Long-time missional community leader Doug Paul lists ten sure-fire ways to ruin the mission before it even starts.
As a quick reference, a missional community (MC) is a group of 20 to 50 people on mission together to a specific mission context. Now, 10 reasons why missional communities fail:
1. The missional community leader doesn’t know how to disciple the other leaders in the MC.
This can result in a few different outcomes. For example, the missional community becomes the warped version of the culture they are trying to bring the Kingdom into. The leader doesn’t know how to disciple people to be missionaries to a culture, therefore they never truly learn how to be “in the world but not of it.” Because of that, they are more influenced by the culture than redeeming the culture they find themselves in. In this case, there is a lot more cultural relevance than there is Jesus.
The missional community becomes a very religious space and is all about who is in and who is out. Doctrine is used as a weapon of defense and not something that helps to describe the reality of God’s Kingdom. People who don’t know Jesus find the MC the equivalent of running into a brick wall. In this case, there is a lot more law than there is Jesus.
When people become Christians, there is no one to disciple them, as neither the missional community leader or the other leaders in the group know how to disciple people. New believers become stagnant, the life they were told about in the Gospel never comes to fruition, and they become disenfranchised and divisions within the MC start to occur.
2. Lack of a clear mission vision.
Every single missional community could say, “We exist to love God, love people and serve the world.” The point of a missional community is to find a crack or crevice of society where there is a lack of Gospel presence and form a Jesus community in that particular crack/crevice. It’s not generic, it’s specific. But if you never truly identify the place God has called you to (either a neighborhood or network), or if you don’t do the things necessary to incarnate the Gospel in those places, it’ll be very difficult to sustain, grow or multiply the MC.
For example, one of the MCs I’ve worked with was a missional community that focused on artists. In this case, the mission vision was very clear: reach out to artists. However, this particular group of people in the burgeoning MC were also VERY eclectic (and I mean that as a sincere compliment), and many of the things they commonly enjoyed weren’t necessarily artistic, but eclectic. What the MC ended up doing was many activities that eclectic people would have liked, but artists wouldn’t, so they never really grew by adding artists.
At the same time, the eclectic friends they had were never terribly interested in the community because it was stated that it was for artists … but they weren’t artists. So neither artists nor eclectic people found a family within this MC. In this case, the leader needed to decide: Does this group exist for artists or for eclectic people? Because it can’t be both. And because of that, the group found itself stuck in the middle, unable to grow or gain momentum.
3. Launching with too few people.
One critical mistake many missional communities make (and I’ve made several times) is launching with less than 15-20 people in the core group as they are starting the new MC. Why, you may ask? Because a missional community needs to exist as an extended family of 20-50 people, living in the social dynamics of a group that size. The reason mission works so well with this size group is that new people who don’t know Jesus are welcome to hang out, observe, form relationships, but they can also be semi-anonymous if they choose.
Because of the number of people, they don’t feel uncomfortable if they don’t fully participate or are simply in observation mode when the “family” has spiritual time together. There is a certain gravitational pull to these group dynamics; it really brings people in. However, if you have fewer than 15 people, you’ll almost inevitably default to the social dynamics of a small group 6-12 people), where it’s very personal, everyone shares, and is very inward focused. That’s not terribly comfortable for someone who doesn’t know Jesus! We’ve found that at 15 people, there is a shift in these dynamics.
The last thing I’d say on this is that it is possible to get around this in probably two scenarios: If the leader of the group is an outstanding people gatherer. In other words, they could start a missional community with six people and next week there would be 25 people there … they just have a gift. They are one of the few exceptions to this rule. Or if you have a veteran missional community leader who has done a few MCs, has seen them grow and multiply and truly knows what they are doing. They have learned to steer and navigate the social dynamics of an extended family even when there aren’t enough people to comprise an extended family.
4. The missional community isn’t part of a larger, worshiping body.
Church plants might be able to get around this (though in many cases they can’t either), but the reality is that life on the missional frontier isn’t easy. It’s incredibly exciting, an amazing adventure, and it’s worth every ounce of prayer and effort you put into it, but it really is hard. Because of that, it’s really important that missional communities regularly cycle into a worship service with a larger group of people (more than 75 people) at least once a month (but no more than three times a month) to be reminded they are part of a bigger story, to hear how God is working in places other than just theirs, to hear teaching/preaching for the wider community, to take the sacraments together, and to worship with one, unified voice.
Another way of putting it: The scattered church gathers in order to scatter. Even another way of putting it: We gather together so mission is sustainable. Missional communities that operate alone will eventually wither and fall off the vine because it’s generally too hard to sustain apart from a wider community.
5. Missional community leaders who aren’t held accountable.
MCs are built on the principle of “Low Control/High Accountability.” If your leaders aren’t willing to be held accountable, this is a spiritual problem (i.e. also a discipleship issue) and it will come back to bite you. Missional communities aren’t the place you want the rebellious renegades of the church leading. The mission is simply too important. If they refuse to be held accountable in whatever leadership accountability system you have, don’t let them be a missional community leader. Eventually, whatever is toxic in them that refuses to let them submit to someone in authority will eek out into the rest of the group and the toxicity will spread. Be clear on what accountability looks like, what those rhythms look like, what the expectations are, and make sure you follow through on these expectations as the person holding them accountable.