Can mission happen without building community?

I have long hated the mantra ‘From maintenance to mission.’ I think the only reason that is has succeeded is because of its alliterative appeal (which does demonstrate the power of rhetoric). But a moment’s thought about this tired phrase will tell you: if we don’t maintain our church communities, what do we have to invite people to as part of our mission? It’s a bit like inviting the neighbours to your house for dinner and then having no food to offer them because you spent all your time on the act of invitation.

So I was delighted to read the latest Grove booklet on Mission and Evangelism (a change of title from Evangelism in partnership with CMSThe Forgotten Factor: Placing Community at the Heart of Mission in which Mark Berry and Philip Mounstephen of CMS explain why building church community is an essential aspect of mission.

For both of us, as people committed to mission, community—as a concept and a commitment—is not an optional extra or an adjunct. For us both it is essential, not least because we are both members of the Church Mission So- ciety community, a community whose members commit themselves to live a life of mission. If the mission of God is the calling of the church of God then community and mission cannot be separated. And yet so often they have been. The (mainly western) image of the evangelist as the lone hero has not helped. To neglect community is to weaken our mission.

After recounting their own experiences of the importance of community in ministry and mission, they look at some of the key theological and biblical foundations for putting community high on the mission agenda.

Genesis studiedly and deliberately relates the creation of man as male and female to the nature of God himself, with the distinct suggestion that the complementarity of the sexes is necessary in order fully to reflect the imago dei (Gen 1.27). Being in community is essential if the divine likeness is to be fully expressed. God only pronounces one thing not good before the fall. It is not good for the man to be alone: he needs community. And that community expands in response to the divine injunction to ‘be fruitful and increase in number’ (Gen 1.28). The story of Israel in the OT is a community story. It is a family history flowing from the marriage of Adam and Eve, through the story of the patriarchs, into the exodus, through the time of the judges, the kings, the exile and the return. All that is a family, a community, story.

It is now widely accepted that the old idea that the New Testament is much more individualistically focused than the Old—a conviction probably fuelled by Reformation concerns about individual justification by faith—has been largely discredited. Indeed the NT is firmly communal in its outlook. From the start Jesus is in the business of building community as he gathers a ragtag group of people, often intentionally remodelling the community of Israel around him, as in the choosing of 12 disciples. Community is central to Jesus’ preaching of the kingdom: ‘Jesus presents us with a dream (embodied in the group image ‘kingdom of God’) that is irreducibly communal, familial and social…It is a dream of a community vibrant with life, pulsating with forgiveness, loud with celebration, fruitful in mission…a substantial city whose streets bustle with life, whose buildings echo with praise, a city aglow with the glory of community.’

Jesus’ instinct is always to include and he castigates the Pharisees for exclud- ing people from the community. And that challenging instinct to include is what ultimately leads him to the cross. But of course it is, ironically, through the cross that the community of grace becomes truly inclusive, including ultimately not only Jews, but gentiles too.

And key to their (Mark’s and Philip’s) conviction is not simply that God is concerned with building community—but that this building of community is part and parcel of the focus on mission, on looking outward and drawing others in to this new sense of community. Indeed, it is the community itself which is distinctive and part of the appeal of mission.

We can see this critical connection between community and mission in particularly sharp focus in Acts 2.42–47. There is a direct connection between this snapshot of the edgling Christian community we see at the end of Acts 2 and the gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost we hear described in the opening verses of that chapter. Indeed, in the light of the gift of the Spirit this description of the edgling church is much more than a snapshot: it is a blueprint; this is what Christian community formed and shaped by the Holy Spirit is supposed to look like.

In the last half century or so much discussion about the ministry of the Holy Spirit, at least in the western church, has focused on the gifts the Spirit gives us individually. And there have been good reasons why there has been that focus. But the first manifestation of the ministry of the Spirit coming out of the events of Pentecost is that a community is formed. The Holy Spirit creates a community in which, unsurprisingly, the fruit of the Spirit are very much in evidence. This is a place of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (Gal 5.22, 23). The Holy Spirit creates a community of devotion both to God and to each other; a place in which belonging mattered much more than having: a true community of the Spirit.

The middle chapter of the booklet offers a fascinating exploration of the role of community in the two main mission structures that correspond to the local church in the NT and the missionary bands that continued to exercise apostolic ministry (you will have to buy the booklet to read that!), after which the authors turn to the heart of the problem: the forgotten factor in many local churches.

Back in 1995 Robert Warren, in Building Missionary Congregations, talked about three vital dimensions of church life: worship, community, and mission, which he expressed in a Venn diagram as three overlapping circles: circles which equate to the upwards, inwards and outwards dynamics of the life of the church. It was very helpful to find community given equal weight with the other two elements. Robert’s main (and very valuable) focus, however, was to encourage us to focus on the crucial intersection between them, where he located a congregation’s spirituality.

However, this begs the question as to whether this is in fact an accurate reflection of reality in many churches. In many churches (though clearly not all) worship, community and mission are seriously out of balance. In an increasingly consumer-orientated culture, churches are often obsessed with what happens on Sunday. And many members are obsessed with whether or not what happens on Sunday meets their expectations. This obsession is not limited to any one tradition: it is true of charismatic churches for whom the quality of the (sung) worship will be critical; it is true of Anglo-catholic churches where Mass must be done ‘correctly’ and it is true of conservative evangelical churches where so much depends not just on the quality, but also on the style, of the preaching.

For any who doubt this perhaps rather harsh summary, reflect on these two facts. Churches never split over their mission policy, but they frequently have over the nature and style of Sunday worship. Secondly, an analysis of how clergy spend their time will almost certainly reveal that many spend significantly more of their time preparing for the Sunday event than they do investing in the other two circles.

The problem with the model above is not only the neglect of community; it is also the isolation of mission. Mission, in this model, is simply one activity of the life of the church, and not really integral to that life. It is something members of the church community are expected to do, and those members often feel guilty for not engaging in it as they should. The task we face is to bring these three circles back into balance. Our conviction is that we need to focus far more on our identity as community, and invest in that, taking Acts 2.42–47 as our blueprint (including making sure we spend plenty of time eating together). To do so is not to leave mission in outer orbit. If we invest in community and enlarge that circle then the greater gravitational pull of the community will draw mission back from the margins into the centre.

The final chapter looks at the essential elements of developing a community of grace that has strong relationships but retains an outward-looking focus. It is a fascinating read, and essential for anyone thinking about leadership and mission in the local church.

You can buy the booklet post-free (in the UK) from the Grove website.

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6 thoughts on “Can mission happen without building community?”

  1. A really interesting read. In our rural multi parish team we find that where we have been intentionally missional we have built community eg Messy Church, Wednesday drop in, after school club. These worshipping congregations are intergenerational, focused on what God is doing in our lives and have strong pastoral relationships both within them and with those who are on the edge. But they are essentially new congregations. We have failed and continue to fail to make our Sunday congregations care about much more than fundraising and what service “they” want. Five years of intentional focus on mission has essentially split our church into those that want what they like and won’t change and those for whom mission is an integral part of their worship and spirituality. There are exceptions to this experience in our smaller congregations where perhaps 20 people meet regularly and have come to a common mind in terms of reaching out with hospitality to the village they serve. However, they are the exception. So I can confirm that we are indeed splitting the church over our mission policy! Glad to be bucking the trend.

  2. I agree with the argument above that a healthy, serving and Christ-centred community is vital to, and inseparable from, mission. However, I would also want to point out that the mantra stated (and slated? Alliteration again…) in the opening here, and used extensively in programmes such as Leading Your Church into Growth, I think has been intended to counter the very ‘Sunday-obsessed’ culture that is described above, and also the intense attention given to maintaining church buildings, used often purely for Sunday worship. This ‘maintenance’ task then becomes the task of a smaller and smaller group which takes up a significant amount of time.

    It has been eye-opening for me in local church ministry to see the LYCIG course in action and the material worked through thoroughly in congregations when the ‘pin drops’ and the ‘light comes on’ as church members realise how skewed their individual and communal focus is on organising and enjoying a lovely gathering that no one new actually comes to,and also the confidence that comes when people realise the community of faith is something worth inviting people to and that people want to know more about Jesus and Christianity. In this communal context of corporate theological reflection the mantra is expounded to enable full exploration, and also covers the fact that a missional church includes real emphasis on healthy and Christ-like community life with organically grows (with intentional care, as in agriculture).

    As often happens, a summary phrase takes up its own life and if not kept in its theologically reflective context, becomes a lazy and uninformed way of describing a complex and living reality. Sometimes the pendulum swings the other way to create a frenetic period of frantic mission which is not better for building deep Christian community.

    The communal gifts and wisdom of the church is needed to ‘maintain’ a healthy church life that overflows into ‘mission’, which in turn grows the community of faith. But that is easier said than done…

    Thanks for the blog, I will buy these booklets and invite my colleagues to a bit of theological reflection!

  3. Total agreement with all you’re saying. We’ve been on this journey for over 10 years, and some people will never ‘get it’ but we’re going with the people who do. Not having a service on a Sunday occasionally (but instead having people meeting in communities) helps to underpin what we’re trying to say!

  4. Why does it have to be either/or?
    What are we inviting people to, if the Sunday morning worshippers aren’t recognised as a “community” as well?
    It is, after all, the first place strangers will expect to find “church” when they are in need. Who goes online looking for one of the “named initiatives” or “mission” unless they already know about them?
    Dismissing and marginalising those for whom the familiar is important (and those practising with dementia report that afflicted Christians respond to the Prayer Book and old hymns that access memories otherwise unreached) is simply replacing one exclusive group with another. I’m seeing some of it at the moment where people are not so much “being added to the number” as shuffled around the Deanery depending on how they respond to some rather aggressive (or at least tactless) “change management” going on in one of the Churches. Some leavers may not have felt obliged to find another Church at all, while newcomers will soon expect *their* model to be equally established and fossilised.
    And one effect of replacing “Sunday” with an increasing random set of days, times and locations that poorly-maintained websites make impossible to find is the possibility that only those with friends to invite them will be reached. I speak from knowledge as one recently looking at my local Churches in hopes of finding one nearer home but not particularly happy downgrading my “service intervals” like a “modernised” car…

  5. Thank you Ian, very helpful article for one who has spent 24 years in a church (Mennonite) that really took Acts 2:42-47 seriously but had little idea how to integrate this with mission (and now attending an Anglo-Catholic church, which seems to be where God is speaking to me, that is strong on worship and to some extent on community but not enough for this to inspire mission). I will get this Grove booklet and give it to the vicar! In the meantime, I wonder how this thinking could be integrated with the parish system or in other denominations, with the idea of ‘community church’?


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