Missional Communities: Reflections After 7 Years

There’s a lot being written these days about the concept of missional community… for better or worse, here’s a summary of what we’ve learned at Coram Deo over seven years.

We started Coram Deo in 2005 with 6 missional communities. By the grace of God we had formed a healthy missional DNA among our core team and set forth a clear vision for the kind of church we wanted to be. We had driven home the difference between front door growth (people coming into the church through attending a Sunday worship service) and side door growth (people coming into the church through natural relationships), and we made it clear that we expected the church to grow primarily through the side door. I even told the launch team that we would not meet for worship on Sundays until their non-Christian friends were asking us to – which is what eventually happened.

In the first two years we exploded with side-door growth, necessitating a move to a new worship venue. That move and the increasing quality of our Sunday worship gathering spurred a flurry of front door growth as well. Repenting of our somewhat-legalistic insistence on the side door, we recognized that God was giving increase through the front door as well – and that we needed to make disciples of everyone he was bringing us. We began multiplying MC’s as fast as we could. In this rash of growth, many of our MC’s began to lose the strong side-door emphasis they’d had in the early years. Instead of engaging their peers, some of our groups were merely gathering Sunday morning attenders. We were fine with this at the time because it was what God was doing. But we also knew that if we let this pattern go on for too long, we’d see less and less effectiveness in discipleship as the “missional DNA” of our groups waned.

We were on the cusp of addressing this missional drift when the Holy Spirit led us into the merger with Core in September 2011. At that time, God graciously revealed another problem: while most of our members had a strong, intuitive sense of missional community (the what), we had failed to give them explicit and clear training in the how. We had put so much emphasis on casting a cogent vision for MC’s (because of the constant influx of new people) that we’d failed to give emphasis to the practical how-to’s. The result: we knew a healthy MC when we saw one… but we couldn’t tell you how to create one. If an MC was thriving, we’d multiply it and pray for its tribe to increase; if it was unhealthy, we could diagnose it as such, but we couldn’t equip its leaders to fix it.

What we were really facing was a size dynamic issue. When we were a small to medium-sized church, the core staff members could personally disciple and develop every MC leader. MC leadership was intuitive because it could be. If we wanted to train someone to lead an MC, we pulled them into an existing MC and trained them “on the fly.” We took pride in the fact that most of our MC’s had multiplied out of just a handful of those early groups. But as we grew into a large church, we found this system was no longer scalable.

What’s more, as a large church, we finally had an opportunity to organize around geography – which made more sense for church planting and for impacting the whole city. In the early days, every MC was affinity-based: no matter where you lived in the city, you formed your MC along relational lines. People would drive 20 minutes to be in community with friends. But as a larger church, re-orienting our MC’s around geography (while still keeping the door open to affinity) was a better way to 1) train people in mission and 2) build communities that would more effectively and winsomely “put the gospel on display” in particular neighborhoods and zip codes.

And so 2012 became the year of the “Missional Community Re-boot.” We attempted to solve both problems at once by 1) re-launching all of our missional communities with a clearly defined and shared mission and a core team leadership structure; and 2) producing the resources (MC Bootcamp and MC Field Guide) to practically equip and train anyone to launch a missional community.

At the time of this writing, the jury is still out on these changes. I think we made the right adjustments for the church and the city, but I’m sure that a handful of people within Coram Deo did not welcome the change. I trust that they will be won over as they see the fruit God brings from these decisions. Statistically, Coram Deo has grown from 33 missional communities at the end of spring 2012 to 40 at the dawn of 2013 (though some of these MC’s are still in the “core team” phase and have not yet officially launched). We have roughly the same number of total people (836) connected to MC’s, though the makeup of the groups has changed (almost 100 individuals who were in MC’s in the spring are absent from MC’s now). The missional component seems as healthy as ever: throughout Fall 2012, we saw 56 new MC attenders connected through the side door and 25 more through the front door.

I think I can say with some measure of finality that we’ve finally landed on the right recipe for the structure of missional communities – a structure that’s scalable, that’s right for our city and ministry strategy, and that can effectively make disciples of Jesus who love the gospel and live on mission. To those who have persisted with us through 7 years of tinkering, I say: may God reward you for your patience, and may you enjoy a relatively stable MC life from here forward! May your only discomfort come from gospel growth, not from ongoing structural upheaval.

Our challenge in 2013 – and likely beyond – will be assuring the health and vitality of Coram Deo’s missional communities. The structure is sound, but we have plenty of room to grow in the quality of spiritual formation within our groups. Until every MC is a thriving nexus of gospel discipleship, rich community, and Spirit-empowered mission, we have work to do. Some of this work includes strengthening our coaching structure, tightening our core team DNA, improving our church membership process, and providing more theological equipping and gospel counseling training. Because we must answer to God for the flock, the elders of Coram Deo are relentlessly committed to seeing a vibrant spiritual culture within every missional community. We have some work yet to do. But thankfully, the right structures are in place.

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