Should your church plant be a Missional Community model or a traditional model?  That is the question these days isn’t it?  And it is a question that people find increasingly difficult to answer.  I must say that in the first buzz of my own MC or not MC questions about seven or so years ago the answer was obvious: MC all the way!  Now?  Well I am still a fan of MCs, but have tempered some of my original sycophancy with a good dose of realism.

At the outset let me say that I do not care what model of church plant you do. The only question I am concerned with is this: Is your model making and growing disciples of Jesus?  In the past I have met an MC church that has had the same 20 people for over ten years. No additions!  The community bit was working ok, but missional had dropped off the radar. At the same time if you are planting a traditional church then I believe that you have to have a clear evangelism strategy that has a focus on an unreached suburb or people group.  To simply plant because your area lacks a Bible teaching church is not enough.  It may well be true, but your goal is to reach people for Jesus, not to plant a Bible teaching church.  You should do both, but you should not be doing the latter without being completely committed – in visible, practical ways – to the former.

Now with all that said, here are three of the most fertile conditions for a successful MC model of church plant:

1. Leave and Cleave. Yes, that’s right.  MC churches are like a marriage.  If you are going to be involved in the core group of an MC you have some painful decisions to make.  The most painful is that the core must loosen the cords of any relationship that does not intersect with at least one other relationship held by a member/family of the core (especially relationships in their old churches).  Why is this the case? Two reasons: Firstly because I have noticed that the healthiest MC churches decide to focus on specific relationships together – and often new specific relationships.  We only have so much time in the day/week/year.  If the long-term, low key, relational strategy is ever going to work it can only work if the relationship network is “thick”.  The very occasional catch up with a core group’s friend who you never see otherwise is not what MC life is about.  It is about spending a lot of time with the same people over a long period of time.  Such a way of life cuts against the grain of our busy, rush-around culture, in which we touch base briefly and infrequently with many relationships.  If you and your core group are willing to leave and cleave then MC may be right for you. But secondly, if you cannot resist the siren call of your old friendship groups then you will never have the emotional time and energy to invest in new ones.  We are not God – someone will have to be jettisoned at some stage, especially if the plant starts to grow, and if it is too painful to leave those old relationships behind, then an MC plant is not for you.

2. Flexible Lifestyles. When MCs fail or falter it is often at this point; peoples’ lives are simply not flexible enough to accommodate the model.  Here is my cold, clear-eyed observation: We are far more willing to change our church model for the sake of evangelism than we are to change our lifestyles for the sake of evangelism.  MC models tend to work best with people who are able and willing to make big changes to their lives – not simply big changes to their churches.  Sadly, as we are finding out, if you have a couple of kids, a sick or ailing parent/s, a job in the city, a partner with a part-time job and a fairly biggish mortgage then your lifestyle will preclude you from an effective ministry in an MC model.  This generally means that for middle Australia, the MC model is out.  That means two things:  Firstly, cheer up! You are not justified by your model of church, you are justified by Jesus and his saving work on the cross.  But secondly, sober up!  Our lives as God’s people are way too busy and we come up with all sorts of reasons why we have to be involved in the plethora of activities/social events/ functions/jobs/school and sporting events that we are.  I do believe that there has to be a discernible difference between the pace of life of the believer and the pace of the life of the unbeliever – yet there doesn’t seem to be!  Wasn’t it Jesus who said that the pagans “run after all these things”, yet we don’t look like we’re running much slower, in fact  church activities are now additions, rather than replacements, in this sprint to the finish line.  For some of us – many of us actually – the merry-go-round (mixing your metaphors? – Ed) is simply going too fast to jump off without causing some pain.

At this point the charge is often made that the many demanding vocations that we are involved in are good and noble tasks, and that we should not bifurcate “church” ministry from the rest of life ministry.  True – all true.  However, it’s not the work/vocation that generally drains us, but the lifestyle that accompanies it.  You know what I mean: the right suburbs/the right schools/the social activities/the schools to send your children to/the activities regarded as those your children should undertake in order to have the best chance of achievement. It’s a subtle pull, and dangerous.  But don’t take a Westerner’s viewpoint on this, ask a Christian from the Third World how they see our lifestyles and what the dangers might be.  Probably the same as theirs: syncretism.  “Lifestyle” is a dangerous god because it blends our necessary activities with those that we could jettison until we can no longer tell the difference.

I sound like I am speaking to middle class, well educated people here. I am, because that, primarily, is what evangelicalism is in Australia.  Vast swathes of lower socio-economic and working class areas are completely churchless.

A Common Goal. It sounds obvious that people who join an MC model of church have a common goal, right?  Wrong!  How do I know?  Because I naively assumed that those who joined a (now failed) plant I led had a common goal.  And they all thought they did at the start too, or at least they so wanted to join that they told me they did.  It was only after a period of time, when the cracks started to appear, that I realised that evangelising the lost was not the primary goal of some who joined. I say “primary” because it was in there somewhere, just not integral.  It became clear that one couple had joined because they liked small church, whilst another family were just a bit more funky than the average evangelical church in my neck of the woods could cater for.  But what was most telling was that several of these couples had felt burned or burnt out by churches.  Now this is a real phenomenon, and one that needs to be addressed, but joining an MC church group whose goal is evangelism and mission is not the solution. The result is often a group in need of deep pastoral care, and who are suffering from shell-shock.  Sending them to the front line didn’t seem to be an option, nor did they want to go.  Ironically, my experience of the MC model in the UK showed me that evangelising the lost can be the solution to this burn-out or pain from past church experiences, but no MC will function well when too many of its people are emotionally or spiritually worn out at the start up.

Well, that’s a start. I am working on other aspects of this and will post them over time – including a reflection on the type of people best reached by either model.  I am a big advocate of the MC model, and am currently in a plant that operates both models, so I cover all bases! However we need to be clear and honest as we go into this process. The MC model is a great one, but we cannot and should not universalise it, nor view it as the solution to the evangelism of Australia (just as we don’t view solid Bible teaching churches as the solution – cos there are plenty of them too, and we’re still not keeping pace with population growth).