This was originally posted on June 11, 2004 on the EmergentCHBC forum.
I've just finished a week of long meetings (pastors for two days and initiative leaders for a morning). An observation springs to mind that may relate to our initiative here —
In these meetings, we have continued to dialogue about the great hunger in our culture for community. Though sociologists have pointed out that most Americans choose "false communities" or "lifestyle enclaves" (yes, I'm still quoting "Habits of the Heart" after all these years) rather than true "communities."
The typical church response to communities is to demand small group participation. Brian McLaren says that feeding our hunger for community with small groups alone is like trying to feed an elephant by tossing it individual cheerios! I think Brian makes a great point.
Over the years, other pastors around the country and I have noticed that some "small groups" grow in numbers well beyond the normal expectations of a typical small group and actually become communities. These groups can operate as self-defined entities and generally separate from the ministry/church that birthed them in the first place. In this manner, they can become non-missional (not accessible to others in the sending body and non-supportive of the key needs of the sending body) and also unshepherded (their needs and issues are unknown to the sending body). Sometimes they resist (I'm speaking very generally here not only from experience but the experience of other pastors in other fellowships) entreaties for training and guidance from church leadership. Why?
One reason — I believe we treat these communities like small groups. Regardless of the original intention, these groups have become communities. With small groups, one talks about "leaders," "teachers," "regular division," and "organizational plans". But this language seems highly inappropriate for communities. For example, you don't ask communities to divide or split (or at least one does so with measurable thought and circumstance).
What are the real challenges? I believe one real challenge is to help communities remain missional to the larger community. By missional, I don't mean finding ways to serve. What it means is to help these groups become sources of input, guidance, and servanthood for the kingdom goals of the larger community. After all, it is the kingdom goals of the larger community that are intended to help communities "stay on track" and reciprocally larger communities often need their subcommunities to help them stay on track.
A second challenge is to help subcommunities remain accessible to others being in contact with other such groups and to work to support inclusion and incorporation in the larger community. So often, when we find our tribe, we go off the map. Others seeking community see evidence of people in communities but find no way to access these communities. Often subcommunities can prevent other communities from forming by taking a seat at the table without occupying that seat. As a result, much community formation in churches is left to entrepreneurs and others who are willing to make it happen against some implicit resistance. This type of community formation often yields a selective process of getting folks into communities (and many are never selected for a variety of reasons).
Why am I writing on helping subcommunities become missional and the potential inadequacy of small groups as the "magic bullet" to a church's community needs??
I believe that if the church in our culture is going to be voice and metaphor of justice, love, mercy, and hope in our post-Christian, postmodern, post-everythingelse culture — we are going to need to develop the art of forming missional communities that build the sending community and the whole of community of God's people. We have so much to learn and experience in this area. I don't fault subcommunities (aka "small groups") for becoming non-missional. So often we force them to become so! I am eager though for the church (and our church!) to experiment with the developing art of missional community formation. We have many possibilities (Northeast Central Durham — the emerging culture communities in Durham, Chapel Hill, and Carrboro — the throngs of homogenous suburbs that dominate our community).
What would it look like? There are many movements afoot (like the emerging church, the new monasticism, racial reconiliation ministries like our friends at Harambee in Pasadena, and more) that are the living experiments for this need. I'm excited to see our efforts in this direction!