We all say that we desire to pastor a missional church. But how do you know you’re successful? You know you’re pastoring a missional church when your church is full of missional people. When the people sitting in the pews are actually living on mission for God.
I started The Austin Stone Community Church over ten years ago. Our church is full of young people. The average age is twenty-six years old.
But getting them all to actually live like Christians is very hard to do. I constantly wrestle with how we cannot be a church that just gathers on Sundays to sing songs together and then leave, thinking we’re all living the Christian life. I also wrestle with how to mobilize all these people in a country where Christianity is rapidly declining.
Click to Tweet: “You know you’re pastoring a missional church when your church is full of missional people.” @_Matt_Carter
Missional Communities are the main thrust of how we are attempting to do this. We are taking our people and challenging them to live incarnationally for the Gospel in their context.
But beware. As you begin to make changes in your churches toward missional living and you see the missional temperature in your church begin to rise, one of the temptations that will happen is you will fall more in love with your mission than with your Savior.
You never want to be at a place like this. If you are, then your Savior will have no part in your mission.
You see this in Revelation chapter two. The New Testament church was full of churches that loved their mission and walked away from having Jesus as the center piece. As they did that, Jesus removed His lamp stand, His manifest blessing and presence, from their place. The last thing in the world we want to do is pastor a church where Jesus has removed His blessing.
Don’t love your mission more than your Savior.
Biblical Foundation for 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. Ephesians 4:11-12 (ESV)
Think about this verse in the context of your church. Apostles. Prophets. Evangelists. Shepherds. Teachers. That’s you and me, the leadership of the church.
God gave us these giftings for a reason. So we can equip the people in our churches, so they can do the work of the ministry, for the building up of the body of Christ.
16 from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love. Ephesians 4:16 (ESV)
This is a really convicting verse in light of the fact that we’re seeing Christianity decline in the United States right now. What makes the body of Christ grow? When each part of the body is working properly, so that it builds itself up in love.
So, if the body of Christ in the United States is not growing, what does that say about each individual part of the body of Christ?
Click to Tweet: “If you love your mission more than your Savior, your Savior will have nothing to do with your mission” @_Matt_Carter
We did a survey on a random Sunday that shows how horrible of a job we were doing at equipping our people. We asked the question, “What is your spiritual gift and how are you using it?”
Less than 10% knew what their spiritual gift was and how they were using it to build up the body of Christ.
Paul says the body of Christ grows when each part of the body is functioning properly. We can pat ourselves on the back all day long for having seventy-five hundred people attend a service. But if we’re not helping them discover how God has uniquely designed and gifted them to get into the fight, we’re not being a missional church.
Attractional Model vs. Releasing Mode
I began to struggle with a few things over the past few years. The first is the concept of the American attractional model of church.
The American attractional model is when the large Sunday gathering is the engine that fuels all the other ministries. You have a big gathering and then send them out to the other ministries. As opposed to a cell group model or home church model.
I don’t think we just need to chunk the attractional model of church. There are still people in the world that the home church model isn’t going to reach. And there are some things the larger attractional model of church can do that a home church model might not be able to.
We work in an under-resourced neighborhood in Austin. It’s very impoverished. A while back, there was an apartment fire. All twenty-four of the apartments were burned down, leaving a bunch of refugees homeless, with nothing.
Due to the size of our church, our resources and our ability to communicate, we were able to mobilize hundreds of people and thousands of dollars within a matter of minutes. Through twitter we mobilized people to go buy water, diapers, formula, and other necessities and bring them to a certain location. Within twenty minutes we had sorority girls walking up, arms full of stuff for the refugees. I don’t think we could have done that with a smaller church model.
God is and can still use the larger, attractional model of church.
Click to Tweet: “We can’t just gather to sing songs & then leave, thinking we’re living the Christian life.” @_Matt_Carter
Having said that, I’m also convinced that the current attractional model alone is incomplete in being able to penetrate and reach the churchlessness and lostness of America.
Bob Roberts wrote a book called Transformation. He asked the question: In an attempt to reach America for Christ, what if we planted a thousand mega churches? What if that was going to be our strategy over the next ten years?
That would work, right?
Wrong. That just happened over the last 10 to 15 years. Yet, there are less people per capita sitting in church now than there were ten years ago.
What we’re all trying so hard to do is not working.
There might be something more we need to be doing than gathering a few thousand people in a building to come hear us preach.
Restlessness within the American Church
The second thing I wrestle with is the growing sense of restlessness in the laity of the American church.
When my parents went to church, they went every single Sunday. They tithed. They served in the nursery. Every once in a while, my dad would pass the offering plate. That was the extent of their Christianity. Go to a service, write a check, hand out some bulletins, change some diapers and you are a fantastic member of the body of Christ.
But I’m convinced this generation of Christians are not okay with that. Eighteen to thirty year olds are not okay with sitting on the sidelines of ministry. I have a church full of them that tell me this.
They’re hard wired to want to be a part of something bigger than themselves. They’re not afraid of challenge. I have over a hundred college students graduating from the University of Texas and are going to the unreached people groups within the next year. They’re going to places where they might not make it out of. Seventy-five percent of them are women too.
They want to experience life for themselves. They want to see the world change and be a part of that change.
Click to Tweet: “If we don’t figure out how to get ordinary believers in the fight, we’re going to lose them.” @_Matt_Carter
The reason eighteen to thirty years old are leaving the church in record numbers is because most churches don’t get this. For far too long our model has been for people to come to us where we will feed them spiritually, provide programs for them and make them comfortable. The church would place the responsibility of mission on paid clergy and foreign missionaries.
But there is a growing tension with this generation. They’re sitting in the pews, reading the Bible, wondering out loud why the picture of Christianity they’re reading about in the book of Acts is so radically different than the Christianity they’re living.
They’re wondering when they get to see the Holy Spirit manifest Himself through them. What gift did the Holy Spirit give them with their salvation. They want God to use them too, not just their pastors.
We need to figure out how to take these people and get them in the fight, where they’re playing a meaningful role in the kingdom of God or we’re going to lose them. I don’t care how good of a preacher your are, they are not going to spend forty years in your pews, passing out bulletins.
Train, Equip then Release
Lastly, what led me to this realization about the attractional model was a big ‘aha!’ moment regarding church growth.
We were out of space at our main campus, having to turn people away at two of our services. So we started a multi-site. Then they were almost full too. We were at a crossroads as a church.
Do I build a bigger building, spending another fifteen million dollars of God’s money? Do I start another campus? Do I hire more staff to do all of this? We can do all of that. But for what? What’s accomplished? We will spend all that money, but we’re going to reach about three thousand more people.
If we reached three thousand more people at The Austin Stone, nothing changes in the city of Austin.
Instead, what if I called three thousand people that are already at The Austin Stone to leave? What if I told the seven thousand that are already here that we were going to take three thousand of them, train and equip them, then kick them out of our church, releasing them into the city and to the nations and the world?
If we do that, there’s no telling what could happen to the city. Everything could change.
What was Jesus church growth model? Was it to preach really well, gather a huge crowd, build a building then start some programs for the kiddos? Did He get them in small groups so they could eat chips and dip on Tuesday nights? So He could get book contracts and speak at conferences? No.
Click to Tweet: “Jesus’ model was to take 12 guys, pour His life into them, teach & train them. Then release them.” @_Matt_Carter
Every time Jesus gathered a crowd He would run them off. At the height of His popularity, He had thousands of people following him around the Sea of Galilee. He tells them they’re following Him because He’s feeding and healing them. Unless they eat His flesh and drink His blood, they could have no part of Him. They all took off, leaving just twelve guys standing beside Him wondering why He just did that. Then Jesus asks them if they want to leave too.
Jesus’ model was to take twelve guys, pour His life into them, teach, equip and train them. Then release them.
Is it possible to do both? Attract people by the thousands and release people by the thousands?
The model is Missional Community.
We use to have community groups, smaller groups of people living in community together. It was to make sure no one was getting lost in the big crowd of a Sunday service, get people connected. We saw these groups turning into small group Bible studies, with chips and dips. Which is great, but that’s all they were.
So we challenged, trained and equipped our small group leaders to turn to their groups and challenge, train and equip them. We challenged the groups to come together to live radically on mission together. To be the church. To live incarnationally, to live missionally, together in their neighborhoods and work places.
Its been a really slow multi-year process. But we’re beginning to see progress and we’ve been blown away at what’s been happening.
Transitioning to Missional Community
Three things we did to transition between small groups to missional communities:
1. Change the definition of success for your small groups.
You’re going to have 33% who will take to it immediately. 33% that won’t understand it and another 33% who won’t want to do it and will tell you no.
Continue to have them gather and do a Bible study. But look to see if they have moved beyond that. Has the group found a place, or group of people, that is far from God, in the city, where they are engaging missionally and incarnationally for the sake of the Gospel and the name of Jesus Christ?
That is the new definition of success.
Are they still getting community? Yes. There is nothing on the planet that fosters deep community better than mission. When we aimed for community, we got neither community or mission. But when we aimed for mission, we got both.
Click to Tweet: “When we aim for community we get neither community nor mission. When we aim for mission we get both.” @_Matt_Carter
2. Change how you’re training and discipling your small group leaders.
We are training them like missionaries. We had to change the mindset of American, come to church on Sundays, consumers to being missionaries.
That starts with teaching them how to feed themselves. If you’re an American Christian, you can get by from just sitting in the pew, being fed. But if you’re a missionary in the Sudan, you better know how to listen to the Holy Spirit of God yourself and know how He leads you or you’re going to be ineffective.
We also training them in as much theology and ministry practice as we can. So if God leads their group to leave and do their own thing, they’re equipped to do it.
This is happening and its beautiful. It’s cool to watch a group step out on their own, try something crazy and start their own home church in their apartment complex.
3. Raise the bar on what your groups can do.
The people in your church can do more than you have ever dreamed if you would just challenge them and give them a chance to do it.
One of our leaders was a Senior Vice-President at one of the largest companies in Austin. He made lots of money, lived in an unbelievable house in the nicest part of Austin. He starts hearing the message about living on mission, giving his life away, getting in the fight and using the gifts that God gave him. He started believing that the power of the resurrection actually lived inside him.
He sold his house and bought several houses side by side in the under-resourced neighborhood where our church works. He and his wife moved into one of them. Single moms have occupied the other houses. He and his wife started a missional community who train, equip, educate and love on these single moms. He’s changing that neighborhood. People are coming to Christ. It’s just awesome.
If we had never challenged him or raised the bar or released him to use his money, time, and giftings outside of the four walls of our church, there is a good chance that he would have spent the rest of his life sitting in the pews of our sanctuary, listening to sermons, singing songs and would die, going straight to heaven. Having never known the thrill of getting in the fight for the purpose and name of Jesus Christ.
Your people are more hungry than you ever dreamed. Challenge them, train them and then release them to give their lives away. Not just to come to church, but to be the church.