8 essential lessons learned leading a missional community

Every now and then it’s important to take stock, to properly process lessons as they come and to celebrate all God does. So I’m writing this mainly for myself. Hopefully you may find some of this useful and/or thought provoking too.

Without further ado:

Lesson #1: Everything starts with prayer

I can’t emphasise the importance of prayer enough. If prayer is communion and communication, literally everything flows out of prayer. The universe, for instance, is the overflow of the constant communion of love flowing through the trinity, and through the communicated Word life came into being. The same is true now: life flows from the throne of God.

The 16th century scholar and Presbyterian minister Matthew Henry said “whenever God is about to do something truly great, He first sets His people a praying!”

In Diary of a Dangerous Vision, the unstoppable Andy Hawthorne puts it thus: “at the heart of every big move of God there seems to have been three things: sacrificial prayer, radical young people and new levels of unity.”

Books from the 24-7 prayer movement like Red Moon Rising and the followup Dirty Glory have been instrumental in shaping us. Right now none of the rooms in our house are suitable for use as a prayer room, and we feel much poorer for it. That’s one of the most important things we’re looking for in our new house.

Lesson #2: Start with what you have

And start with who you have.

So often when I’ve talked with people who are into starting out on the mission-community thing it’s sounded like they’ve been waiting for a telegram from heaven laying out THE DIVINE PLAN for their lives. They’re not hungry enough. God uses hungry people.

There’s a motto in Silicon Valley: “move fast and break things.” It’s a good mindset for overcoming dithering (so long as you’re not a delivery driver, surgeon or waiter). Just get a vision. Get the wrong vision if you need to, just get a vision and change it as you go. If God’s in it, the rest will follow.

Like a fire sucking in its own oxygen, a compelling vision draws its own resources. In fact, I believe there’s a special power available to us when we’re in a place of weakness, dependent on God. All the best miracles happen to people who need miracles.

“We are accustomed to doing things for God that are not impossible. If God doesn’t show up and help us, we can still succeed. There must be an aspect of the Christian life that is impossible without divine intervention.”
Bill Johnson

Lesson #3: Go through every open door

Jesus sent out his 12 disciples (and later 72 followers), strictly instructing them to not take their own supplies but to accept the hospitality of a person of peace. This is one big rule for mission, to accept every invite. The only time you perhaps shouldn’t is when either the Holy Spirit says “no” (Acts 16:7) or when it would be an ultra-risky situation for a weak disciple.

Truth is, God doesn’t start working in someone’s life when we turn up. The doctrine of prevenient grace says that before anyone turns to Jesus, God has been “prevening”, pre-working, wooing them to Himself. God’s already at work in everyone’s lives, it’s our job to find out what He’s up to and join Him in it. I have a suspicion you’d be surprised how many “non-religious” people say they’ve had spiritual experiences. When we meet them it’s our job to simply name the God they’ve encountered.

Jesus brought the party at Cana, and we should be party people too. The common people loved to have him round. Maybe if you and I were more like Jesus we’d get accused of being too friendly with sinners, like he was.

Lesson #4: Always ask “why”

Or “why not?”

We all start with a paradigm, a perspective, an expectation of how things should be done. Thank God for influences and traditions, I’m quoting many in this post. However, seeking first the kingdom of God is partly about seeking God’s new way of living, establishing His new normal on earth. That means we should ask ourselves what’s God’s normal, as opposed to our inherited normal?

There’s nothing better for starting something new than asking a new question. Question your assumptions right from the start. Get serious about the basics.

Firstly, the basics of the gospel: the deep love of God, our deep need for God, what the cross is all about, repentance, baptism, salvation through faith alone, what it means to be a disciple. That’s a little starter.

Secondly, the basics of church. What’s God’s idea of church? Why does it exist? What’s God’s unique call to us, as a church in our context?

There’s really nothing better for this than holding a regular bible study in which you thrash things through together. Make it a priority, and do it even if you’re the only person who goes.

Why is the most important question, and starting with purpose gives everything else a sense of vitality, vision and energy. “Well we’ve always done it this way” is a rubbish answer, never accept it.

Lesson #5: As you grow, seek to marry mission and community

What’s more important- mission or community? Or to put it another way: “who is my neighbour?” I think pitching mission and community against each other is a silly thing to do, because I have a sneaking suspicion that community done right will lead to mission, and mission done right will lead to community. That’s how all families reproduce: first the going forth, then the multiplying. Families (communities) grow children into fruitful adults (missionaries) who then produce families (communities), and so the dynamic continues.

Community without mission becomes listless, insular and dull. Mission without community becomes dry, loveless and tiring.

So do mission with a community flavour. As you reach out, be hospitable, invite people into your home. Be stupidly generous. Go to parties, be sociable and knock on neighbour’s doors to offer (or ask for) help.

Also do community with a missionary flavour. Structure your life together so that your community is as close to your mission field as possible. There are many ways you can move closer, including:

  • Physical proximity. This is one reason we prefer to have several small houses in an area than one large house at a distance: more neighbours.
  • Visibility: if you do church in your house, meet in the front room and keep your curtains open.
  • Sync the times you meet up with the availability of people you’re trying to reach out to
  • Make it normal rather than exceptional to meet in public places like pubs, cafes, parks
  • In church meetings make it a habit to pray for people you know who aren’t yet Christians

Lesson #6: If it’s a movement there will be cake

This doesn’t mean that if there’s cake you have a genuine movement, rather movements will always involve cake. Genuine movements are fully “owned” and there’s always room for everyone’s contribution, even if all they can do is bake a light chocolate cake (more, Lord!).

In a compelling blog post from 2012, an anonymous writer The Phantom Intercessor puts their anonymous fingers to their anonymous keyboard and types, describing a vision of church thusly:

“Stroke that brush and depict them sharing a meal. Someone makes some soup. Someone brings some bread and cheese. Sandwiches are made. A pretty cake appears, and someone else traipses through the door with homemade mint tea in hand.

Let’s paint this small crowd sharing this meal in the living room of a two-bedroom triplex located on the border of the impoverished and crime-ridden part of the city. Let’s paint a scene where the fifteen-year-old black kid leads the whole group in remembering Jesus’ great sacrifice by offering them a broken piece of a pita chip dipped in a glass of Coca-Cola. Stories are told from the week, stories of how the God who upholds the universe by the word of His Power invades each of their own little worlds.”

One measure of a good leader is how adept (s)he is at empowering other people’s gifts. The more what you’re doing is shaped by the characters and talents of your people, the more of a movement you have. The more people are forced to rigidly conform to a certain way of contributing, the more your potential for growth is restricted.

If someone can do something then act enthusiastic, celebrate it. Then go away and scratch your head furiously to work out how their gift can work with other people’s gifts to add to the wonderful diversity.

This is probably the lesson I need to relearn the most.

Lesson #7: Hold it with open hands

In an astonishing piece of prose called The Inner Spirit of the Cross, G.D.Watson describes the spirit of a person completely surrendered to God:

It can obey God and be rushing at full speed on lines of service and duty for Him, and then at the touch of God’s Providential air-brake, it can be brought to an instantaneous standstill without shaking the train to pieces by a single jar, or the least jostling of the will from its perfect repose in Jesus.

It is a flexible spirit, with no plans of its own. It can be turned by the finger of God in any direction without a moment’s warning.

A few years ago a friend of mine had a wisdom picture of someone building a wall with a trowel in one hand and a sledgehammer in the other. God was saying we should be flexible, always ready to knock down what we built yesterday and rebuild it according to the lead of the Spirit today.

Nothing we build should become an idol. Things don’t have to last forever.

This takes a constant to-and-fro between the throne room and the coalface, a rhythm of prayer, a constant “how are we doing, Father?” conversation.

Mature communities have a unique challenge: they’re “successful.” As things become established the temptation is to become more organised. Slowly the movement drive is replaced as maintenance becomes the mission. Faith is for times of risk, but we start to believe we know how it works.

I wrote on this in my post on Artificial Persecution. Jean Vanier also wrote about it too in Community and Growth, though his is far more convicting than mine.

Lesson #8: Did I mention prayer?

Prayer is a funny one. When we start praying earnestly good kingdom stuff always cracks off around us, and it’s hardly ever traceable to individual prayers. Sir William Temple said, “When I pray, coincidences happen, and when I don’t, they don’t.”

As a group we go through seasons. In one season we get stuck into outreach, in another we dig down into some meaty discipleship, in another we put a lot of effort into practical changes, but every time God tells us to re-prioritise prayer for a season we find ourselves thinking “oh yeah that’s how it works, I remember now. Why didn’t we think of this before?”

Focused prayer is a reset. In prayer we find ourselves refreshed and reconnected to the source of our purpose. We hear God. We get our joy back. Things start to make sense again.

I have a very simple maxim: “If you know what to do, you should do it. If you don’t know what to do, you should pray.” Actually, I think we should also pray when we do know what to do, but you get my drift.

Recap

  1. Everything starts with prayer
  2. Start with what you have
  3. Go through every open door
  4. Always ask “why”
  5. As you grow, seek to marry mission and community
  6. If it’s a movement there will be cake
  7. Hold it with open hands
  8. Did I mention prayer?

OK, I can die now.


This post was originally published on The House Thing blog.

 

If you’ve got to the end of this article and you’re thinking “yes, but…” or “no, because…” write your “yes but” or “no because” in the comments below.

Tree climber, pancake eater, kinda artist. Trying to keep up with Jesus. I enjoy writing, cooking and roadtrips with friends. At work I'm a webmaster, writer, video maker & creative coordinator thingamibob for Jesus Fellowship Church.

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