At the beginning of each new season of Community Groups at Apostles Church, we gather together as leaders to re-focus on the gospel and our core values while also highlighting important points of emphasis for the season. Back in January we gathered for 3 hours, had amazing conversation, shared a meal and communion with one another to start the year. It was a great beginning.
One of the things we discussed was the life cycle of a gospel-centered community on mission (missional community). Every living thing has a specific life cycle and it’s important to identify this for a Community Group so leaders don’t have false expectations throughout leading their community.
Every community goes through a time of formation, fun, messiness, mission, and multiplying.
This is the beginning of the community where developing relationships, vision, and a cohesive direction happen. It’s a crucial time, but it also takes longer than most people think.
Many leaders approach a new community thinking it will develop great relationships quickly and when the first few gatherings of the community turn out to be awkward, they’re confused. Communities typically take at least 3-6 months to form quality relationships and begin to care for one another well. There are some communities that form faster and some slower, but it generally takes about this much time.
This is the point where the community lays the foundation, vision, and future direction for the community. For missional communities, it is essential to begin with the understanding of and preparation for extending the gospel on mission and eventually multiplying. Each community must recognize that this will not be the last community they will be in and more than that, begin seeking to extend the community to others from day one.
The community takes this time to get to know one another, to work through the awkwardness, to begin bearing one another’s burdens, learning how to care for one another and extend the message and mercy of Christ together as a community.
After the community forms, there is usually a time period where things are pretty smooth and enjoyable. Relationships have been developed, depth of gospel conversations is happening, and the community is beginning to extend the gospel. This usually happens for a few months.
It is easy during this time for the leader to feel like the community is successful, but the community is about to face a new challenge that can feel like failure.
As a community is established on the foundation of the gospel of Jesus Christ, it will eventually face a season of messiness. This time of messiness happens when people begin to feel comfortable sharing the junk in their lives. Sins, past hurts, brokenness, and ongoing struggles begin to be confessed. Most leaders assume failure because hard things are being revealed and it’s not “picture perfect”, but messiness is actually the best sign of gospel health. Confused yet?
Messiness reveals that the community is actually founded on the gospel of Christ and not just merely liking one another. The gospel of Jesus Christ tells us that we are sinful, but we don’t have to make up for our sinfulness, mistakes, errors, and brokenness because Jesus did that for us through His perfect life, forgiving death on the cross, and life-giving resurrection from the dead. As the community continues to encouraged people to believe this for every area of their life, the people in the community begin to realize that freedom from the burdens of sin and brokenness is actually possible.
An opportunity to be rid of guilt and shame through confession and belief in the power of the gospel gives great comfort to people and lets them begin to share where their lives don’t match up with Christ’s life.
This is messy and this is good. This is how a community becomes empowered by the gospel, by letting the truths of Christ’s redemptive work transform the individuals within the community. Healthy mission follows healthy gospel transformation. If you want to know why your small group or church aren’t on mission, it’s because the gospel of Jesus Christ hasn’t been applied to the community yet. When the gospel is applied, sin is confessed, and people become delighted in Christ over themselves, mission follows naturally.
As the gospel of Christ is applied to the ordinary life of the community, the ordinary life becomes a place of a great mission. Mission as a community is extending the regular rhythm and life activities of the community to people’s neighbors, co-workers, and family. It’s opening the community to new people to let them experience a community shaped by the gospel.
This happens through meals together, gospel conversations over late nights, nights out together, family outings and every other “normal” activity that both the community and the local neighborhood participate in.
One side of mission that can be neglected by a missional community (to its own peril) is extending the mercy of Jesus Christ through social justice. The phrase social justice makes some people cringe, but Jesus was clear that His disciples would experience His salvation in such a way that they couldn’t help but care for the poor and the marginalized. Something powerful happens to a community that takes ownership of their neighborhood to the point of creative compassion to meet the needs of the neighborhood around them.
Mission is a time where the community continues to grow in their knowledge of God, His gospel, and their love for one another. The results are usually that the community grows in number and then it faces another challenge. Will the community multiply or will it decline?
As a community grows, it approaches a point where it either multiplies, creating another community or it begins to decline as a community. Becoming multiple communities is challenging, but remember in formation that this was planned and discussed. It doesn’t make it any easier though. If the community chooses to delay multiplying, they will see the community decline, the conversations begin to lack the gospel depth they once had and mission becomes harder with a larger community.
Most communities delay multiplication out of fear. They fear losing friends and relationships. Multiplying is never easy, but often results in the exact opposite of these fears. I’ve seen multiple communities where friendships deepened as a result of multiplying. While they no longer spent as much time together, their time together developed a quality in encouragement and care that they had not seen before placing the gospel mission before their relationships.
Following multiplication, the life cycle begins again for both communities. It can be a confusing and challenging time after experiencing great things in the original community, but eventually each community begins to see the same results of the gospel they had seen earlier.
While this is the typical life cycle of a missional community, some communities that are starting in brand new areas where there isn’t a gospel presence from their church community face a more challenging and longer process for developing as a community. Tomorrow, I’ll look at the challenges facing missional communities that are started in new areas and later in the week, I’ll look at the key components of the formation of a new missional community.
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