Quit Sending Individuals Out As Missionaries: The Kingdom Starts With Communities

exile-2Community as the Logic of Mission

When we think of church-planting, starting new churches, or sending missionaries to unreached places, we generally think of sending individuals. I want to suggest this is all wrong. Churches, denominations and mission sending agencies should examine another strategy. We should send communities.  We should think of mission in terms of migration. We should promote the sending/forming of migrant communities to new places. O, I know, this probably is not practical. But I think it’s worth a shot. Here’s why.

John Howard Yoder (RYFC), in his Theology of Mission, unravels how the basic logic of mission in the New Testament is the dispersion of communities not the sending of individuals. When we take into account the role the dispersion of Israel and the resulting communities played in the NT church mission, we can say that mission happened via the migration of communities who carry a way of life who then inhabit various contexts, not the sending of individuals into towns and villages to singularly proclaim the gospel.

And so, as Yoder points out, the apostle Paul writes 1,000’s of words to his churches on leading a life of holiness but rarely urges them to proclaim the gospel to outsiders. They were to give witness to the gospel and what God was doing by the way they led their lives together before the world. The proclaiming of gospel came post facto the community upon inquiry from outsiders as the Kingdom was put on display before them. In the same way, 1 Peter spends the majority of his text teaching on how to live lives before men and women under conditions of persecution. They are to live lives as a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, and a distinct people of God so that they may proclaim the excellencies of God before the world (2:9). They are to give an account to those who come and ask for the reason for the hope that is within you (3:16). We are to do this out of gentleness (no coercion) with reverence for the Lordship of Christ that He is working in all of the places we live (3:15). We are to do this living in good conscience before men and women so that our lives of integrity and wholeness will not wilt before those who wish to speak evil of us (3:16). This is the logic again of witness. A social reality which is compelling reveals the reality of God’s Kingdom in Christ before the watching world from which our words and proclamation is given girth. There is no coercion, violence, defensiveness or judgment. The witness, in a sense, speaks for itself.

On page 113 John Howard Yoder (RYCF) says:

“If there were Jews in towns such as Tarsus and Ephesus, it was because Jews had migrated there. They had migrated not to be missionaries, although some of them, may have had a little of that vision. They migrated to make a living and because they were pushed out of where they had lived. But they took their faith with them. One way to think of what to do in a place where there are not any Jews, or to say it more broadly where there is not a religious people, is that there should be a migration of religious people there. Go as a congregation. Let that be the base, so there is never a time of proclamation or witness before the community is present. The old Greek word for scattering or dispersion is diaspora, and most often in church history we get a diaspora when we do not want it: through persecution of the loss of territory. But how about being in diaspora on purpose? How about being a missionary people?”

This I believe is the challenge to churches today if we would launch a truly missionary effort to N America. Churches must be challenged to plant whole communities of people as fresh expressions of the gospel where there is one lacking.

On The Individualism of the Missional Movement

Mike Breen and Dan White Jr have both written this week about the problem of individualism in missional churches this week. My own take on this is there is a missing ecclesiology at the core of the missional movement. The missional church movement often misses just how much the Kingdom of God is a social dynamic in Christian participate in. The resulting social reality is the church as its social visualization. As I said on twitter earlier this week: “The Kingdom of Jesus is always a social reality which individuals participate in. Privatizing it is both the evangelical and liberal mistake.” Evangelicals want to make the kingdom a private personal relationship with Jesus the King, protestant liberals want to make the Kingdom about God’s work in the world in which individuals are sent as good Christians to work for. But either way we miss how the Kingdom becomes visible and flourishes when two or more people (a community) submit to His reign in a space and time and thereby open space for His reign and authority to break in. This is to me the dynamic of mission. Too often the missional church movement has fallen into either the evangelical and/or the protestant liberal mistake. The Anabaptist corrective is that the gospel of Jesus Christ is that in Christ, the fulfilment of the promises to Israel has begun in a commuinity.  God’s reign in Christ on earth has begun in the form of a community in and for the world. It is the harbinger of where God is taking the whole world and therefore invites the whole world to see and partake.

Today’s  “missional churches” tend to default into producing individual missionaries and then sending them out to be missional at their work or in their neighborhood. They tell a message instead of being the message together (from which they can tell the message). They hold a Sunday gathering that pumps up and challenges Christians to join in God’s mission. Then they send them out to be little Jesus’ in their respective places in the world. The problem? This strategy exhausts everybody involved. And gives them a big guilt trip. The church burns out in three to five years. It’s the dirty little secret in the room. It’s important to note that even though many churches plant by sending large groups into a town to plant a church, their logic of mission is still individualistic carrying out this same logic.

But God in Christ beckons us to come together, submit to His reign together to a social reality typified by forgiveness, reconciliation, renewal, healing and transformation in the Spirit. The world of this new Kingdom becomes visible in the reality of our lives together – whether that is the social reality of our family, economy, governance, art, meals, conflict. It is extended to whatever space we go and inhabit. Here is this space (which depends on individuals submitting to Christ over their own lives as well) God’s reign and authority in Christ breaks in by His Spirit. Devoid of this social reality, the church is left to become a volunteerist army sending out individuals who get exhausted somehow thinking the work of God is on them. We are left with a bunch of individualist burn out missionaries, another version of the protestant liberal vision of the church as recruitment center for doing the good work of the Kingdom out there.

Let Us Send Out Communities

I remember at Life on the Vine when we were contemplating sending out two groups of people to different places as church plants. One of the factors was “we’ve got too many leaders here.” We need to get rid of them. Send them somewhere to lead communities. Second they can’t afford to live here anyways. Let’s send them to where they can actually buy a house and settle in and live (in sympathy with the diaspora theme of Jer 29:4-7). To me, as I look back, we were sending these people as immigrants, people who couldn’t afford to live here, people who were forced to leave. At least that’s what Yoder is prompting me to think. And now I have moved and live in one of those communities.

Today a lot of younger people having grown up in mega churches can’t afford to live with their parents in the rich suburbs. They are discontent with the programmed church of their parents. Likewise I am hearing from mega churches that the “video venue” extension churches they have been doing are running out of gas. They are looking for the next thing because the suburbs have become saturated with video screens. Could it be that the mega churches of America will be the breeding ground for a whole new migration? The sending of communities of 20 or 30 people to poorer neighborhoods as missionary communities. Could it be the next great diaspora is going to happen from the mega churches?  I pray this be so. Maybe, just maybe Mike Breen and 3DM can help (but in my not so humble opinion they will need some theological adjustments in the “shapes” and their implementation :) ) What do you all think?

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Posted in Church Planting, Cultivating Mission, Ecclesiology, Missional Ecclesiology, Neo-Anabaptist, Post-Christendom
11 comments on “Quit Sending Individuals Out As Missionaries: The Kingdom Starts With Communities
  1. Lance Ford says:

    I have not found this to be the big problem it has been presented as being this past week. I don’t know how anyone that has spent any considerable amount of time reading the missional authors over the years could come away with a message about this being about sending out individuals. From Guder, to Roxburgh, to Frost and Hirsch. The message has been community, communitas on mission. In fact, it has been–and should be–a both and conversation. We go out in our individual rhythms of life on mission AND we do the same in and as gospel communities. If anything, a problem I continue to see is leaders getting a wind of the missional doctrine and turning it into an outreach program of sending groups to “the other side of town” for a weekend urban plunge, and coming home back to their safe and secure neighborhoods–and calling it missional. We have had to work to dispel that idea and be fervent in adding the “everyone on mission always” piece to it. Let’s not negate the progress that has been made in getting individuals on mission by making it an either or issue.

  2. eric says:

    I like the way you have described the community on mission piece. I am interested in what issues you have with the shapes.

  3. David Fitch says:

    (Here’s what I said to Lance on FB) Hey Lance Ford thanks for chiming in … I agree the community is an emphasis within the missionla movement. I’m afraid though my nuance is not being heard here. So perhaps we need to chat. And to be fair I haven’t been able to expound it out fully (I’m working on a book on it Blah blah blah ) …. Nonetheless, this is a theological ecclesiological problem. As I said in my piece, yes, missional communities are doing things in community, but their understanding of the Kingdom, the way it works, is still largely individualistic. Yes community is good to encourage, pump up, send out … but I believe it is also much more than that. To some extent, the missiological way we have looked at ecclesiology has been the source of the problem. So we’ll just keep talking … and I’ll keep banging my head into walls … Nonethless … I think we’re all good and working hard together for same purposes… we probably just need more cross conversations … Love ya bro!@!

  4. Adam says:

    Hey Dave,

    Good post. I right there with you on this… I think we will need more than the ‘missional conversation (dei or trinitas :) ); to get people to relocate to the poorer communities in urban areas as you speak of… Wrigleyville maybe, Bridgeport…no… Thus far it seems that we perhaps lack a robust imagination for incarnation that informs our inhabiting of place…?

  5. Dan Jr. says:

    Thanks for laying this right out there. I’m digging Yoder’s new/old book.

    My own church plant back in the day was a seedling community of 10 people who moved together into a poor area. Ecclesiology aside, I have no clue how we would have survived without the mutual strength and love of an existing community/oikos. I would have hated the pressure of my wife and I diving into the deep end alone, attempting to rally people around “My” vision and personality…no thanks.

    I consistently caution and counsel church planters not to plant until they have an existing tethered community. This obviously goes over like a led balloon. Either way I’m so thoroughly convinced that “witness” is the observable common-life of a covenant-community.

  6. Reminds me a bit of Vernard Eller’s book “The Outward Bound”… that the church, as community, is on a caravaning journey. That it’s not individuals on the journey into mission, but the community itself.

  7. Dave, love this: “This I believe is the challenge to churches today if we would launch a truly missionary effort to N America. Churches must be challenged to plant whole communities of people as fresh expressions of the gospel where there is one lacking.”

    One thing I hear you saying is that missional is less about going out and doing ongoing justice or evangelism (even *as* a church or community or “missional community”), and more about the *singular act* of planting and cultivating community to be a kingdom presence inhabiting a place/space that has none or at least desperately needs one. In that sense (want to be careful here) it really is more like the way we have understood traditional/individual missionary sending, but transposed onto the ecclesial and communal-kingdom context.

    This is the kind of simplicity-with-depth that the missional conversation needs. Especially in the sense that we are so caught up with “doing mission” & various strategies that we miss the “being” realities of kingdom rhythms & practices, etc.

  8. Tim Meier says:

    The shift has already happened or at least begun in most ” international missionary sending agencies.” We are more ready to send “teams” than individuals now, especially to those more creative places where people can be killed for being Christians and especially pastors.

    Obviously, logistically, this is a challenge, which you reference in the post but it does pose a problem when a couple or individual says “my heart is broken for x, y, z location” but we don’t have an entire community to send them with. BUT, that may be more of a reflection of the churches from which they come in the States. In other words, as a sending agency, we understand the missiology of sending a group, a team, a community, but we’re still asking individualistic American churches to raise these people up and there is a disconnect because these churches aren’t actually (for the most part) living as true communities or on mission as communities here, so it’s difficult to explain the need for doing it internationally.

    I DO think this is a major clarification and change that needs to come in this missional conversation because even though Hirsch and others imply community, most of them are still operating in an individualistic, consumer culture and trying to stamp missional on it without fundamentally changing the culture of the place.

  9. David Fitch says:

    Tim Meier …good word…

  10. Dru Dodson says:

    I think there may be a problem with an “excluded middle” here. The NT pattern is not individuals. Agreed. But neither do we see migration of communities. What we do see is mobile bands of apostolic teams. In their own way they are a small community. But they don’t settle in to colonize. Instead they recruit colonizers. This is the excluded middle not only in our conversation but in our practice. Waddya think?

  11. Aidan Ashby says:

    Brilliant article, excellent discussion.

    One difficulty in sending communities to display the kingdom is the tendency of groups to become over-comfy and self-satisfied as they approach their natural terminal capacity. Large groups are great at being shining cities on hills but not so good at being scattered salt, at being accessible and effective on their surroundings rather than sealed and inward. In a large group it’s easier to have fewer outside friends.

    Maybe the best dynamic for missional communities is a community cells model, a community of small communities that have a large combined ‘surface area’ (many neighbours) which have a corporate identity and can meet in many different sizes and ways. I guess this is similar to how 3DM consider their MCs to be comprised of small groups rather than MCs themselves being the base unit of church. Practically these small groups would be dispersed in one area of town, local but not direct neighbours.

    Another issue with sending communities is the programmatic norms that the group will import with them which may be at odds with their new context. Individuals or twos and threes may be less prone to assuming norms as what they go into is so different to the larger mother community from which they’ve been sent.

    In summary I guess what I’m saying yes, communities of Jesus are the best expression of Jesus and his kingdom but let’s make sure we don’t start with bloated communities but with groups of smaller communities, mobile, flexible and dynamic.

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David Fitch
Betty R. Lindner Professor of Theology
Northern Seminary
DMin in Missional Leadership
Prodigal Christianity
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