Our journey towards becoming a missional church across southeast Michigan has been filled with countless Aha moments. For me, one of the most transformative came when I was attempting to answer a question it seems that many are asking. Is there any way in our multi-campus (eight locations), multi-context (midtown Detroit to a town of less than 4,000) church to develop disciples of Jesus who properly balance a passion to grow with other disciples in a communal and family-centric environment while also engaging their community and culture with the gospel? For us, our traditional model of small groups hadn’t produced that balance. Like so many others churches coming to similar conclusions our small groups proved to be an ineffective catalyst toward producing a disciple-making movement. They weren’t helping people understand that foundational to our identity in Christ is the truth that we are missionaries—in the city, in the suburbs, in our rural towns, everywhere.
And then it hit me. Our people don’t live as missionaries because we haven’t organized them around mission. Instead, we organized them around felt needs and demographics. We prayed about mission. We talked about mission. It was always in our sermon action steps. But our whole disciple-making paradigm was built around knowledge and relationships with other Christ-followers. And while these are good and necessary things, we discovered that when our starting point is relationships, people rarely become missional. However, when the starting point is mission, then deep relationship almost always follows.
Let me unpack the practicality of this. How do we often organize people and ministry? In most settings, affinity and demographics are the rule. When we gather the whole community together everyone has their niche group. Kids go here. Students go there. Adults have their own space. Then, when we gather in smaller communities we break it down even further. Young marrieds. Seniors. Singles. Everyone gets what he or she wants, right? This works at building like-minded and life-stage friendships. This helps people feel comfortable. This can grow a church or a ministry numerically. But, rarely will it create a daily missional impulse in people that best reflects the life of Jesus.
Mission in these groups often becomes an event-driven once-a-month checklist occasion. And there is a deeper issue that emerges when relationship is the starting point. While this strategy helps people connect quickly, it also communicates that the church exists to primarily fulfill a person’s felt needs. In other words, it feeds consumerism. When a family or individual walks in and says, “What do you have for me?” Staff and volunteers intuitively assess age, gender, relationship status and whatever else so they can best place him or her in a group that will fill up felt needs. In other words, we offer them what they think they need. Even if the person connects into a great community and builds friendships, is this the best way to help develop a disciple who is learning to be like Jesus and do the things Jesus did? We might be unintentionally teaching our churches that the most important thing is that they are connected and happy. In this model, living on mission becomes something far less than a non-negotiable.
But, what if mission is our starting point? We found that when we organized people around a common geography, around a city or around a cause, we not only began to see them incarnate the gospel with more consistently, but they also ended up with exactly what they wanted… a place to belong and grow. The sticky point is trying to convince people that their felt needs will be met as they go on mission with others in community. Think about it this way. What happens when you send a group of relative strangers on a short-term mission experience together? Doesn’t the group’s common mission become the seed of deep relationship? And in a matter of days that unified mission ends with hugs, tears and a date to share dinner and pictures. Or, think about the choices Jesus made in choosing his disciples. Who would have ever thought a zealot, a tax collector and fishermen would have ever gotten along? Demographics weren’t what brought them together. It was the mission of their rabbi. When our friendships are built upon mission, then the gospel advances with power and focus. When our mission is built upon our friendships, we lose the motivation to actually go on mission because we’re content to simply enjoy our relationships. The moment our team began to unpack this reality we took a huge step toward building a discipleship culture that mobilizes people for mission.