Tag Archives: community groups

3 Ways to Make the Bible Central in Missional Communities

This is part of a series of posts on what a missional community is – check out the others and let me know if you have any thoughts or questions.

Last week, I suggested we change the language for Missional Communities, since it mostly communicates what they are not. I’ve heard many people read definitions of Missional Communities and view them as anti-Bible, but I really do believe they are Bible Study Plus. When I say Bible Study Plus, I mean they invite people to know God as He has revealed Himself through His Word, but then invite people to put their knowledge into action.

The Bible is God’s words about Himself. It informs us about who He is, what He has done, what He is doing, and what that means for us. It can’t be ignored and must be central to the formation of a community around Jesus, since without the scriptures we wouldn’t know truly who Jesus is. The bible was never intended to be an end in itself, but a primary means God has chosen to reveal His character, plan, and desire for our lives.

Our communities made a subtle shift a few years ago to make the scriptures central to the community over the sermon. The dialogue was no longer in response to the sermon just preached on Sunday, but around the scripture passage for the upcoming sermon. The emphasis it placed on the scriptures led more people to think through and dialogue about the passage rather than respond to the speaker’s words.

While this has helped all of our communities be guided by a discussion of God centered on the bible, a few helpful practices and resources have helped in making God’s word central for our Missional Communities.

One aspect that characterizes all of these best practices is the emphasis on understanding the character of God, His redemptive plan in Jesus Christ and how our lives must change to align with who God is and what He is doing.

Here are 3 ways to make the bible central in Missional Communities.

Story Prompts

Our community has learned a lot from two of our Brooklyn Community Group leaders, Matt and Katelyn, who are amazing at connecting with and caring for people. They have introduced us to the idea of a story prompt to start the dialogue for the community. Imagine an icebreaker prompt question that actually ties to the point of a scripture passage.

It’s a personal question with a deeper meaning and intent to bring our thoughts, feelings, desires, or actions into play to allow God’s Word to speak into them. Like a hook for an essay or an introduction for a talk, it connects with the individual and invites them to wonder what God has to say about their ideas, emotions, wants, or needs.

This has enhanced our conversation and I’ve seen people become more excited about God’s word as it connects with them on so many levels.

The Story of God

Soma Communities in Tacoma, WA developed a curriculum based on storytelling the redemptive plan of God. I have to admit I was skeptical at first as to how this would play out in a community group setting, but it was pretty amazing.

It breaks down the Bible into a story form from beginning to end in short stories, summarizing the major stories and themes about God. The stories are short and they are followed by questions for the community to process. They provide some ground rules to insure that people are dialoguing about the story that has been told, not jumping ahead of the story.

The storytelling approach actually highlights parts of the scriptures that are typically missed. I’ve heard from many people who have been in the church for years talk about how it has caused them to go back to God’s Word with new eyes.

Life Transformation Groups

I first learned about Life Transformation Groups from Neil Cole, added the thoughts of Jonathan Dodson and learned from experience the great value they contribute to knowing God and engaging in a community on mission. These are gender-specific groups of between 2-4 people (typically) that place a heavy emphasis on reading the scriptures, studying them deeply, confessing sin that the scriptures reveal, and praying together.

These have impacted the community in 2 massive ways that I’ve seen. The first is how it enhances the entire community for everyone to be digesting and processing scripture outside of a typical gathering time. It’s amazing to watch people come to community ready to give and care for one another. The second is providing the best context for questions and personally applying the scriptures. I’ll have more on Life Transformation Groups tomorrow.

We Never Move on from God’s Word

God’s Word has stood through criticism, time, and remains the primary means by which we understand the character and nature of God. We don’t graduate from His Word, but reading and studying it as a textbook is not the end.

We must see the scriptures as the authority for the life of a Christian and the guide for the mission of the community. It is sufficient and clear in teaching us how to live in a way to honor God, find joy in life, and extend the good news to others.

Missional Communities invite us to know God in His word with His people and join His redemptive plan for our lives and the world.

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The Chief End of Missional Communities

This Sunday, our church concluded a series titled This is Our God. For the past 3 months, we’ve looked at the essence, nature, and character of God. As we ended our series, we spent time looking at responding to God through a special service that included corporate prayer, extended praise and worship, proclaiming our faith through the Apostles Creed and celebrating communion and generosity.

It was a special service and different from what I am used to, but as I prepared for it, I found myself reading the Westminster Catechism. It is one of the most famous documents to come out of the English Reformation, developed in the 1600s and used to educate people on doctrine and belief.

It is a series of questions and answers. It starts off in this way:

Question: What is the chief and highest end of man?

Answer: Man’s chief and highest end is to glorify God and fully to enjoy Him forever.

It references so many scriptures that speak to this reality and I’m a big advocate for enjoying God as the aim of the life in general and especially for the Christian.

As I thought through this idea and continue to listen to the missional community conversation, there seem to be mixed messages about the chief end of missional communities.

If this is the end of man, to glorify God and fully to enjoy Him forever, why would it be different for a collection of Christians pursuing the chief end together?

Mission is only fueled & sustained by joy

Often the missional community conversation is characterized by describing the lack of mission or ranting against the over-focus on the community as the motivator for change towards extending the gospel.  These things are true; the church has lacked being on God’s mission to extend love, grace, mercy and fix the brokenness of the world. A lot of this is due to an inward focus on caring for the community at the detriment of mission.

These truths point to a deeper issue regarding motivation. We can move people to action by pointing to the lack of it or open their eyes to see beyond their own community, but these ideas alone won’t sustain or increase mission. Mission is the result of joy. If mission is lacking, it’s because joy and delight in God are lacking.

What we enjoy, we will discuss. What we enjoy, we will do. What we enjoy, we will give our time, resources, and lives to. This is true of ever idea, cause of mission that exists and it is true for the Christian in joining God’s mission.

When we grasp the acceptance, love, forgiveness, mercy, justice that is the character of God revealed most gloriously revealed in Jesus living an amazing life, teaching astounding truths, and then dying on the cross for the mistakes and sins of the whole world only to resurrect 3 days later. It’s a pretty powerful truth and when it sinks deep within you, there is a joy that you want to share. It is compelling beyond guilt or duty.

The love which God has given you moves you to want others to know it and experience it. This is the motivation, the fuel, for mission and it’s the only thing I’ve seen sustain mission. Duty can get people started, but extending the love of God through selfless sacrifice can exhaust us out of duty-based living. Returning to the gospel repeatedly to be reminded and refreshed by the love of God reminds us that our selfless sacrifice is minimal compared to Jesus.

There is also a peace that comes from remembering and hoping for the good news of Jesus Christ. It propels the Christian to embody Jesus to the world through action and relationships.

Joy Comes From Mission

Glorifying God through embodying Him to the world also is a cause for greater joy in God and in life. It requires that you give of yourself for someone else’s benefits, often not out of calculated thought, but reaction to caring for others as Jesus as cared for you.

Isaiah 58:10-11 says “if you pour yourself out for the hungry and satisfy the desire of the afflicted, then shall your light rise in the darkness and your gloom be as the noonday. And the Lord will guide you continually and satisfy your desire in scorched laces and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters do not fail.”

It seems counterintuitive. Giving of yourself can be one of the greatest gifts to yourself. Light shall rise in the darkness and gloom will be like midday. Self sacrificing is life-giving. Joy comes from being on the mission of God caring for others more than yourself.

Lead People to the Chief End

Forming missional communities that sustain their love for others on the mission of God requires that we lead people back to the chief and highest end first. We can get people to start doing something by pointing to their lack of missional activity, but that does not change their motivation, only their actions. We can also pound the drum against community, but we’ll only hurt the community in our efforts to move it beyond itself.

Leading people to the chief end of glorifying God and enjoying Him forever will accomplish the types of missional communities we long for our churches to be. Places where the love of God flows freely from those experiencing the love of God given to them freely.

This is a longer road than many of us want to take, but we do are not looking for a splash of mission, we are looking for restoration of broken relationships with God, people, and the world. Restoration takes time and the only sustainable motivator is enjoying God fully.

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To Lead Well, Align Well

As my wife and I were preparing to have our first son, Eli, we had to make decisions about our vehicles. The plan was to sell the ’96 red Ford Mustang she had purchased in high school and to purchase a mom-mobile sedan and keep the Xterra I had been driving since college. Unfortunately, the Xterra was totaled when a racing vehicle on the highway that eventually fled the scene hit us. We were fine, but the Xterra was done and we replaced it with the mom-mobile sedan.

This meant that I inherited the ’96 Ford Mustang, every young professional’s dream. Unfortunately the Mustang wasn’t in the best shape being as old as it was. The tires consistently wore out quickly and had to be replaced, the battery connections rendered multiple batteries useless, the radiator tapped out over time, and the odometer stopped working at 95,789 miles.

One of the major problems it had was an alignment problem. When I would take my hands off the wheel it would veer away from the direction I was traveling. This started off as a small issue, I only had to overcorrect on the wheel slightly, but it kept getting worse. This not only affected driving straight, it caused the tires to wear out even quicker and became a costly repair.

I’ve seen this same type of alignment issues and affects inside communities that I’ve led and I’ve seen others lead. The leader may have a clear direction of where the community or small group is supposed to go, but if the entire community is not aligned it could eventually be a costly fix to re-align.

Leading well in missional communities, community groups, or whatever you term small groups, requires that there is clear alignment and direction through the life of the community.

Align at the Start through Vision Casting & Collaboration
Every Ford Mustang was supposed to built with accurate alignment to drive straight when the wheel was straight and to adjust as the wheel directed. There can always be a design or direction for anything at the start. If there is no vision or direction in a Community Group, it will falter from the beginning since it lacks a purpose.

For every new leader, we ask them to think through how their community will embody our core values of Gospel Enjoyment, Intentional Community and Prayerful Mission. Their first official meeting as a community is centered on casting this vision and forming it with the rest of the group.

The unique nature of a missional community that seeks to share leadership is that the leader both casts vision and collaborates on vision.

The leader spends time considering their neighborhood and the people in the community to see how this group will truly embody the core values. This allows the leader to cast vision for what they sense needs to happen as a community. As they cast the vision to the community, they seek input from the rest of the group in order to solidify the vision.

This type of collaboration enables every person in the community to take ownership as they form a unified vision. The leader casts the vision based on the community values and the community forms the vision into practicals that shape how the community will function in seeking to accomplish the vision.

Alignment is most easily set at the beginning, as this enables you to identify when things are in need of realignment. When the community is drifting away from the aims that have been set. Realignment assumes there has been initial direction and alignment.

Maintaining Alignment
Just as every car has regular check-ups to make sure it is functioning appropriately and that includes the car alignment, each community will need regular alignment checks. A leader has the responsibility to assess each new idea or activity to see if it is in line with the direction set by the community.

A community group will certainly evolve over time, but the principle aims for the a gospel-centered community on mission do not shift much. The practicals can either reinforce the alignment or begin to take the community off course.

I had a meal recently with leaders who were discussing the future of their community and identifying the current state of their community. The leaders recognized the health of the community in their care for one another, but also saw the need for the future to be more about extending their gracious community to other people. It was so encouraging to hear these leaders recognize their long-term aims, to celebrate where the community was meeting them, but also to humbly recognize and hopefully seek the change the group needed.

This type of reflection is essential for leaders in maintaining alignment.

Realignment Conversations
In a functioning community, there will be some level of disagreement along the way. Some people in the group will only be around for aspects of the community life, but will avoid others. There will be some people who completely disagree and don’t like the community’s direction.

As beautiful as it would be for the dissident to come and discuss their disagreements, in nearly every circumstance it is up to the leader to initiate these conversations. The leader has the responsibility to pursue those in the community who only participate partially and to pursue those in obvious disagreement.

Leadership cannot be passive because the gospel of Jesus Christ is not passive. God is actively seeking and pursuing people to align with His ways. A leader impacted and guided by the gospel moves toward those in need of realignment, they do not simply tolerate them.

These conversations need to happen privately with the aim of winning the person and not the argument. This requires a leader that loves well by listening. This could be a huge opportunity for the community to change and the person in disagreement may have specific gifts that reveal where the community is lacking a full gospel understanding.

When it’s time to sell the car
Over the life cycle of a missional community, it may grow to a point where there are significant differences in alignment throughout the group. It may mean realignment is needed or it may be time to move on altogether. A leader will need to discern if the community is developing multiple directions that would lead to a healthy and beneficial multiplication.

In these instances attempting to maintain alignment will actually be destructive and hinder the mission of God through your community. A handful of the community could develop a passion to display the gospel through mission in a different way that isn’t a complete departure from the aims, but will be expressed differently. Multiplying the community into new expressions will be the best way to start over with new alignment and direction to pursue a healthy community on a healthy mission for the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Aligning well as a leader is not an easy task, but leading well requires that every lead identify and seek to maintain the direction and vision of the community. The best leaders won’t simply have the best vision, but will have the clearest community vision. This vision is based on the direction of God from His scriptures to embody the gospel through a loving community faced outward to the world. This gospel-centered vision is worth the effort to seek collective alignment to join in God’s loving mission.

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To Lead Well, Love Well

Last week, I wrote about leading well by being faithful after I read a Michael Hyatt article that got me thinking. As I continued to think about the leaders in our church and the expectations we place on them, I couldn’t help but consider writing about other aspects of leading well.

I’m blessed to watch 60+ leaders care for and model Christ to their community groups at Apostles. The consistent thing I see for these leaders who lead well is that they love well.

I’ve seen many people shy away from leadership, describe is as a daunting task and excuse themselves as not the leadership type. Many of those people I see taking the initiative to cook for someone in need, bless someone on a random day, and pursue people out of the blue simply because they care. The most amazing missional community leaders I’ve seen are the ones that love people well by modeling the love of God to them.

This is just another reason why it is so essential for every leader to be rooted in the never-stopping, never-giving up, unconditional, and consistent love of God for them in Jesus Christ. Our love can either be hindered or enhanced depending on our grasp of the love of God towards us.

Love Pursues People

One of the primary reasons this is so key in leading is because love causes leaders to pursue people in their community and those outside their community. This is how God loves us. He pursues us, not because we deserve being pursued or we have made ourselves interesting to Him, but because He loves us. He even pursues when we do everything in our power to run away from him.

For leaders, entering into a community aiming to love people tends to result in them pursuing those people to join and contribute to the community. There will also be times when people who have been a part of the community tend to drift away, but love pursues, not demanding they stay, but communicating their value and extending the invite back into the community.

If leadership isn’t based on love, but on creating a great mission, there’s no reason to pursue people that “aren’t on board” since they left, but thankfully the love of God transforms our whimsical ways. To lead well, pursue the people in your missional community well.

Love Rejoices & Grieves Alongside People

One of my favorite verses recently is Romans 12:15 “Rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep.” There  are few things as powerful in leading than celebrating with those in your community who are celebrating and hurting with those who are hurting.

This is the result of loving someone like Christ loves you. Their joys become exciting for you and there sorrows become sad for you. Community brings us out of ourselves to focus on others and this is only possible through love. No quality leader lacks this kind of love. Every quality missional community displays this kind of love, this kind of gospel-centered love.

It’s been amazing to watch different community groups celebrate together each other’s successes. At times it is even more inspiring and moving to watch a community grieve with one another, tears that display a joining together to endure the worst and seek healing together. It’s a beautiful display of God’s design for community.

Love Enjoys People

The last part of this that I will focus on is the simple reality that when you seek to love someone, you enjoy who they are in all their quirks and personality. Lacking love can cause a leader to identify their favorites in the community and become annoyed with others. This type of leadership does not enjoy people based on their gospel identity of being a part of a Christ-centered community, but on what their contributions are to the community.

To lead well, love like Christ has loved us, enjoying our presence because He chose to and because He embodied love. Enjoy the people you find yourself with, not matter how different, or in your mind challenging, they can be. You’re (translate: I’m) just as challenging to others in the community.

Every one of us longs to be in friendship, relationship with a group of people who knows us and still values us after knowing us. We long for every relationship to be as if it were Christ. Someone that loves us because they choose to and even endures with us our quirks, flaws, and failings.

A gospel-centered community on mission like this is possible, but it desperately needs leaders who have been loved well by God to love their community well.

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To Lead Well, Be Faithful

Most people assume leadership involves a lot of activity, doing amazing and monumental things or accomplishing many tasks. When we look at leaders, they seem to be incredibly busy and while leadership naturally lends itself to more activity, the only way to ever lead well is through faithfulness. Whether it’s in a company, your family, and in ministry, faithfulness lends itself to good leadership.

Michael Hyatt recently wrote an article titled “3 Reasons Why Faithful is the New Radical” speaking to leaders who desire to be radical. This is especially true of those of us in the Missional Community world who long to see gospel-centered movements. I loved what he had to say,

By and large millennial Christians want offer lives in service to God and others by offering new and creative solutions. This is good.

But if I could speak a word of caution, from one rabble-rouser to another, I would say that sometimes the most radical thing you can do with your life is to simply be faithful.

Yes, you heard that right. By consistently doing the same thing every single day you might be more radical than you think. I know that doesn’t sound very sexy, but it’s the stuff that gives weight to significant social movements.

1 Corinthians 4:2 says that God holds his people accountable, not for the big splashy things they’ve done, but for simple faithfulness:

In this regard, it is expected of managers that each one [of them] be found faithful. (1 Corinthians 4:2, HCSB)

He goes on to share 3 reasons why faithfulness is so key. As I read it, it reminded me of what we ask of our leaders in our Community Groups. As people approach leadership in our Community Groups, we want to be clear to them that our greatest expectation of them is faithfulness. When we speak of faithfulness, it starts with faithfulness to God and then extends to specific people in your life.

Here are 3 reasons why we look for and expect faithfulness from our leaders.

Being Faithful Starts Before Leading

If people aren’t faithful before they start leading, they won’t be faithful while leading. We’ve taken risks on people thinking they would be faithful once they started leading and it simply wasn’t true. This is the clear pattern of scripture as well.

Jesus was faithful to God and faithful to his parents long before He comes on the scene and is baptized. He lived a sinless life, perfectly obedient to God and He remained faithful as He led His movement to the cross and beyond. Faithfulness in leadership is mirroring the character of Christ to those you lead.

In the Old Testament, David is faithful as a shepherd before he ever becomes a king. He lived in obscurity faithfully tending and protecting his sheep and his faithfulness there prepared him to fight Goliath and eventually become a great king.

His kingdom eventually suffers because of his lack of faithfulness to his role and to God. Faithfulness to tasks is one aspect of leadership, but spiritual leadership for Community Groups hinges on the leader’s faithfulness to God.

Faithfulness to God is True Success

All leaders want to be successful in leadership, but we consistently remind our leaders that God’s success is the result of abiding in faithfulness to God. Christ instructs His disciples in John 15 to abide with Him and bear much fruit.

In the missional community discussion, it can be easy to attempt to measure success in terms of people added to the community, service to the community, and in multiplying the community. These are all good things, but if they lack faithfulness to God, the community will likely suffer. God clearly desires devotion to Him over activity apart from dependence on Him.

While subjective in nature, success as gospel faithfulness can be easily seen in the results of confidence in the gospel and greater love for people.

Faithfulness to People helps a Community Thrive

There are certain people who have been placed in our lives closer than others. They could be family, friends, co-workers, or neighbors, but they seem to interact in our world with more frequency than others. When Paul preaches his sermon in the Aeropagus, he indicates that this is no accident, that it is in fact the design of God so that others and we would know Him.

Understanding this allows leaders and communities to be faithful directly where they are placed and directly with people who are placed there as well. This can decrease the strain on relationships for many of us and I’ve noticed that a thriving community results from the faithfulness of leaders to the people who are right in front of them.

Our Community Groups seek to care for one another and their neighbors. This could be a daunting task unless they understand being faithful to who God has placed in their midst. This lets them identify and meet the tangible physical and spiritual needs for one another and their neighbors easier by focusing on specific people.

Faithfulness builds on itself and expands the capacity of the leaders as their influence grows. We can’t be certain what the future has for our lives or our leadership, but we can be faithful with what we’ve been given. Whether it is a job we don’t enjoy, money, or friendships, learning to be faithful with what we have will allow us to be faithful when we have more.

Great leaders are faithful leaders.

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Missional Community Holes

Obviously I’ve written a lot about missional communities lately, but it must be recognized that missional communities have holes. They don’t solve every problem in the church despite reflecting the nature of Christian community described in the scriptures.

The brilliant Todd Engstrom talks about seeing the church as both a collection of missional communities and as a missional community collectively. It’s an absolutely essential way to recognize how to supplement missional communities in order for the gospel of Jesus to thrive throughout a church.

Here are 4 of the major holes for Missional Communities that I see. I do not pretend this is comprehensive as I surely have blind spots and you don’t want to read a 3 page blog despite my typical long-winded nature.

What Missional Communities are Unable to Accomplish by Themselves

Theological Training

Missional Communities are not intended to be a Bible Study. Bible studies are useful, but too often end on knowledge rather than a community on mission. Missional communities don’t abandon the scriptures, they must be word-centered (Bible-focused) in their approach to encouraging and challenging one another and extending the scriptures to those who are seeking to understand Christ for the first time.

But they are unable to provide the depth of scriptural theology that can often empower people to love fellow Christians appropriately, become contributors instead of consumers, and have a life that matches their beliefs.

There is a need then to supplement missional communities with theological training and bible studies. The important thing to consider is how these training environments and bible studies propel the gospel communities on mission rather than operate in contrast to them. Similar to a Sunday worship gathering, these environments must include inspiration toward missional community and application as a community to truly supplement and propel the gospel through a community on mission.

Christian Counseling

Missional Communities are not intended to be a support group. They provide and promote aligning with the gospel in our everyday lives, they remind us of the goodness of God over the allure of tempting vices, and they help us see where the scriptures address various sins in our lives.

But they are unable to provide the depth of counseling that can often be needed for marriages, pre-marital counseling, grief counseling, deep-rooted issues from the past and even in some cases counseling through addictions.

This doesn’t mean that every church should have a counseling center (though it would be cool to be based in a church and not outside the church), but it will mean that churches must do their due diligence to partner with Christian counselors who understand the mission of the church. For many churches, this has given rise to redemption groups.

Discipleship

While this is definitely the intent of missional communities, transitioning a church to missional communities will not automatically solve the need for discipleship. Discipleship must be modeled and eventually will take place inside of a missional community.

So this as a hole is a little deceiving as they eventually will be the places where discipleship happens most regularly. But discipleship is a church culture issue and not merely a community issue. Community is one aspect of discipleship, but discipleship must occur from the top down as Jesus models for us for it to truly take root in an entire community.

Transitioning or starting with a missional community approach will not insure discipleship, discipleship happens with thoughtful intent with the aim toward cultivating disciple-making disciples.

Family Equipping

While I completely advocate for families to welcome young marrieds and singles to take part in and own the discipleship of their children in a missional community, it must be stated that equipping parents as the primary disciple makers is essential.

Missional communities assist and relieve the parents-only burden as the only Christian influencers of their children, but the church has a responsibility to cast a vision and equip families from pregnancy to graduation and beyond. Parenting brings out the deep-rooted fears, concerns, and desire for comfort that often plagues every individual and impedes the ability for a community to be on mission.

A family equipping model looks to empower parents to disciple their children while providing age-appropriate peer community to also be on mission within their schools and extending the grace of the gospel to their classmates and friends.

What Missional Communities Can Accomplish

Now before we begin to outsource all of these holes, we must acknowledge that gospel communities on mission can do more than we think in all of these areas. This is because of the nature of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

The gospel transforms our entire lives, giving us new thoughts, desires and a new understanding of the scriptures. We become empowered with the Holy Spirit of God dwelling inside of us to grasp the truth of the scriptures, apply to our lives and once applied to our lives, we begin to grasp how the gospel and the Bible can shape the lives of an entire community.

This enables us to provide more depth in our application of the bible and the gospel of Jesus Christ to our lives. This enables us to counsel people and exhort people away from the destructive patterns of sin in our lives. This enables us to become the disciple-makers that Jesus models and sends us to be. This enables us to be gospel-centered parents and families through the wisdom of the Word of God and the community.

We can too often sell short the work of God in our lives by not acknowledging the gospel as the power of God. If it’s powerful enough to bring people from death to life, it is powerful enough to grow us deep in knowledge, zeal, and life application. It is powerful enough to let us hear and empathize with the sins of others and instead of recoiling back, enabling us to enter into the challenge of helping them overcome their sin.

This is why I love the gospel so much. To enjoy the gospel with an entire community is to ignite a desire deep within Christians to embody Christ through our entire lives. When the gospel shapes a community, there is no greater expression of love.

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How my boys teach me what incarnational means

These are my teachers. They’re pretty cute and pretty cool. They’ve taught me about the love of God, my desire for control, to love others without conditions, my lack of patience and lately, they’ve taught me what incarnational means.

The idea of being a missional community relies heavily on understanding and modeling the incarnation of Jesus. The incarnation is Jesus coming down from heaven and being embodied in the flesh as a man. To be incarnational is to embody Jesus to your neighbor, your co-worker or your neighborhood through His love, mercy, and truth. Great concept, but often hard to practically live out or even explain.

Luckily I have some good (and cute) teachers. This last weekend my wife went on our church’s women’s retreat and spoke beautifully on wisdom. This meant a dad weekend with me and our 3 kids.

We all remember those times when mom left and dad took care of us (prayed we wouldn’t die). You never really left the house unless it was to get fast food and you did everything mom wouldn’t let you do just as long as everything was put somewhat back together before mom got home.

I decided to do one twist on this idea and take my kids to Madison Square Park’s playground and then Shake Shack. A great idea by all accounts, except a NYC public playground in a city center park is asking for 50 “did my kid just disappear” heart stopping moments with so many people there. But we went, we survived and we enjoyed Shake Shack.

While at the playground, my boys kept begging me to come play their game. I initially resisted because it’s their game, I’m an adult (or try to be). Adults on NYC playgrounds sit on benches, dads focus on their phone, and make sure their kids don’t get lost or hurt other kids. Don’t these kids know we are too busy with email, twitter & keeping up with March Madness?!?

Nevertheless they kept asking me to join them, so I did. I climbed onto the playground and participated in their game in the part of superhero or villain depending on the moment. I was having a lot of fun and laughing with them and I looked up to see what was going on around the rest of the playground and that’s when it hit me.

I saw parents on park benches resting, talking on their phones or typing out emails and texts. Nothing wrong with what they were doing but I was experiencing something better.   My sons had invited me off the sidelines and into the game. It struck me that this must be what incarnational really means.

It’s a step out of what is comfortable to join in someone else’s life, to be a participant in their life, enjoy getting to know them and laughing a lot, but sometimes crying with them. In doing so, it’s naturally displaying how Jesus lived in this world. Agreeing to meals, stepping away from the religious sidelines, and into the game of someone else’s life. Loving someone else over your plan or your own needs because that is what Christ has done for you.

Jesus rejoiced with those who were rejoicing and mourned with those who mourned and everything in between. God’s people get to experience this kind of love from God to extend this kind of love in placing value on others rather than just themselves. It’s simply loving others as people, letting them into your life as they let you into theirs.

In being invited to play on the playground and accepting, I learned that putting aside my preferences, my comfort, and a little of my reputation was worth it for the joy of experiencing life with my boys. Incarnational sounds challenging in concept to fully embody Jesus to others, but in the end it’s a joy for you just as it is for others.

Like I said, they are great teachers.

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Pursuing Prayerful Mission

How does a church become missional?

This seems to be the question that many churches are asking, wondering how a church moves from inwardly focused to externally focused, moving from simply loving one another to extending the love of Christ to the world.

A predominant response is to swing the pendulum from a consistent focus on community to a consistent focus on mission. It’s logical, but it does not address the problem. The Christian’s difficulty in extending the message and mercy of Christ is not because they haven’t heard the challenge to do so or they haven’t heard it enough. It’s a gospel problem.

The Christian either has a half understanding of the gospel of Jesus Christ or the gospel of Jesus Christ is not the most valuable thing in their life. We talk about, proclaim, and bore people to death about the things we think are most valuable and the things we treasure. This is partly because we spend most of our time learning about, thinking about, and growing our affections for what we value. Whether that is your kids, your singleness, your job, your hobby, and your cat; what you value most, you will talk about most. It becomes the thing that shapes your life and becomes a definer of who you are.

Since this is true, the church must focus on Gospel Enjoyment first and foremost. The only way to awaken a Christian and an entire Christian community to extend the love of Christ is for them to know and cherish the gospel of Jesus Christ most. It is most valuable, the best news, and until it becomes the definer of life for the church, evangelism, mercy & justice and any other missional activity will be motivated by duty and lack a natural expression.

In assisting our communities to pursue Prayerful Mission (Prayerfully seeking to renew all things with the message and mercy of Jesus Christ), we bring their attention back to the gospel. To love what is most lovely and to value Christ above all things. From there, we look to Christ to see how He instructed His disciples to be missional.

Pray

At the end of Matthew 9, Jesus speaks the famous phrase, “the harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few” that has been used to motivate people to go, but Christ quickly follows that with instructions to pray. Not only that, but His motivation to pray came from a compassion after seeing large crowds of people. He loved them so much that He begged His disciples to pray before He then sends them out in Matthew 10.

The church can easily see the mission is great, there are many who do not know the gospel of Jesus Christ. But how often does it motivate us to pray? We must become a praying people if we are ever to be a missional people.

Gospel Explanations come from Gospel Motivations – Evangelism

One of the things the great JR Vassar says often is that a life motivated by the gospel leads to a life explained by the gospel. Gospel explanations stem from gospel motivations. This needs to become our understanding of evangelism.

While there is nothing inherently wrong with handing out tracks and street preaching, the most common form of evangelism is people sharing why they live the life they live.

When this happens, whether you’re a Christian or not, you are evangelizing.

For our communities, we try to help them process how the gospel defines their approach to their home life, their work life, the way they spend time and money, along with other things. This is why an intentional community that counsels with the gospel is so essential.

In equipping our communities, we encourage them to recognize receptive opportunities that are already in their lives. We do this to move mission from a “this happens somewhere else” mentality to a “this happens in the everyday” mentality. When Jesus sends His disciples, he encourages them to spend time with the most receptive, so it becomes helpful for us to evaluate where we live, work, and spend our time to see if God has already provided opportunities for us to share our gospel-motivated lives.

The Gospel through Mercy

A few years ago, I only thought of the gospel as a spiritual reality to extend to people through a message. But in re-reading the gospels and the epistles along with Ministries of Mercy by Tim Keller, I was confronted that I had a limited view of the gospel. Christ came not just to heal people spiritually, but to address the physical, emotional, social, and spiritual brokenness in our world.

He is doing this through a community defined by the gospel. We partner with Hope For New York to join non-profits in serving our city, but we also encourage creative compassion to the neighborhoods where our communities exist. This has led to people surprising their local parks through joining clean-up projects and even establishing a non-profit to serve foster children in NYC.

Extending the mercy of Christ to tangible needs coupled with a gospel explanation is a powerful display of who Jesus is through a community that loves Him.

Multiplying Disciples and Communities

This brings us back to the gospel in asking what is the final goal. The final goal that starts with the gospel is to see more disciples and more communities that seek the renewal of all things with the message and mercy of Jesus Christ. We prepare the people at Apostles Church that they won’t be in the same Community Group forever because Jesus and His mission is most valuable.

This frees us from dependence on community – though we never neglect or stop loving those we initially establish community with – to then extend a new creation of a community to those outside the community. For us, we see this as a proclamation that Jesus is even better than our closest friendships.

But none of this happens without the gospel of Jesus Christ becoming primary in our lives. We could explain this and attempt to exhort people to mission all day, but only the gospel provides the freedom and the joy to extend the message and mercy of Jesus Christ to everyone.

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Filed under Community Groups, Missional Communities, Small Groups

A Vision for Gospel Communities on Mission

This past Saturday our church had a Covenant Membership class where we explain how the story of God and the gospel of Jesus Christ define our vision and mission as a church. It’s an opportunity to become a partner on ministry committed to caring for our community as our community commits to caring for you.

Each time we have this class I have the opportunity to share the vision for Community Life and explain what we are asking for from Covenant Members in Community Groups. I started my portion differently this past Saturday. I asked about people’s experience or views of a Christian community and then I asked the most important question.

What should a Christian community be most passionate about?

The answers ranged from the bible to community to social justice. I mentioned last week that mission or community should not take center stage, but that the gospel of Jesus Christ should always be of first and foremost importance.

This shapes the way our church approaches forming missional communities, which we call Community Groups.

Leading with Gospel Enjoyment

It’s one thing to know and give vocal agreement to the gospel being primary for Christians, but it never happens unless you really love the gospel. You only live for what you love. When you enjoy something you reorient your entire life around it. Why do we treat Jesus and His gospel different?

Our core values are Gospel Enjoyment, Intentional Community, & Prayerful Mission, but they all start and are maintained by gospel enjoyment. Gospel Enjoyment is centering on and celebrating the finished work of Jesus Christ. In Matthew 22, Jesus says the greatest commandment is love God with our heart, soul, mind, and strength. He then follows that with the command to love our neighbor as ourselves.

In the gospel of Jesus Christ, we are called to value what is most valuable. We are shown that Jesus Christ is the only perfect Savior who died the death we deserved to die because we couldn’t live the perfect life. We are forgiven of our sins and no longer defined by our mistakes and failures, but defined by Jesus’ success in the eyes of God.

This moves us to celebrate Jesus and to value Him above all else in every aspect of our lives, not just in our Sunday best while singing songs. This freedom from our past mistakes and freedom to live without the burden of perfection results in us loving people who share our faith and loving those who do not share our faith. It leads us to love the lovely and the lowly because it declares that God has loved us enough to die for us. Our response is to extend that love back to God through living sacrificially for others inside a community and with that community to be on mission with the message and mercy of Jesus Christ.

In the Book of Acts chapter 2, the first gospel is preached and the response of the community that hears this and believes is to be devoted to God through the Apostles teachings, devoted to one another through shared resources, space, and life and to be devoted to invite others into this community every day.

This passage, along with other scriptures, shapes our core values and leads to some key convictions that shape our community life.

Leading to Clear but not Mandatory Convictions

Starting with Gospel Enjoyment also guides our convictions, which shape many of the practical ways we approach Community Groups. We speak of 3 convictions that shape the practicals; Proximity over Affinity, Rhythms over Events, and Incorporating Children. I’ll expand on each of these in their own blog posts, but explain them briefly here.

Proximity over Affinity

Since Gospel Enjoyment is our primary value, our Community Groups gather in their local neighborhoods with a focus on the gospel, not on their affinity. Seeing the gospel as the definer of our identity, we don’t gather around life stage, industry, or mission when we organize our Community Groups.

We seek to be Community Groups that reflect their local neighborhood and seek to love their neighbors. Gathering around the gospel being expressed to a local neighborhood challenges our communities to seek the spiritual and physical welfare of their neighbors. They extend the gospel through serving their neighborhood as well as sharing the gospel.

Rhythms over Events

My initial understanding of church when I started going at 13 was Sunday morning worship and Sunday school followed by Wednesday night youth group. This led to viewing church as an event to attend, the time where you worshipped Jesus, clocked in your Christian time and the rest of the week you could live for the American dream. This event-based Christianity opposes the gospel of Jesus Christ shaping all of life.

Our Community Groups are encouraged to become a family instead of a weekly meeting through using their spiritual gifts and creating community rhythms throughout each week. Proximity even enables and encourages this type of community living and sharing their life with one another.

Incorporating Children

Our Community Groups include children when they consider who is a part of the community. They are included in the people who need to be cared for, shown Christ, and called to serve in the community. Children are always seen as a challenge with community life in churches because they can quickly double or triple the number of people in the community.

Our hope is that our communities express our church as the family of God. Whether your single, married, or have kids, we desire for you to experience a family, but also we recognize our families need a community committed to loving their children to thrive.

These convictions guide the majority of our approach to Community Groups, but they are not mandatory. We recognize the value of men’s only and women’s only Community Groups and are open to people starting Community Groups in their workplace or with a specific mission.

We see the strong encouragement from scripture to gather in your neighborhood around the gospel of Jesus Christ to enjoy and extend this gospel through word and deed.

Over the next couple of weeks I’ll expand on how our Community Groups seek to practically embody our core values and how we came to these key convictions. I’d love for you to comment, challenge, and add your communities approach.

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Remembering when I hated missional communities

The next month for me will be pretty much consumed with this idea of Missional Communities. Not only is it my job as a pastor, but I will be attending the Verge Conference at the end of February, which should be worth it. So over the next month I’m hoping to describe my experience with missional communities and our churches approach to being a gospel-centered community on mission to love and serve each other and our city.

This past Sunday, we started the first of 3 open invitation Community Group trainings, this one focused on Gospel Enjoyment, with the aim to provide equipping to anyone in our church to be an effective part of and eventually lead a Community Group.

I started out with my story of encountering missional communities and absolutely hating it.

My wife and I had just finished the 2nd year of leading a college community group at our church. I was part of the leadership team for the college ministry and our church had decided to transition from community groups to missional communities. One of my first interactions with this idea was that missional communities are NOT a small group, a bible study, a support group, a social activist group or a weekly meeting.

Everything I’ve just done for 2 years is wrong?

What I heard from that, though it was not intentional, was that everything I had done for the last 2 years was wrong. We had led a bible study during our community group, we had seen people come to faith in Christ, people sacrifice for one another, people prayed for and healed, and a community formed that loved one another well.

So I initially hated the idea, I thought it would destroy communities instead of enhance communities. I had to understand this idea more and had to figure out scripturally what God calls us to as a community who believes that Jesus Christ died for our sins and rose from the grave.

Let the Research Begin

I started with Forgotten Ways by Alan Hirsch, Organic Church by Neil Cole, and Church Planting Movements by David Garrison. I’m not smart enough for Alan, I understood Neil’s angst against the institutional church, and was encouraged by David Garrison’s descriptions of what God was doing around the world.

But honestly I was left asking what it practically meant. It wasn’t until I picked up Total Church by Steve Timmis & Tim Chester, read the book of Acts about 10 times and learned more about The Crowded House and Soma Communities that I began to grasp what missional communities could really be.

Total Church does an amazing job of laying the groundwork for how the gospel of Jesus Christ defines a community of believers. In the gospel we are invited into the family of God to be a blessing as the family of God, to enjoy a loving, Christ exalting community and then to extend it to our world.

This was helpful in stepping off of the reactionary pendulum that pointed to mission as lacking and tried to over-correct at the cost of community. At the same time it brought me away from community as the purpose of the church to the neglect of mission. It pointed to Jesus as the center of all things (just like the Bible does) and outlined how community and mission flow from a right understanding and embracing of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Not Wrong, But Incomplete

This process helped me realize that our Community Group that we had led was great and God used it in mighty ways, but it was incomplete.

We had been based in the scriptures to know Jesus, we had loved one another really well, caring for each other’s needs and serving one another. These college kids were helping raise our son, they were finding their identity solely in Christ and seeking to honor Him with their school, their work, and all of their lives. They were getting engaged and married; a few were coming to faith, prayers were being answered, it was a joyful community.

But we were not consistently seeking to extend our community to those who disagreed with us or to those who were in the midst of broken lives and truly needed the mercy of Christ. We were missing how the gospel propels a community toward loving our friends, family, coworkers, and neighbors as Jesus had loved us.

I could not be more thankful for wrestling through this, for the patience of my pastors at the time, and for their continued investment in me as I processed my disagreements.  I went from hating missional communities to embracing, promoting and seeking to live it out and help others do the same, not because of how special a method is, but because of how gospel-centered it is. The gospel of Jesus Christ is the only thing that changes us.

I learned much from watching The Austin Stone transition to missional communities and continue to learn much as our Community Groups at Apostles Church do the same.

Tomorrow and Thursday I plan on expanding on how a missions-first focused community or a community-first focused community misses the gospel and misses the opportunity to display Jesus to their community.

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Filed under Church Life, Community Groups, Missional Communities, Small Groups