How to start a Missional Community from scratch

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As someone who helps lead a local church, and as someone who regularly coaches pastors wanting to learn how to lean into this whole 'missional' thing, one of the most frequent questions I hear is, "How do I start a Missional Community?"

How do I do it if I don't have anyone other than me and a few other people? What if I'm starting from scratch?

As such, I thought sharing a story of a Missional Community my wife (Elizabeth) and I planted in Pawleys Island would be helpful. You see, this Missional Community came at a time when, for the first time in about a decade, I wasn't in vocational pastoral ministry – specifically meaning that local ministry wasn’t my JOB. Sure, I was training pastors, but that wasn't pastoral, local ministry.

So we were having to answer the all-important question that anyone sitting in the pews do: “How does this work when I have a regular 9-5 job?”

And remember, where we were at? This is in a rural beach town of about 15,000 people, in a place that would be traditionally thought of as “The “Bible Belt.”

Here is what we did.

When we landed, we asked God two questions:

1) What people group (network/neighborhood) are you calling us to reach/ minister to/ disciple in this season?

2) Who are Persons of Peace (POPs), in whom you’ve already started preparing their heart — who will help us accomplish this work? (a POP is someone God has already prepared to be open to you and the Gospel)

In our case, it was the 2nd question (a POP) that answered the first question.

My wife met Erin, a young mom who lives on our street, the very first day we arrived. They started walking our kids together a few times a week. She invited us to her son’s first birthday party, where she introduced Elizabeth to a dozen or so other young moms who were networked together informally. She was the gatekeeper to a group where God wanted to move.

Elizabeth specifically started building relationships with the moms in a low key way. Lunches, playdates, dinners, pumpkin patch. Nothing formal. Just building relationships. But all of the people we were meeting in this network who didn’t know Jesus were young couples with kids in diapers.

That really gave us a clue as to where our focus should be. That’s what these Persons of Peace opened up for us.

Next, we prayed for a group God wanted us to start discipling and he sent us 3 couples who were dedicated Christians, but not actively plugged into a local church. A couple months later we met a 4th couple who wanted to join, so now we’re up to 10 of us. We started meeting every Thursday, discipling them to live out the basic principles of Jesus’ life, inviting them into a deeper level of accountability and relationship with the Father.

That started in August.

While doing this, without explaining what a Missional Community was or anything like that, we started forming an extended family by celebrating birthdays and baby showers, doing meals and life together with people we were meeting who seemed open to us, but who may-or-may-not consider themselves Christians.

  • Three months into discipling people, we encouraged them to start asking God who the Persons of Peace were in their life and to start engaging with them in a more intentional way.
  • About 6 months in, we pushed our time of discipleship to every-other-week and we added a dinner on the alternate Thursday nights. This dinner consisted of the same people in our we were discipling, plus we all invited people we knew who we felt were Persons of Peace.

The only spiritual content at those dinners, at least in the beginning, was going around and saying what we were thankful for, then blessing the food. That was it! Nothing else. Just catching up, hanging out, laughter, kids running around and engaging in conversation. Sometimes those conversations went to deeper places, sometimes not. At the last one in December we read the Christmas story and sang carols, then helped the kids decorate Christmas cookies. At this point, a little more than half of the people in the group we probably wouldn’t call “Christians.”

Here’s where it gets really interesting.

You see, up to this point, all we’ve done is create a welcoming family that is functioning like an extended family, make it crystal clear our lives are oriented around Jesus, and do some regular and rhythmic things that point to Jesus.

Shortly before the break, between Christmas and New Years, three of the couples who had been coming asked about plugging into something with more spiritual content, specifically...they were really interested in doing something they'd heard of called "a Bible study."

While there wasn’t a lot of “structured” spiritual time in our first season of family gatherings, obviously they’ve gotten to know us over the course of these months and we’ve been open about our relationship with God — so they see things we post on Facebook and Twitter, as we thoughtfully, but actively use language about what God might be saying to me (in contextually appropriate ways). Another woman read a blog my wife wrote about what God was teaching her about marriage and emailed her saying that she was really glad my wife was in her life.

There’s obviously something going on there, right?!

Notice that we didn’t have a 27 point plan of exactly how everything we going to go, but we had been taught to see how the Holy Spirit was working, how to engage with Persons of Peace and to intentionally cultivate those relationships within the context of a family.

So we shifted the focus of those Thursday night dinners:

  • 5:30-6:30 was a dinner and anyone could come, even if they don’t want more spiritual content.
  • 6:30-7:30 was a simple bible study and discussion (where we will always conclude the dinner by having each person answer, ‘What is God saying to me and what am I going to do about it in the next 7 days?’).
  • In between we continued to have broader, family “events” (corn hole tournaments, running a 10K together in town, baby showers, etc.) that's just normal life. They weren't MC events. But in the midst of that normal life, we invited people to be part of it without the pressure of the bible study group.

So what you’re seeing is us forming a family on the continuum of the ORGANZED and the ORGANIC. There are some things with structure, regularity and are scheduled. But there are some things that are organic, unplanned and sporadic. Why? Because that’s how all extended families function.

As we think about Missional Communities, Elizabeth and I have wanted them to reflect the fullness of the life of Jesus, because we are the Body of Christ. So we want the MC to have an UP dimension (time together spent with the Father), an IN dimension (time together each other as Christians, the members of the family of Jesus) and an OUT dimension (time spent on mission together, stepping into the brokenness of the world).

  • So our UP times constitute our bi-weekly discipleship times with those core group of people. In addition, the open family meals have biblical teaching after the dinner group, along with a few worship songs on an ipod so we can sing and the little kids can sing and dance together.
  • We have our more 'formal' IN times during the dinners, but also the informal meals and things we do to feel like family, as well as cornhole tournaments, bbq’s, play dates, football games, etc. Also, Elizabeth and I had a family tradition when we lived in Pawleys of going to a local diner each Saturday morning with our kids and we’re constantly inviting people into that family outing with us.
  • Our OUT was a relatively new concept for that core group of people, so we helped them understand why it was important for them to invite friends who didn't know Jesus. Also, picked another OUT of bring in relationship with a group of people who felt really disenfranchised in that community. In the case of this group, we went to a nursing home once a month, with our kids, to visit and spend time with lonely, elderly people. Most of them didn't have family living by them and they’ve got no one visiting them. Plus, older people simply LOVE having babies and toddlers around.

We called the group the Pawleys Island Pampers Brigade (because both the babies and the old people might be in diapers). ;-)

I think the big thing to notice is that this Missional Community was started amongst a group of people we didn’t know. We parachuted in. We just moved here. It has grown because we’ve attended to the different seasons of development:

  • A season of finding a few key Persons of Peace who opened up a wider network to us. Then, getting to know these networks and building relationships with them, finding out what people were really open.
  • A season praying for people who were already Christians and open to investment from Elizabeth and I, who might want to help us lead the burgeoning Missional Community.
  • A season developing these people while we started doing more extended family dinners with light spiritual content.
  • A season diving deeper into spiritual content and a higher commitment to being family.

This happened over the course of 15 months.

These things don’t happen over night, and I think it’s important to realize that. It takes time to see where God is working, finding the people he’s placed out there for you and then to cultivate those relationships and enter into a new network of relationships because they’ve been gatekeepers.

There are many ways to start a Missional Community from scratch and allow it to grow. Hopefully this proves to be but one helpful example.