Missional Groups Redefined

There are so many plans and programs for leading groups today in the church that the opinions of what works and what doesn’t is confusing to sort out. One of the central group questions is about the ministry of the group beyond the confines of the weekly meeting. The range of opinion about this ranges from have closed groups that only focus on building community to open groups that try to do personal evangelism and multiply groups through growth to groups that are 20-50 in size so that they can work together to target a specific need, neighborhood, or people group and ministry with the specific group of people.

Opinions, opinions, opinions. And writers seem to proclaim them with such authority as if there way comes directly from the pages of Scripture, as if the 11th commandment is ‘Thou shalt do mission through groups this way.’

But there is something more fundamental than finding the right group strategy for mission. We first need to consider how the common view of mission might actually generate an imagination about mission that limits our group experience more than it helps it. Before we get into leadership principles and strategies, we need to take a look at our imagination and make sure that how we envision mission is a point of view that actually enhances our group experience. To get at what I’m talking about, let me use my story of mission to illustrate what I’m talking about.

I grew up in the largest Protestant denomination in the world. My early life revolved around the activities held at the little white Southern Baptist Church called Foote because the man who donated the land for the building had that last name. I remember one Easter Sunday morning when I was about nine. I walked out of one of the five Sunday school rooms to a packed house of about 100 people. I could not believe my eyes. However that was the only time I ever saw that many people worshipping there in my 17 years in that church. I loved and still do love the people of Foote Baptist Church, but I always wanted to see more people reached for Christ.

When I went away to college, I wanted to be a part of a church that had more people and more activity. I wanted a church that had programs, that was busy and had the energy and money to do outreach, so I got involved with First Church. It was during my four years at university that I was immersed in various ways to do mission. I was a leader in the largest campus ministry at Texas A & M University. Between my large church and this large ministry, I had all kinds of opportunities to do outreach. Going out on campus to find people who needed to hear about Jesus was a huge part of our ministry. Leading people to make a decision for Christ was such a central focus. Each year, we would see hundreds of people give their lives to Christ. Secretly, I wonder how many people prayed the prayer to get rid of us. Well, I guess it’s not a secret now.

Subsequently, I’ve read books about or attended more conferences on evangelism than is fair to count. It’s just part of my imagination when it comes to how church is supposed to operate. One thing that marked my imagination was the fact that we had a night designated for doing outreach. On Tuesday nights, we would go out and tell people about how we missed them at church and that we would love them to come and be a part of our activities.

Evangelistic outreach was my first view of doing mission.

My second view was shaped by an annual mission trip to Mexico where we would do some kind of building project, lead a Bible school for the kids, and go knocking on doors to share Jesus with whoever would listen. While at seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, I lived on campus that sits next to a small neighborhood where Spanish-speaking families live. Every Tuesday, a group of us guys would descend upon the street and do our mission thing. We would hang with the kids, get to know them a bit, and try to share Jesus with them.

This view of doing mission was about cross-cultural ministry.

A third experience of doing mission is formally called social justice, and it usually comes in the form is some kind of service to the poor. For one year in college, I preached a weekly service at the local homeless shelter. But there are much less traditionally religious ways that this usually plays out: packing food to give out on the holidays, feeding a meal at a homeless shelter, visiting a nursing home, addressing issues of racism, and generational poverty.

Then I experienced a fourth paradigm for doing mission. During my senior year, I was a part of a team that prayed everyday for an hour together in one of the dorms for the guys that lived there. For much of my time at college, we would pray for revival to come to the campus. We had a belief that our prayers mattered, and our mission was to do prayer evangelism for people we knew, for people we did not know in a specific location, and for all the people in a local setting.

After college, I have continued my involvement in all four–evangelistic outreach, cross-cultural ministry, social justice and prayer evangelism–of these activities of mission. However, I have subsequently been challenged to think about them differently. I began to see things differently while on a mission trip to Saint Petersburg, Russia. Our team of seminary students went with ideas of various things we would be doing there, but after the third or fourth day of worshipping with the local church, learning about the city and its culture, and sharing meals with the leaders of the church, we grew frustrated that they were not asking us to do anything. Their response to us was something like: “Why would we ask you to come here and do what we are called to be doing?” In other words, they did not need another group of Americans descending upon their city to do something for a few days and then leave. They had invited us to observe what God was doing in and through the church there. They did not need us to do anything. Quite honestly, our pragmatic activistic mindset did not react well. We did not know what to do with this. So to make us happy, they made a way for us to hold a couple of evangelistic services at a local school and prison. I think we missed the point.

You see, our view of mission was shaped by an imagination of doing mission. We were shaped by action questions like:

What could we do to reach the lost?
What could we do to help the poor?
What could we do to get people into the life of the church?
What could we do increase baptisms?

Now before we go any further, please note that I am not against sharing my faith nor do I have a problem with doing something to address social injustice. Cross-cultural ministry is absolutely essential, and there is so much documented evidence about the power of prayer evangelism, I would be an absolute fool to discount its effectiveness. But in future posts, I want to propose something that is much more comprehensive than any of these.

The problem is that the imagination of doing mission is so central to how we think about church, we don’t really know how to shake it and see something else. For instance, this imagination of doing mission has infiltrated small group ministry all over the place. There are all kinds of strategies and programs now promoted as ways for developing missional community that is nothing more than one of the four ways of doing mission cited above. But they do an excellent job of packaging their group plan for mission as new and next. My reaction to them is usually something like: We’ve been doing that for years. Why are we now calling that missional? Aren’t we just using a new trendy term to describe something that we been doing for a long time? It’s just more doing. More of the same.

How have you seen or experienced doing mission in small group life? Should there be more than doing?

Fifteen years ago, small groups were something only renegade churches tried. Now small groups, house churches, mid-size (20-50 people) communities, and other forms of organic/relational gatherings are so common that it’s hard to find a church that doesn’t do some form of groups. In addition, if you go back fifteen years, the concept of “missional” was only a term being bantered about by a group of six authors who were asking big questions about what it meant to be the church in North America. Their work resulted in a landmark book entitled Missional Church.

I’ve been editing and writing on small groups for nearly 20 years and on missional for the last five. To do this, I have had to keep track of what people are writing and saying about these two areas. And to be honest, I cannot keep up. There is just too much being written and too many conferences about these two hot topics. Now, of course, the conversations about these two topics have merged. If you follow any of the chatter in the small group world, the idea that groups should be missional is commonly accepted by even conservative church leaders. One pastor recently stated at a conference that nothing fosters community like a common mission.

Honestly, I’m thrilled by the energy that people have for the idea of missional community. But at the same time, I’m troubled by what’s being promoted as missional group life. Most of what I see bantered around as missional community falls short of what I’d like to see. The focus seems to fall squarely on various ways of “doing” mission instead of “being” missional. Let me illustrate with a few concrete examples:

Servant Evangelism: I think the stuff that Steve Sjogren has developed over the last 20 years is great. Creating low-risk opportunities to serve people is a great way to get people out in a community. Groups can work together to do things like passing out water bottles at a local beach to mowing yards on a local street. Great stuff. But I am looking for more.

Relationship Evangelism: Statistics reveal that most people who come to faith in Jesus do so through a relationship with a Christian friend, relative, co-worker, or neighbor. It is common for small group training curriculum to promote relationship evangelism as part of the life of a healthy group. But is leading our friends to make a decision for Christ enough? I’m looking for more.

Project or Task Ministry: Taking on specific service projects is also promoted as missional: serving at a homeless shelter, tutoring kids who live in under-resourced neighborhoods, volunteering with Habitat for Humanity are examples of this. All good stuff. I’ve got no problem with any of them. But there is something else.

Now before you think me overly critical, let me say that I used to teach and have written about all of these in a positive light over the years. But adding one or even all of them to a group’s life will not make them missional. There must be more. We’ve been doing these kinds of things in small groups for decades, and they’ve fallen short of really making a difference in our world. Do we really need more doing? Or might there be a different perspective?

What do you long to see in a group that is missional?

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M. Scott Boren is a Teaching Pastor at Woodland Hills Church in Saint Paul, MN and consultant who partners with The Missional Network (www.themissionalnetwork.com). He has written and co-written eight books, including Introducing the Missional Church, Missional Small Groups and MissioRelate. He share life with his bride, Shawna, and their four children, all under the age of eight. He can be reached at his website: www.mscottboren.com.