Missional Communities vs. Community Groups
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!