Jesus Creed

Jesus Creed

Missional Small Groups

Celticknot.jpgHere’s an arresting line about small groups, and it is one that expresses both the frustrations and dreams of many of us: “Instead of doing groups for the sake of experiencing community, groups experience community for the sake of participating in God’s redemption of creation.”

This is the heartbeat of M. Scott Boren and it emerges in his newest book, Missional Small Groups: Becoming a Community That Makes a Difference in the World (Allelon Missional Series)
Here’s my claim: the future of the Church in the world is the vitality of its small groups and its missional groups. Agree or disagree?
Now before you click on the link above with the plan of buying the book and getting your small groups leader to implement the vision of the book, I’ve got an even better suggestion. Get the book, read it, and then form a group yourself — especially if you are a leader — and practice it and implement it and then spread it throughout your church.
The goal, of course, is to be interconnected — like a Celtic knot [don’t click the X] — with God, with your church and with your community.
What are the features and elements of a genuinely missional small group? Before the jump, jot down your answers.

It begins with folks who listen and who are in rhythm with one another and with the community. They have what Boren calls the connection rhythm. Being missional is being relational, and missional groups from personal improvement to lifestyle adjustment to relational revision to missional re-creation.

Three features: 
missional communion — practices of presence
missional relating — practices of agape
missional engagement — practices of engaging the community
Where is your group? Is it stuck?
He has a chp on each of the above, with down-to-earth practical suggestions.
Comments read comments(26)
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posted July 28, 2010 at 7:38 am

I have found that missional small groups work best when they emerge “under the radar” so the speak, from the bottom up, started by lay (or clergy) people with energy and excitement. I have been part of programmed, top down “missional small groups” where we were told what to think and where all of the small groups were expected to be on the “same page,” almost literally, and they tended to lack the same energy and cohesion. I remember one nadir when we were all “told,” through our leader, that we had to do a missional project so we all went completely halfheartedly and picked up some trash at a park. I think one rule is that the Holy Spirit can’t be packaged.

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Scot McKnight

posted July 28, 2010 at 7:40 am

Great comment, and I’ve heard the same. “Missional” can’t be forced; missional does have to be organic.

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Don Schiewer

posted July 28, 2010 at 8:23 am

I am the part of an accidental missional small group…there was a group of us that came together around a common idea of meeting the unmeetable and so we started getting together to study the Text/eat a meal – and shortly afterward began making PBJ sandwiches and walking around the downtown of Toledo, OH…we have done this every Saturday for over 3 years.
Our small group still has lunch together almost every Sunday afternoon…but the Saturday Picnic (what it’s begun to be called) has grown…now there are over 200 people involved and over 350 lunches are distributed weekly. A mobile food pantry was started and 1400 families a month are being helped…
All of this from a small group of people (around 10 – 15) coming together to love people in our community. Missional Small groups have a huge potential when done in a grass-roots bottom-up mindset.
I am blessed for my experience (and now we even have a website for what was started through this – it is )
I hope this didn’t come off as a self pat-on-the-back…but rather that this way truly works…and my life and my families lives have been changed forever.

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posted July 28, 2010 at 8:26 am

This is a tough one. I have become somewhat disillusioned with church organized or “encouraged” small groups. I also find that the emphasis on these over loose all welcome whole church gatherings increases the clubbiness of a church and diminishes missional welcoming of others.

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Steve Lutz

posted July 28, 2010 at 8:31 am

Thanks for highlighting this, Scot.
Just got the book, though haven’t read it yet.
I lead a missional community in my home, as well as a network of MC’s on a college campus. I confess that sometimes the name ‘missional community’ is more aspiration than actualization.
Next week, I come on staff with my church as director of Life Groups with the charge of helping them become more missional. So I am very interested in how I can help foster this orientation without the top-down approach. I know from experience that this doesn’t work very well.
The ongoing challenge in whatever you call these groups is that the default mode for people is to view community as THE end in itself, not leading to mission. So, we talk often about “Gospel, Community, and Mission” and how they too are interconnected like the Celtic figure above. Incomplete without one (in)forming the others. We also talk about how being on mission together creates the kind of community (or as Frost & Hirsch say, communitas) worth having.
I’m eager to read the book, and to read what others have found effective in cultivating MC’s.

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Jason Lee

posted July 28, 2010 at 8:34 am

didn’t someone calls this “communitas” …Alan Hirsch?
It seems to me that organic doesn’t have to be bottom-up only, and it may be better if it’s not just bottom-up. “Organic” may also be leaders cultivating a small group culture over time so that it’s simultaneously top-down and bottom-up. For example, leading a small group could be developed as a kind of sacred privilege and responsibility, not to be given to just anyone … if “faithful in a little, then faithful in much (small group leading)” Such careful selection of leaders may mean slow implementation, but perhaps better long-term faithfulness.

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Matt Stephens

posted July 28, 2010 at 9:00 am

I would echo RJS’s concern somewhat. Groups of 6-12 aren’t for everyone. For some, a combination of dyad or triad relationships and deep engagement with the larger body (however small or large that may be) is better. From my experience, “community” happens in the give and take of normal life: helping a brother or sister out moving in some furniture, fixing something on their car or home, bartering babysitting responsibilities (or other “things”), bringing meals when someone’s sick or has a new baby, having dinner together often, etc. If you have a group of people in a concentrated geographic area doing this, as well as taking stake in their local community, you begin to create a “real (Jesus) presence” there: a combination of koinonia and service.

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Jason Lee

posted July 28, 2010 at 9:09 am

Matt and RJS,
Would you agree that it’s both-and? … small groups in churches can be really good for some people who need the structure and enjoy it. Some people do better with small groups than without. While at the same time others do better with less structure and if freed up to be more spontaneous. Could a church could work hard to develop a healthy small group culture but also communicate that some/many people may do better outside of it?

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Brian McLaughlin

posted July 28, 2010 at 9:40 am

I think one of the key texts for not everyone being connected to a small group – and that being okay – is Joseph Myers the Search to Belong. People need different levels of belonging at different times.
On the organic vs. “top-down” small groups: don’t leaders (especially in established and entrenched churches) have a responsibility to help form a missional imagination in their people? Isn’t this done in several ways, including teaching and experimenting? If that is true, encouraging small groups to experiment strikes me as exactly what we need to be doing. In this regard it is “top-down” with the goal of formation. For a recent large-scale example; isn’t this exactly what the Origins project did this weekend in CA (a day of missional experimenting and a day of teaching?)

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posted July 28, 2010 at 10:20 am

Thanks for the lead on this book. For the past year I have been involved in developing ‘micro groups” similar to Neil Cole’s LTGs. These groups consist of 3 or 4 same sex members who give themselves to listening: to God, to one another, and to the world (the lost/hurting).
We meet publicly and engage with people where we meet. The groups are designed to be “tiny outposts of the Kingdom” (a term that hearkens to Clarence Jordan) in the public realm. They are highly flexible, easily implemented, do not require curriculum or even a “leader leader”.
We are finding them to be a great way for the people of our church to “get out from behind the 4 walls” and be little foretastes of the kingdom that are built around discipleship, community and mission.
Our influences include Neil Cole, Alan Hirsch, Darrel Guder, Ralph Moore, Eugene Peterson (Eat this Book), Bonhoeffer (Life Together), & Dallas Willard…among others. :-)
If anyone is interested in learning more about what we are doing feel free to drop me an email. I am very interested in this topic and seeing the practice spread.

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posted July 28, 2010 at 10:29 am

Our church gave up small groups after it became apparent most weren’t working (however you define that), and they were creating a sense of disunity in the larger church body.
As far as how they are organized (bottom up or top down), I guess there is room for both. Bottom up formation may lead to more natural groups that more instantly connect and work together well. But what about those in the church that are on the margin or who are not invited into such a group? Is diversity (theological, social, etc) stifled with such groups as like-minded and demographically similar people come together? Who falls between the cracks and misses on the blessings of the small group? Organization from above may help make sure everyone has a place.
At the same time, organization from above can itself be stifling, particularly if the organization is inflexible or if it decrees what the groups should be rather than seeking a consensus within the church.

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Matt Stephens

posted July 28, 2010 at 10:59 am

Jason Lee (#8):
Yep! :-)

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Jerry Sather

posted July 28, 2010 at 11:09 am

Hmmm . . .
Nothing new . . .
Wesley’s band societies/class meeting
David Lowes Watson’s Covenant Discipleship
Richard Roster’s Renovare

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Rick Cruse

posted July 28, 2010 at 11:39 am

I’ve found Alan Roburgh’s book “Missional Map-Makers” to be helpful. Here are some comments from him lifted from his website, especially this first paragraph.
“It bemuses me when some guru gives an eloquent speech about our multiple ?post? world then offers a formula or plan to make the church work. As I shared with my brother, I?m more interested in forming leaders who know how to engage with the Spirit in this new space than all the tactics, formulas and strategic plans that are out there. This reminds me of the the Celtic missionaries who, from the Isle of Lindisfarne in Northumbria in the 5th – 7th centuries, transformed England and northern Europe.
?Do you know were the phrase a wild goose chase comes from?? The phrase symbolized, for me, a useless, futile exercise that produced nothing. I wasn?t prepared for the explanation…. The Celts had a name for the Holy Spirit – an Geadh-Glas which means the wild goose. By this they meant that the Spirit of God can?t be put in a neat box, confined to a vision and values statement or tamed within a strategic plan. The wild goose is unpredictable (like the wind).
Taking seriously this sense of God, Celtic missionaries went on wild goose chases entering the spaces, towns, hamlets, and villages of 7th century England in the conviction that the wild goose was out there ahead of them. They were open to being surprised by the wild goose, prayerfully asking what God was doing and joining there by naming the name of Jesus, dwelling among people and opening the great story of God?s love and grace. This was precisely what I was trying to describe about the nature of leadership in our strange, unthinkable, new space.
“We want to form leaders open to following the wild goose not fixated on formulas, vision statements or strategic plans. We form such leaders in our strange, shifting, unthinkable world through action learning communities of leaders.”

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posted July 28, 2010 at 11:42 am

“Instead of doing groups for the sake of experiencing community, groups experience community for the sake of participating in God’s redemption of creation.” Now that is some amazing quote.

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kevin s.

posted July 28, 2010 at 12:28 pm

“For example, leading a small group could be developed as a kind of sacred privilege and responsibility, not to be given to just anyone … if “faithful in a little, then faithful in much (small group leading)” Such careful selection of leaders may mean slow implementation, but perhaps better long-term faithfulness.”
All the way around, yes. Identifying faithful leaders is crucial. Having done so, you can then entrust them with the responsibility to operate a group that is adaptable to the needs of the members.
We all love the word “organic”, but I think it is more important to be “authentic”. There are ways to foster authenticity in small group membership, and leaders should ideally be adept at doing so.

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Bob Porter

posted July 28, 2010 at 3:02 pm

Thanks for this conversation! Especially Jim @ 10, Rick @ 14 and Kevin @ 16
Captcha – the resources

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Heath Davis

posted July 28, 2010 at 3:51 pm

If the gospel has been received as an individualistic, therapeutic bill of goods that is simply about “Jesus and me” alone, then the concept of a missional communities will simply be seen as some nice appendage, but not a natural bi-product of the gospel.
It seems to me that missional communities would be a natural bi-product of a right and holistic understanding of the gospel. If we have to force or orchestrate such groups form within the church, is their something more elemental in the gospel DNA that might missing within the Church?

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posted July 28, 2010 at 4:02 pm

This is an interesting post to me because I almost did my Dissertation on this focus. I was thinking about developing missional small groups. In my research, or beginning research, I read some dissertations on the development of small groups that indicated that it was extremely difficult for them to be missional. Mostly the small groups became fellowship groups. I believe they could be more missional, but it would be a huge challenge. Thank you for this work.

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posted July 28, 2010 at 5:47 pm

I echo RJS at 4. My experience has been less than wonderful, as well, top down at times may seem more like a push into service rather than a forming into missional minded. On the other hand without some top down presence, what is missional looking like? I’m uncomfortable with the idea that such a small group can get enough from just reading whoever is your favorite writer, be it Hirsch, McNeal, or whomever, to form a foundational theology, etc.

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Stephen Mook

posted July 29, 2010 at 12:00 am

Scot, agree!

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chad m

posted July 29, 2010 at 1:54 am

Scot [or others]
what is the working definition of “missional”? i see it kicked around so much anymore i wonder if it really means anything other than, “We are a church/people that want to be hip and with it!” that’s probably not fair, but i think it means something good and i want to embrace the positive before throwing it out altogether! thanks!

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posted July 29, 2010 at 7:55 am

I am an Mdiv student, so I sympathize with you, but am compelled to say that the point isn’t a foundational theology. That’s an interference. Peter and the others didn’t have a degrees in theology on Pentecost. It’s a matter of letting the Holy Spirit in, and my experience, obviously limited, is that works best when it’s not structured and controlled by the church hierarchy. We have to face the fact that good missional small groups will propel some people out of whatever church or denomination they are in and might also settle on unlikely leaders: you know, those people the powers-to-be have written off.

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posted July 29, 2010 at 9:00 am

If Mathew 18:20 is taken in the plain language of any culture, it means that small groups are sacramental. I enjoyed Nelson’s “God Hides in Plain Sight”, for its evidence of how to see the sacred in a chaotic world. Eugene Peterson’s review says he doesn’t miss much. But I feel that our institutional bias and even some paranoia of us losing our developed ecclesiology( as did the RC during the Reformation) has caused us to miss the obvious here. Yes, small groups will be more important in the future than we realize now, and having them be missional may be as simple as “how can I help?” in the community they are found. This has been the secret of many a good missionary.

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posted July 29, 2010 at 11:29 am

Maybe mid-size is the best size for mission:

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posted August 1, 2010 at 6:06 am

Thanks for the excellent reference . The practical issues of of such a ministry shift are not complex, but they are very hard. I have been helped by the coaching provided through 3dministries (three dimension).

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