When considering pioneering church planting, we often need to think about starting smaller expressions of biblical community than the traditional Sunday morning gathering. These smaller groups are described in a variety of ways: missional communities, gospel communities, or incarnational communities. Regardless of the language, these smaller groups can provide a space to cultivate genuine community, as well as a greater opportunity to engage in God’s mission.
Why missional communities?
The Christian life cannot be lived alone, nor can it be carried out as one person among thousands or even several dozen, which is often the context of American church gatherings. Instead, the best context for living as disciples of Jesus happens in community with a few other disciples, mutually committing to each other and to pursuing God’s mission together.
When you look at the life and ministry of Jesus, you see Him discipling His followers as they experienced life together in community. Jesus’ way of discipleship cannot happen in one-on-one meetings alone. The church is the body of Christ, which has many parts. And it takes the body, committed to one another, to become more like Jesus. God intends for all of us to actively engage in disciple-making in light of our unique design and giftedness.
Church leader Jeff Vanderstelt articulates Jesus’ disciple-making process this way:
Jesus didn’t say, “Show up to class and I will train you.” Nor did he say, “Attend synagogue and that will be sufficient.” No, he called the disciples to join him on the mission (“Follow me”), and while they were on the mission with him, he trained them to be disciple-makers (“I will make you fishers of men”). In other words, Jesus taught them the basics of making disciples while they were on the mission of making disciples. They could observe everything Jesus said and did. … They listened, watched, and learned in the everyday stuff of life. After a while, he invited them to share in some of the work he was doing. Sure, they messed up, a lot, but he was there to help, to correct, to clean up — to train them — while they were on his mission. They were in a disciple-making residency with Jesus.[i]
In the midst of doing life in community, Jesus’ followers learned what it meant to love God, love each other, and engage in God’s mission. It is within the environment of a missional community that these three gospel rhythms best thrive.
Missional communities are not smaller church services, Bible studies, small groups, or some other program of the church. Instead, missional communities are the church. Many have been so conditioned by what they have experienced through typical church activities, such as weekend worship services or Sunday school, that they naturally seek to make missional communities fit what they have known before. But resist that temptation. Other programs and activities of the church are great for the purposes they serve, but they do not generally deliver on the purposes of missional communities.
What is a missional community?
Definition: A missional community is a committed group of Jesus followers, the size of an extended family (12–25), empowered by the Spirit to participate in God’s mission of redemption in a particular neighborhood and/or network.
There are seven key phrases in this definition that we want to describe further.
- Committed group. They are devoted to each other and to the mission of the community.
- Jesus followers. They are maturing disciples who are following Jesus’ lead.
- Extended family. The group is small enough to care, yet large enough to dare.
- Empowered by the Spirit. They are formed and sent by the Spirit.
- Participate in God’s mission. The missio Dei is the organizing principle of all they do.
- Of redemption. They will engage in both gospel proclamation and demonstration.
- Neighborhood or network. They are embedded in a neighborhood or network of relationships as an incarnational expression of the church.
Hopefully, this definition offers a framework to differentiate a missional community from a traditional small group, but at the same time it provides enough flexibility not to be too rigid. It is important as you define what a missional community looks like in your context that you not be too prescriptive. In other words, allow each missional community to be unique to its context and mission. All missional communities will not (and should not) look alike. Mission is the mother of adaptive ecclesiology, which means that if we begin with God’s mission (missiology), there will be lots of wild and wonderful expressions of church (ecclesiology).
For more on this topic check out Covocational Church Planting: Aligning Your Marketplace Calling with the Mission of God published by the Send Network. You can download the free e-book here: https://www.namb.net/send-network-blog/ebook-covocational-church-planting/
[i]What is a Missional Community? (October 3, 2016): https://saturatetheworld.com/category/missional-community/.,
Published May 16, 2019