One of the undercurrent movements of evangelical renewal in local churches has been the rise of missional communities. These small communities are distinct from your typical home groups or small-groups because what unites them and defines them is a common mission. I resonate with this kind of missiologically-informed structuring of the ekklesia scattered as those who have been sent.
Here at Grace, we have been transitioning to similar communities to have a broader and deeper impact in Southwest Florida. Part of the developmental process has been to listen and learn from other churches who have embraced some form of small groups to foster community, whether it was life-on-life discipleship or a more incarnational lifestyle in engaging the community at large.
One of the things that has confused me about some of the philosophy behind leading models is how they are formed or constituted. There are various filters that one can use to encourage members to participate in these groups. What seems to be the leading filter has been for members to choose the groups according to what they have most in common (e.g, affinity-based). So there would be the young married groups, elderly groups, ladies groups, mens groups, college groups, and so on. These groups are shaped to bring the most homogeneity and thereby promise to be more effective and fruitful.
What I find troubling about this filter/model is twofold:
First, there is an assumption that what believers will have most in common is something rather superficial (age, stage in life, etc.). The classifications of homogeneity are basically no different than how the world seeks to divide us. Second, this filter has an orientation that is inherently consumer-driven. I want to be in community with people who are most like me. I want my community to be clean, cool, efficient, not messy, stretching, and challenging.
But what is it that believers have most in common? It is the gospel! And what does the gospel do in the church? Breaks down the barriers and forms a counter-cultural community, a new humanity, where genuine unity is displayed in the midst of radical diversity. A gospel-centered church is one that does not substitute the gospel as the greatest common denominator among believers. And when the gospel shapes the church, it will define the communities and operate as the filter for their constitution. True fellowship among believers comes when shared life is sharing the gospel to one another, and the necessary fuel for the mission comes from the gospel who takes consumers of God’s Word and enables them to be doers of God’s Word.
Gospel communities, then are constituted with deep unity and radical diversity in the following ways:
- Diversity in spiritual maturity (fathers, young men, and children as seen in 1 John 2:12-14 all together)
- Diversity in stages of life (elderly with families with young professional with single mom etc.)
- Diversity in race and ethnicity (black, Hispanic, white, Asian, etc.)
- Diversity in socio-economic status (wealthy, poor, blue-collar)
- Diversity in political views (Republican, Democrat, Independent)
Why is this so crucial? By being around people who are not like us, we are reminded that Jesus came to a people completely not like Himself. He came to dwell among us, to serve us by giving His life, and accomplished His mission and then entrusted it to His followers to do as He had done. When we prefer a low-maintenance, spiritual “clean” and mature group of believers to fellowship with, we are acting contrary to the gospel. It does not put it on display. We put the world’s categories on display. The clean and supposedly low-maintenance and knowledgeable people (the religious folk) Jesus avoided, but instead He got messy with the tax collectors, prostitutes, lepers, and demon-possessed and formed a community that had been transformed by the gospel of the kingdom.
So when an elderly white woman is praying over a black young professional who is baby-sitting for a Hispanic family with six kids, what does this say to a non-Christian when they first encounter it? When the poor have equal standing with the rich, when the new believer struggling with his new identity in Christ and the sins of the past and is encouraged and established rather than looked down upon and judged, when the home-schooling family shares a meal together with the public-schooling family, when things like this are being done in community, what is on display? The gospel which has transformed their lives, informed their new identity, and formed a new humanity where walls of division have been broken down.
This is so much harder than homogeneous groups. It is so much messier and challenging. But is so much more glorious and gospel-honoring. It is not efficient, so pragmatism will not be it’s best advocate. It does not have as its reference point your personal needs, so the spiritual consumer will not like it. But those driven by the gospel and genuinely want to see it lived out in their lives will love it. Jesus loved, served, and gave. His focus the Father first, others second, and Himself last. And the attitude and actions of Jesus are manifested in a community where His reign and rule brings a new order in a new community when the kingdom has been established in their hearts.
We will commend Christ to sinners and put the gospel on display when we, as repenters and believers, show the change He has brought in our lives in a corporate witness of renewed communities conformed to the kingdom ethic rather than the schemes of this world. God’s designs put us in a position where God’s power to transform and God’s love to give up our lives must be operative for us to be God’s people in this world. Gospel iron that sharpens, stretches, and shapes one another is what we need, not more people just like ourselves to make us feel comfortable and resistant to change. When deep unity is formed by the gospel, the radical diversity therein will be like facets of a diamond that display the brilliance of God’s glory in the redemptive work of His Son and the restoration work He’s begun.