There’s nothing like a healthy missional community where the gospel and discipleship are working hand-in-hand to bring about transformation. But here are 10 reasons I’ve observed that lead to missional communities failing:
1. The Missional Community leader doesn’t know how to disciple the other leaders in the MC.
This can result in a few different outcomes:
The Missional Community becomes the warped version of the culture they are trying to bring the Kingdom into. The leader doesn’t know how to disciple people to be missionaries to a culture, therefore they never truly learn how to be “in the world but not of it.” Because of that, they are more influenced by the culture than redeeming the culture they find themselves in. In this case, there is a lot more cultural relevance than there is Jesus.
The Missional Community becomes a very religious space and is all about who is in and who is out. Doctrine is used as a weapon of defense and not something that helps to describe the reality of God’s Kingdom. People who don’t know Jesus find the MC the equivalent of running into a brick wall. In this case, there is a lot more law than there is Jesus.
When people become Christians, there is no one to disciple them as neither the Missional Community leader or the other leaders in the group know how to disciple people. New believers become stagnant, and the life they were told about in the Gospel never comes to fruition and they become disenfranchised and divisions within the MC start to occur.
2. Lack of a clear mission vision.
Every single Missional Community could say, “We exist to love God, love people and serve the world.” The point of a Missional Community is to find a crack or crevice of society where there is a lack of Gospel presence and form a Jesus community in that particular crack/crevice. It’s not generic, it’s specific. But if you never truly identify the place God has called you to (either a neighborhood or network), or if you don’t do the things necessary to incarnate the Gospel in those places, it’ll be very difficult to sustain, grow or multiply the MC.
For example, one of the MCs I’ve worked with was a Missional Community that focused on artists. In this case, the mission vision was very clear: Artists (which was a network MC). However, this particular group of people in the burgeoning MC were also VERY eclectic (and I mean that as a sincere compliment) and many of the things they commonly enjoyed weren’t necessarily artistic, but eclectic.
What the MC ended up doing was many activities that eclectic people would have liked , but artists wouldn’t, so they never really grew by adding artists. At the same time, the eclectic friends they had were never terribly interested in the community because it was stated that it was for artists – but they weren’t artists. So neither artists nor eclectic people found a family within this MC. In this case, the leader needed to decide: Does this group exist for artists for for eclectic people? Because it can’t be both. And because of that, the group found itself stuck in the middle, unable to grow or gain momentum.
3. Launching with too few people.
One critical mistake many Missional Communities make (and I’ve made several times) is launching with less than 15-20 people in the core group as they are starting the new MC. Why you may ask? Because a Missional Community needs to exist as an extended family of 20-50 people, living in the social dynamics of a group that size. The reason mission works so well with this size group is that new people who don’t know Jesus are welcome to hang out, observe, form relationships, but they can also be semi-anonymous if they choose. Because of the number of people, they don’t feel uncomfortable if they don’t fully participate or are simply in observation mode when the “family” has spiritual time together. There is a certain gravitational pull to these group dynamics; it really brings people in.
HOWEVER, if you have fewer than 15 people you’ll almost inevitably default to the social dynamics of a small group (6-12 people), where it’s very personal, everyone shares, and is very inward focused. That’s not terribly comfortable for someone who doesn’t know Jesus! We’ve found that at 15 people, there is a shift in these dynamics.
The last thing I’d say on this is that it is possible to get around this in probably two scenarios:
If the leader of the group is an OUTSTANDING people gatherer. In other words, they could start a Missional Community with 6 people and next week there would be 25 people there – they just have a gift. They are one of the few exceptions to this rule.
You have a veteran Missional Community leader who has done a few MCs, has seen them grow and multiply and truly knows what they are doing. They have learned to steer and navigate the social dynamics of an extended family even when there aren’t enough people to comprise an extended family.
4. The Missional Community isn’t part of a larger, worshipping body.
Church plants might be able to get around this (though in many cases they can’t either), but the reality is that life on the missional frontier isn’t easy. It’s incredibly exciting, an amazing adventure and it’s worth every ounce of prayer and effort you put into it – but it really is hard. Because of that, it’s really important that Missional Communities regularly cycle into a worship service with a larger group of people (more than 75 people) at least once a month (but no more than 3 times a month) to be reminded they are part of a bigger story, to hear how God is working in places other than just theirs, to hear teaching/preaching for the wider community, to take the sacraments together and to worship with one, unified voice.
Another way of putting it: The scattered church gathers in order to scatter. Even another way of putting it: We gather together so mission is sustainable. Missional Communities that operate alone will eventually wither and fall off the vine because it’s generally too hard to sustain apart from a wider community.
5. Missional Community leaders who aren’t held accountable.
MCs are built on the principle of Low Control/High Accountability. If your leaders aren’t willing to be held accountable, this is a spiritual problem (i.e. also a discipleship issue) and it WILL come back to bite you. Missional Communities aren’t the place you want the rebellious renegades of the church leading – the mission is simply too important. If they refuse to be held accountable in whatever leadership accountability system you have, don’t let them be a Missional Community leader.
Eventually, whatever is toxic in them that refuses to let them submit to someone in authority will eek out into the rest of the group and the toxicity will spread. Be clear what accountability looks like, what those rhythms look like, what the expectations are and make sure you follow through on these expectations as the person holding them accountable.
6. Too little mission – particularly at the start of the group.
If your MC is just starting, you need to do a LOT more mission than you do worship/teaching(UP) or times of hanging out with people already in the group (IN). You need to be out doing things that connect to Persons of Peace (people God has already prepared in advance to be open to you and your vision) in your mission context and then spending lots of time with them. If it doesn’t get into your DNA early – it won’t get in. Pragmatically, think of it this way: For every time you do something UP or IN focused in the first 3-4 months, you need to do AT LEAST 2-3 outward, mission focused things.
7. The Missional Community leader does everything.
MCs are, quite honestly, what we see the early church functioning as. The word used in scripture is oikos, and when we get down to the historical data, we see the average church size was maybe 40-60 people. So the book of 1st Corinthians is written to a fairly small group of people. And in chapters 10-14 of this book, Paul outlines some really clear principles of how this community gathers, functions, participates, etc when they are together.
One of the key principles? Everyone participates. That’s the beauty of a MC as opposed to a worship service. In a MC, everyone brings something (food, a word of encouragement, a prayer, a song, etc). The point is that you’re together. If the leader is doing everything and isn’t dispersing either leadership or responsibilities, the group is done for.
8. The Missional Community is a mini-Sunday service.
This is one of the more common mistakes people make. They don’t realize that a Missional Community is a FAMILY on mission together, so the task is to build a family, not an event. But because all they have seen most of their lives is a Sunday morning church service (i.e. event), they do that – just without the same quality or number of people to make it appropriate from a socio-dynamic perspective.
These communities sink faster than an anvil in the ocean. If people who don’t know Jesus were interested in going to a worship service, they’d find one that’s done well with a number of people that allows them to observe in an anonymous fashion.
9. The Missional Community doesn’t do evangelism.
I think there are two realities to this:
First, the reality is that in the last 20-30 years, we’ve seen A LOT of evangelism done very poorly and through a lot of manipulation. Because of this, we have a generation or two of people who are VERY leery of actually sharing the good news of the Kingdom and make it easy for people step into discipleship who don’t know Jesus. Timid would probably be the key word. What we’ve done is jump from ditch to ditch. There are some major soteriological issues at play here, but I’ll just hop on one in particular by summarizing some thoughts by Dallas Willard. He says two things that I think are really helpful as we think about “evangelizing” people:
The point isn’t to get people into heaven after they die, but to get people into heaven before they die. (The point of the good news is that the Kingdom is available now – you don’t have to wait!)
If that’s true, evangelism isn’t really about getting people into heaven after they die, but getting them before they die. (Which means if we aren’t evangelizing people towards discipleship rather than heaven, we’ve completely missed Jesus’ message)
What we understand is the Kingdom is exactly what Jesus said it was: Available to us now. That means that the sin, pain, sadness, shame, brokeness, injustice and isolation that affects all of us, that all of us live in and out of each and every day – God can bring life to that TODAY.
Discipleship is the process of living in the Kingdom more and more each day while we are on earth. While we should be concerned about people being with us and Jesus for all eternity, it says something about us if we don’t really care about getting people out of the hell they are currently living in.
News flash: People don’t become disciples of Jesus by rubbing shoulders with us long enough. At some point we have to take a step towards them with an invitation into a new life! A Missional Community who isn’t bold in asking people to live into the new reality of the Kingdom will be like dry milk toast.
Second, for quite some time, evangelicals have sadly and frustratingly neglected Kingdom work as it pertains to social justice and inequity. Finally, that tide is starting to turn (thank you, Bono). HOWEVER, I’m also starting to observe a different ditch-to-ditch reality – one where Missional Communities (or whole churches or Christian organizations) exist to bring heaven to earth in terms of social justice, but do nothing about evangelism.
If you are working and trying to do something about injustice but care nothing for evangelism, you are still missing quite a large chunk of Jesus’ message – just like when you were saying that everyone was missing a large chunk of Jesus’ message without addressing social inequities. You can deal with SYSTEMS of injustice that are inherently broken or evil, but there are still broken, warped, sinful people in needs of God’s transformation living IN those systems.
We need the WHOLE of the Gospel, not just the bits we are personally passionate about. Here’s what I can tell you: When you have both of these working in concert with each other (seeing the KIngdom advance in social justice arenas while being partnered with individual spiritual rescue) – that will change cities. For the best book I’ve read on this, pick up “Companion to the Poor: Christ in the Urban Slums” by Viv Grigg. It’ll blow your mind.
So if you’re Missional Community is heavily involved with social justice (sex trafficking, homeless, racial issues, poverty, etc), you will not be functioning as Jesus imagined it without evangelism as part of the coming Kingdom.
10. The Missional Community doesn’t engage with the supernatural.
I don’t think I’ll ever be accused of being a wild “charismatic,” but I’m not going to beat around the bush: If your group is not very good praying (Yes, I’m implicitly saying you can be bad at prayer in the same way you can be bad at tennis, it’s something you can learn to do better over time. In the same way you can improve communication habits with your spouse over time, you can improve your prayer life with your Father) or listening to the voice of God and responding or engaging with the presence, power and leading of the Holy Spirit – your Missional Community is pretty much done. Don’t believe me?
Try to imagine the early church not only surviving, but thriving without the Holy Spirit on the forefront. Prayer isn’t a box you check. Does your Missional Community actually believe you can do nothing without God’s leading? When your Missional Community prays, do things happen? I’m not saying things always happen like you envisioned it, but are things different in heaven and on earth because of the prayer life your family on mission is tethered to?
11) BONUS!! Not every Missional Community makes it – and that’s OK, even if you attended to all of the things listed above. Paul failed as much as he succeeded. So if it doesn’t make it, learn from what happened, grab a season of rest, listen for fresh vision from the Holy Spirit – and have another go at it!
This article was originally posted on Doug Paul’s blog in two parts: Part 1 | Part 2
Have you experienced any of these difficulties in your pursuit of making disciples? How does this article challenge and encourage you? Comment on Twitter and Facebook!