I am from a very weird city down in Austin, and I have been a part of The Austin Stone for almost 10 years. I came to The Stone as an attender in graduate school, and have grown up with the church. I’ve basically gotten to watch as the church was born, became a child, and over the last few years has for lack of better words, kind of gone through puberty. We’ve got some pimples and our voice was cracking, but thanks be to God that we’re moving past that stage as a church.
Rather than present our polished vision, values and practices, I want to take a little different tack – I want to candidly talk about putting these ideas into practice in a real church. More specifically, I want to be completely honest with you about our failures at The Austin Stone. Over the last 7 years, we have been in the process of transitioning to missional communities, and we’ve made plenty of mistakes.
The title of this article is “How NOT To Create a Missional Movement”, but it could easily be titled “Boneheaded Mistakes that We Made”. (In fact, this article is part of a FREE eBook called 3 Ways To Kill a Missional Culture. Click here to download your free copy.)
What Unifies Us?
Before I do that though, I want to remind you what unifies each of us.
I always face the temptation to focus on what makes my ministry different. You’ve probably already heard plenty of missional ideas. You may be excited, you might be evaluating what you’ve heard, or you may even be defensive.
But all of us want the same thing:
We all want people to receive
the gospel and follow Jesus.
Each of us has been saved by grace through faith in Christ, receiving the gift of God. Each of us simply want others to know, love and experience the hope that we have in Christ.
Everyone one of us is trying to make disciples of Jesus.
Anyone who has ever tried to make a disciple knows that mistakes come with the territory.
So I’m going to be transparent with you.
The Story of The Stone
In order to understand our failures, you’ll need to know some of our story.
Matt Carter planted The Austin Stone almost 11 years ago with two overwhelming desires. First, he wanted build a church on the foundation of the Scriptures, not necessarily a model. Second, he wanted to plant a church where the only explanation for what happened was Jesus. In Matt’s wildest dreams, he never thought we would be where we are today.
When it came to strategy, to be honest, we were pretty clueless. All we ever really wanted is for people to see Jesus for who he is and what he has done, and to help our church tell our city about him.
We knew we had a really great preacher and a great worship leader. That’s about all we knew.
Click to Tweet: “We all want people to receive the gospel and follow Jesus.” @toodus
Pretty quickly people started coming. And then a lot more people started coming. I guess church planting isn’t so difficult when you have Chris Tomlin as your worship leader.
To be honest, though, the idea of “missional” couldn’t have been farther from our brains. I actually don’t think it had even been invented at that point. But good stuff was happening so we were pretty thrilled.
Like just about every other church that grows, we built the things that churches were supposed to build. We had a small group ministry, were training leaders, we were going to build a facility and were continuing to grow like crazy.
And that’s when we met this guy named Stew.
Story of Soul Searching and Asking Big Questions
I remember visiting our new pastor in his apartment down on South First Street in Austin. I knew something was a little off with this guy when I was greeted at his door by his son Wesley Grant who wasn’t wearing pants. I felt like I stepped out of Austin into the developing world. Stew was a minimalist, so there wasn’t much in his apartment.
After getting some pants on Wesley Grant, we sat down to eat a meal together. Over some tacos, I listened to Stew’s story of seeing how the gospel was rapidly expanding in places like India and China, and listened to his dreams for the church to become a “movement”. I can say I had two primary thoughts:
Hesitancy, because this sounded a little crazy
Excitement, because it sounded like the church in Acts
Stew brought a fresh and exciting vision and strategy to The Austin Stone. He knew our conviction to be a church committed to the Bible, and led us repeatedly through the book of Acts, and light bulbs started going off. We had to become a movement, not just a great church.
Many of you are in that place now. You dream of seeing the Church in your city look like the church in the book of Acts.
Where We Began
I think the biggest realization was that we were well on our way to repeating the cycle of almost every American church:
But we wanted more, just like you do.
Stew and the Holy Spirit caused a great deal of unrest in our team – we wanted to be like the church in Acts, but didn’t have a clue what to do. So we started talking with different people.
We hung out with Alan Hirsch and tried to digest his accent, white boards and big words. We met with Jeff Vanderstelt and learned about identities, rhythms and missional communities. These friends challenged us – a very “successful” church – to consider what it would look like to think like missionaries.
We began to evaluate everything that we did in light of movements, and we got very excited about change.
So like a young bunch of idiots, we went for it. Missional communities seemed awesome, so we told our whole church “GO AND DO”. We cast compelling vision, created some VERY intense curriculum, and then hosted a few trainings because we were such experts. Then we set people loose.
We lowered the bar for leadership, and invited many people to lead. We had communities baptize people, and adopt causes in the inner city.
We bet the farm on this missional idea, and some great stories began to emerge.
After the rush of a new vision had worn off though, there were some indications that something wasn’t quite right. Have you ever had a meeting with a leader in your church that makes you scratch your head?
I knew we had some problems when I had to confront a leader of a missional community because she had been casting demons out of the backs of some women in her group. It turns out that she hadn’t opened her Bible in 9 years, and claimed to hear directly from God, and thought she was the son of God.
It turns out she wasn’t. Not even close.
We had lowered the bar for leadership, but I think we accidentally created something that resembled an “open bar”.
Our Early Efforts
This story was simply evidence of a larger symptomatic problem. We had rushed into creating a missional culture, but the results weren’t pretty.
After about 2 years, we checked our progress. About 10% of our communities had taken the vision and run. Most of this 10% was worn out, and some had even left the church because we “weren’t missional enough”. About 60% of our people wanted to try missional community but were confused and frustrated. Then there was the final 30% that just did business as usual.
So let’s recap that:
10% burned out
30% just ignored us
We had the best of intentions, but had some pretty poor results.
In our zeal for movement, we did some serious damage to the people God had entrusted us with.
After some serious soul searching and a lot of reflection, here’s where we went wrong in our attempt to create a missional culture.
An Easy Way To Not Create a Missional Movement
As I’ve spent time with other churches who are processing the missional conversation, the dangers are present for just about everyone.
One way we were able to NOT create a missional movement was casting vision without practices. We told people where we wanted to go, but not what they should actually do.
Click to Tweet: “Don’t kill a missional culture by casting vision without practices.” @toodus
Our Story of Gospel-Centered
After casting a vision for mission, we kind of swung the pendulum to casting vision for the gospel. But we were still primarily were only casting vision.
We became a broken record for gospel-centrality. When anyone asked the question “what should I do?”, basically the answer was “repent, believe the gospel and go on mission”.
So if someone came up and asked:
How do I reach my neighbors? Repent, believe the gospel, go on mission
How do I serve the poor? Repent, believe the gospel, go on mission
How do I fix my car? Repent, believe the gospel, go on mission
We became annoyingly gospel-centered. To some extent, that’s a good thing.
But a vision of gospel mission without practices is frustrating
for people who want to be on mission.
People are told to believe the gospel, and they have a desire to be obedient to Jesus, but are left without any way to actually do it. Or even worse, they’re killing it on mission but still feel like a failure.
We had told our people true things, but had forgotten to teach them helpful things.
Click to Tweet: “A vision of gospel mission without practices is frustrating for people who want to be on mission.” @toodus
I recently had a coaching conversation with a friend who leads a missional community in my neighborhood. We sat down for an ice-cold beverage at a local establishment, and I asked him how things were going.
After taking a long drink, he looked at me and said “I feel like a failure as a leader.”
When I asked him why, he responded “I can’t get people on mission.”
I started to ask him about some of the people in his community, and their stories. It turns out there was:
A couple who was in a rescue adoption situation – they were a newly married couple who was in faith adopting a family member’s child out of an abusive home
There was a woman who was diagnosed with kidney stones in their group, and they prayed for her to be healed. The next day received a report from the doctor that the stones were gone!
They have had several non-Christians regularly join their community for a meal
Another guy in the group was currently studying the Bible with someone who didn’t know Jesus
How in the world did this guy think he was failing???
I think it’s because he heard vision and the gospel, but didn’t have anyone affirming the basic practices of Christian discipleship. He had heard us talk about reaching our city, but hadn’t had anyone regularly teach and celebrate simple acts of obedience.
Our city is going to be reached
one kind act of love at a time.
You see, we failed to equip him to act the vision in his suburban context – in the mundane of every day.
This is the work of equipping the saints for the work of ministry. The gospel certainly is the foundation of equipping, but it doesn’t make practical stuff unnecessary. We had failed to help our people act themselves into a new way of thinking.
Click to Tweet: “Our city is going to be reached one neighbor, one conversation, one kind act of love at a time.” @toodus
Equipping the Saints
Ephesians again is a gentle reminder for us as we pursue missional communities.
11 And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, 12 to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, 13 until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ
I want to draw your attention to verse 13. Let’s think about maturity for a moment.
The image Paul is using here is one of a maturing body – bodies function properly because the different faculties are being disciplined over time.
A healthy body is fed appropriately,
and challenged consistently.
Maturity and health don’t come from growing quickly. Maturity and health come from discipline incrementally over time.
Part of the way we failed in maturing our body was giving a simple set of exercises that we could stick to beyond church attendance. We had to teach consistently people A WAY TO read their Bibles, we had to teach consistently people A WAY TO repent of sin, and we had to teach people consistently A WAY TO share the gospel with real people.
For a church to be mature, we need to equip the saints in the gospel, yes, but also in simple practices. You can have a vision of being a church that makes Christ known, but without consistent, thoughtful training and discipline, all you have is an unrealized desire.
That’s because vision without practices
is just a good idea.
I want to implore you to cultivate a simple set of transferrable and reproducible practices that you equip people to do repeatedly over time. Let me say that again:
Simple, reproducible, transferrable.
Repeatedly, over time.
Alan says it this way – “you need to act yourself into a new way of thinking”. There are a lot of tools out there which are helpful. They won’t magically make you missional, but you need tools to help people put vision into practice.
Don’t kill a missional culture by
casting vision without practices.
For us at The Austin Stone, the simple community practices of Life Transformation Groups, Family Meals, and Third Places helped the 60% of people with a desire to change actually take steps of obedience.
Specifically, we taught people to gather in small communities in three different ways over time. The Life Transformation Group is where we gather to be a disciple, the Family Meal is where we gather to be a family, and a Third Place is where we gather to be missionaries.
Sticking to these practices over time, and applying them in a variety of different contexts has helped that 60% act on their desire to live differently.
This article is part of an eBook entitled, 3 Ways To Kill a Missional Culture by Todd Engstrom.