As a practitioner of missional communities, I am often asked, “What is the difference between a missional community and _____ (small group, Bible study, etc.)?”
Before I dive into distinctions, let me provide the definition I use for a missional community:
A community of Christians, on mission with God, in obedience to the Holy Spirit, who demonstrate the gospel tangibly and declare the gospel creatively to a pocket of people.
Perhaps the most critical portion of the definition practically is the idea of “a pocket of people”—a missional community is intentionally focused on those who aren’t believers. Missional community is intentionally focused on those outside the church.
Before I make some folks upset, it’s also important for me to note that gospel-centered communities on mission come with many different names. While I think language is important, I’ve found there are many small groups, community groups, and Bible studies that look a lot like what I call missional communities. The distinctions I point out in this article are meant to challenge predominant methods of practicing community in many American evangelical churches.
Missional Communities vs. Community Groups
One of the greatest needs in many churches is “community.” Pastors talk about the value of it, tell people they need it, and provide lots of ways for people to engage it. As I have connected people, I find they’re mostly seeking friendships that will spur them towards Christ. That desire is good and godly . . . I want the same thing!
The danger in the church aiming for community, though, is that it typically becomes the destination. Once relationships have been established, and the need for friends has been met, that’s the way a community group stays. Community groups love to spend time together and have rich friendships, and the concept of “doing life” together is easy and appealing.
But these kinds groups often struggle because they lack the imperative of mission. They meet and live in community but do not engage in missionary activity. Once more appealing friendships or changes in life circumstances occur, a community group often dies out.
In my experience, a community group needs to be hard pressed with the truth of the gospel and the imperative of disciple making. Their need is not so much practical as it is sin rooted deep in their heart. This sin masquerades as many different things, but collectively a community group must see the greatness of the gospel and the joy found in following Jesus to seek out those far from God.
Practically, I have found that training a group like this together is crucial. They often will not make a transition collectively if you only train them as individuals. This is the primary reason we train whole communities together at The Austin Stone.
Missional Communities vs. Bible Studies
Many of us have been a part of a Bible study at some point in our Christian lives. Typically, these groups read the Bible for a set period of time on a specific day of the week. Bible studies are often great things, but they don’t constitute a Christian community in its entirety.
So what’s the difference?