors and city. They seek to love Jesus and in doing so, they expose many others to his love. For the neighbor or family that is experiencing this love first hand, through a missional community, their exposure to the gospel is increasing. The gospel moves from a few fuzzy ideas about Jesus’s death to a more textured and profound message of God pouring his love, grace, mercy, and life into his world through Jesus. The cultural, philosophical, and perceived barriers remain; however, the seeker or sojourner gains conversations partners.

They Don’t Guarantee Disciples

You cannot guarantee a disciple grows up in Christ and the model doesn’t make it happen. The silver bullet of discipleship doesn’t exist. Why? Why can’t we create a structure (like missional communities) and resources for that structure (like books) and guarantee disciples? We can only make disciples by pointing toward Christ, Christ awakening people to faith, and people responding. This is true for the 40 year old father of three who has been a Christian for 20 years and the 25 year old who’s been an atheist for five years.

A missional community is an environment where disciples can be made. It’s where people pray together, read the scriptures together, and repent together. It’s also a group that grows to hear, listen, and speak truth to one another. Lastly, it’s a people that works to demonstrate and receive God’s love with the least of these. These are the activities done to shape the heart toward Christ and the activities that the heart pulls us into. To believe missional communities as a structure or an activity makes disciples is to lose the wonder of prayer and the movement of God through the Spirit.

Help People Love God

Lastly, discipleship is a mystery. This is why Jesus’ vine and vine dresser analogy is so adept. Jesus is saying we must abide in Christ and he must abide in us. That we receive life from him and all fruit is produced from him and through our abiding. This garden image ought to invoke a quiet awe; that Christ’s love captivates us and resurrects us. Missional communities don’t work; Jesus works.

Brad A. Watson serves as a pastor of Bread&Wine Communities in Portland, Oregon where he develops, coaches, and trains leaders to form communities that love God and serve the city. Brad is passionate about helping people live lives that reflect their belief and hope in Jesus. He lives in southeast Portland with his wife and their three kids.