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Does Community Lead to Mission and Vice Versa?

Does Mission Lead to Community?

A common statement I hear bouncing around in the discussion about developing missional community is this: If you start with community, you rarely get mission, but if you start with mission, you almost always get community.

I’ve heard this stated in many forms over the years. We used to proclaim something like that in cell church circles when I was doing training for cell groups in the 1990s. In my previous pastoral position, I had a colleague who would fight for this supposed axiom. She said to me once “Groups that have a common mission will grow in love. It’s like an army platoon that grows together while fighting a common enemy.”

On the surface, this sounds right. And there are enough church situations where the church culture lines up with this statement.  Therefore, it’s not hard to list examples that seem to support this claim. However, I can also list plenty of stories of groups that tried this approach and it actually made matters worse. Today, I am going to deal with the practical reasons why we need to call this statement into question. (Tomorrow I’ll address another aspect.) Here are a few reasons why this is the case:

  1. Let’s look at the analogy of a platoon at war. Brotherhood (and sisterhood) is formed as you fight together. This is true. But let’s not forget that soldiers go through basic training before they go to war. They are equipped with basic tools so that they can fight in tandem with others. Throwing people together around a common mission without considering how they have been equipped can produce disaster. 
  2. People need to be equipped in the basics of what it means to give agape love in a Kingdom community. I’ve yet to find situations where people know how to do this just because they have a common mission. 
  3. When a church has unhealthy relationship practices, putting those people in groups does not change those patterns. And giving them a common mission does not change them either. In fact, it can actually work against you as those patterns are put on display for the lost to see.

The churches where the “common mission leads to community” strategy works are churches that have created a culture characterized by three basic things: First, they have established healthy, other-oriented, agape love relationship practices. Second, they have developed the church around the vision to engage the community. And last, they are usually highly flexible because the church is relatively new and the participants of the church are relatively young. As a result, often the leaders in such churches are more entrepreneurial. In such cases, therefore, mission often does lead to community.

But it cannot be claimed to be universal truth. We need to listen to churches that are basing their groups on this statement, but we also need to understand the church culture from which they speak. We cannot go to them and try to do it like they do it. That’s like a business owner driving up to GE and asking them how he can copy their business model. Most of the churches with whom I work need to establish some basic training to establish  new practices that will result in missional living and then release people on mission. We need to understand where our people are and what they need in order to be prepared for mission and not just throw them out and expect them to “get it” on their own.

Does Community Lead to Mission?

Does a common mission produce community? I don’t think that we can make this a universal claim. Nor can we toss the claim aside as if it has no relevance. See my previous post.

Then must we conclude that community produces mission? Many make this claim and it has some very important biblical texts to support it. Jesus prayed in John 17 that his followers would live in unity so that the world might know him. After washing the feet of the disciples, Jesus told them that the way that the world would know that they were his disciples was by their love for one another. Our love for one another is one of the greatest, unused evangelistic tools.

And I have seen many small groups communities that have grown in love and the natural overflow of that has been mission, evangelism and even group growth. We have 40 years worth of small group experience around the world to support this. So we cannot say that community does not lead a group into a life of blessing those outside the group.

At the same time, we have all seen small groups that experienced deep community nothing every moved beyond the people in the group. They grew insular, developed inside jokes and sequestered themselves into a elite club that others either envied or despised. It might have felt good for insiders but there was nothing inherently beautiful about it that flowed out to bless the rest of the world.

What can we say then:

  1. There is a reciprocal relationship between living in community and sharing a common mission. They feed each other.
  2. Which is first? In some cases it’s community. In other cases its a common mission. Most of the time is both.
  3. In most cases where community leads to a group that impacts the world, the groups are set within a church that already has an established church culture of impacting the world. Or they have a pretty big front door and the groups infold new people.