As a practitioner of missional communities, I am often asked, "What is the difference between a missional community and _____ (small group, Bible study, etc.)?"
Before I dive into distinctions, let me provide the definition I use for a missional community:
A community of Christians, on mission with God, in obedience to the Holy Spirit, who demonstrate the gospel tangibly and declare the gospel creatively to a pocket of people.
Perhaps the most critical portion of the definition practically is the idea of "a pocket of people"—a missional community is intentionally focused on those who aren't believers. Missional community is intentionally focused on those outside the church.
Before I make some folks upset, it's also important for me to note that gospel-centered communities on mission come with many different names. While I think language is important, I've found there are many small groups, community groups, and Bible studies that look a lot like what I call missional communities. The distinctions I point out in this article are meant to challenge predominant methods of practicing community in many American evangelical churches.
Missional Communities vs. Community Groups
One of the greatest needs in many churches is "community." Pastors talk about the value of it, tell people they need it, and provide lots of ways for people to engage it. As I have connected people, I find they're mostly seeking friendships that will spur them towards Christ. That desire is good and godly . . . I want the same thing!
The danger in the church aiming for community, though, is that it typically becomes the destination. Once relationships have been established, and the need for friends has been met, that's the way a community group stays. Community groups love to spend time together and have rich friendships, and the concept of "doing life" together is easy and appealing.
But these kinds groups often struggle because they lack the imperative of mission. They meet and live in community but do not engage in missionary activity. Once more appealing friendships or changes in life circumstances occur, a community group often dies out.
Community on this side of heaven isn't primarily about us though. Community is about God's glory being displayed to the world. Jesus clearly explains that the purpose of Christian unity and community is so that the world would know God the Father sent Jesus to this earth in John 17:21-24.
Missional communities are different in that they primarily see the purpose of their friendship, love, and unity to be an apologetic for the gospel to their neighbors. Community isn't the only purpose of the group, but community has the purpose of mission.
In my experience, a community group needs to be hard pressed with the truth of the gospel and the imperative of disciple making. Their need is not so much practical as it is sin rooted deep in their heart. This sin masquerades as many different things, but collectively a community group must see the greatness of the gospel and the joy found in following Jesus to seek out those far from God.
Practically, I have found that training a group like this together is crucial. They often will not make a transition collectively if you only train them as individuals. This is the primary reason we train whole communities together at The Austin Stone.
Missional Communities vs. Bible Studies
Many of us have been a part of a Bible study at some point in our Christian lives. Typically, these groups read the Bible for a set period of time on a specific day of the week. Bible studies are often great things, but they don't constitute a Christian community in its entirety.
So what's the difference? The short answer is that a missional community is not a Bible study, but a missional community studies the Bible.
A Bible study is often defined by gathering for the event of learning. The individuals who compose a missional community are individually engaging God's Word on a daily basis—our church uses a tool we call Life Transformation Groups—and seeking to obey.
The distinction is primarily in expectations: a missional community expects that an individual is participating in the community to contribute something (1 Corinthians 14:26), whereas someone comes to a Bible study to consume something.
Certainly people need to study the Bible, but to study the Bible without engaging in authentic community on mission is a fool's errand. The purpose of studying the Bible is indeed to learn about God and conform us to the image of Christ, but it's also to equip us for the work of ministry in the church (community) and outside the church (mission).
If we desire compelling communities that foster obedience to the Bible, our community should be natural, neutral, and regular, in the pattern and rhythm of everyday life, not a one-hour, drive-through Bible study.
Practically speaking, most Bible studies need to think critically about how the information that they are studying affects their daily life AND specifically how they can share the good news of Christ's life, death, and resurrection with their friends and neighbors. Transitioning this kind of community requires gathering in different ways for different purposes.
Missional Communities vs. Small Groups
Small groups have been used in many great ways in the church over the last few decades. There are many different variations on small groups, but they are primarily groups of around 12 people who gather weekly together to connect, worship, study the Bible, and pray for one another. Often times they try to serve together in ministry within the church and in their city.
These groups often understand the centrality of the Bible, the need for community, and the purpose of the group beyond itself. I've had great experiences in this kind of group. But I've often found there is a significant struggle to invite others to join in, and it's often difficult to mobilize an entire group to do something outside the regular meeting.
In trying to balance a number of different objectives, small groups often struggle to produce mature disciples of Jesus and multiply into new communities. Why?
I think it is because success is still defined as attendance at an event, rather than events helping relationships become natural in the rhythms of everyday life. Small groups often try to do community and mission outside the normal routines of life by adding an event into the week, rather than redeeming everyday life with gospel intentionality and involving community into normal life.
A missional community understands the value of different kinds of gatherings. A missional community sees itself as a network of relationships with a common mission, rather than being defined by attending an event. Missional communities gather, but the gatherings have different purposes.
I have also found that often times a group will try different kind of gatherings outside of their regular meeting times (for example, Third Place, The Family Meal and LTG's) a couple times, then abandon them because they "didn't work." I work hard to teach them that these practices are not a magic bullet, but healthy rhythms that will produce more faithful communities over time.
Small groups begin to shift as people start to put into practice rhythms that enable them to hang out with their friends far from God in natural ways. When a small group has actual names of people to pray for and ask God to save, and those people start to show up in places with the community, they are headed in the right direction.
No community is perfect, but by the grace of God all communities can be more conformed to the image of Christ and be more faithfully used for God's purposes. Regardless of what category your community falls into, I hope you are challenged to think about how you can more intentionally be disciples together and make disciples of those who are far from God.
May God give us the grace to pursue the fullness of all he intended for our life together, and would we receive the joy of following Jesus and participating in the mission He has called us to!