Over the past several years, I have written here and in our newsletter about missional communities. Liz and I have shared stories about trying to start a missional community here in Clontarf. And we have shared our hope of helping to start missional communities across the city of Dublin.
That all sounds great...if you know what we mean when we say missional community.
I want to take space here to begin explaining what we are saying when we say 'missional community'.
According to the people who write about this stuff, there are 5 characteristics that describe a missional community:
(Up, In, Out is a way to describe our relationships: with God, with those in our Christian community, and with those outside our Christian community.)
You might notice that the number of people involved is not large enough to be a church. It is also too large to be a small group. (more on that in a follow-up post.)
For most of the time we were leading the church in Ithaca, we didn't have missional communities. We held weekly Sunday worship gatherings (generally 200 give or take 50 people depending on the week) and weekly small group meetings (usually 6 to 14 people).
At this point you might wonder, "Then how did you end up so committed to missional communities as the key form for church planting in Dublin?"
So, that is a technical definition...what do missional communities actually look like?Although we would have never used the term back then, Liz and I were part of missional communities for about 20 years, from the mid-1980s to around 2005.
It started in Fredonia, NY as college students. We got involved in a Christian Fellowship on our campus. During that time I experienced growth in my walk with God (discipleship), and a depth of friendships (community) that I had never experienced in my life.
After Fredonia, we moved to Albany, NY (1989) and then Ithaca, NY (1994) to start university ministries there. On both of those campuses, we made deep friendships that have lasted almost 25 to 30 years, despite our lives taking us all to different places across the globe. We saw people come to faith in Jesus, and grow in their faith.
As I was thinking about this recently, I recognized our early years of church planting in Ithaca used this "missional community" model. We had a Sunday worship gathering and small groups, but there was a group of us that in many ways functioned as a missional community. And again, many of these are people we formed life-long friendships with.
We used that model to church plant in Ithaca because, after 15 years in campus ministry, it was the only thing we knew.
But over time, that missional community aspect of life in our church faded.
I remember sitting in my office towards the end of my time in Ithaca, and it hit me that I had not been discipling people for years. Like most of the churches we were connected with, I said things like, "discipleship happens in small groups," but it didn't. It just gave me "cover" for not discipling.
As we hit the ground here in Dublin, we knew that discipleship had to be core to what we do and not something we gave lip service to.
In the midst of thinking through that, we began learning more about missional communities. And there we rediscovered something that was already part of our DNA...something that we've been missing the past several years.
For those of you who were part of those campus ministries, or our early years of church planting in Ithaca, I hope, this stirs up some 'That's what that was!' moments for you. I look back on that time as some of the most fulfilling, life-giving (and fun) times I've had in ministry.
I hope that helps explain a bit more we are talking about when we talk about missional communities in Dublin.
as we approach our 5 year anniversary in Dublin, we are sharing some posts that occurred during our transition.
I've loved the discussion over the past several days as I've laid out some of our vision as we move to Ireland...at least some of the parts that have become clear to us so far. Thanks for participating!
You might remember a couple weeks ago I mentioned two key words for us as we began looking towards planting in Dublin were reproducible & sustainable. Part of talking about the neighborhood based model, over the past couple of days was to lay out some idea of how we see this new faith community being reproducing. But it is also key to how we see this new church being sustainable. And just for clarity sake, by sustainable, I simply mean that the people leading are able to do it long term, in a way that is healthy in every respect, and where at the end of their run they find themselves not only having led well, but closer to God and closer to their families.
(There are far too many pastors who have been hurt by the church and walked away...had an affair, and basically blown everything in their lives up...or done something that indicated how they were carrying out their role was, despite how good things might have looked, not sustainable. And the statistics seem to get worse every year.)
Now, there are other parts of this vision for Dublin that aren't yet clear. Perhaps sustainable will involve full-time ministry role...but if not, if it ends up being a bi-vocational type of deal, then, that can't mean 60-80 hours of work year after year...clearly that falls under "not sustainable." So if the lead person is bi-vocational, then that'd mean that there would need to be a solid team of leaders in place...most likely also bi-vocational, who are able to lead at a very high level and carry out many of the responsibilities that normally fall on the lead pastor.
Now, before Dublin even came on the radar, those of us in leadership at the Ithaca Vineyard had already begun addressing this issue, because it was becoming more and more clear that the model we had in place was not sustainable....basically I was at a point where I recognized unless we make some major changes in how things are structured, I couldn't see myself at the Vineyard long term...in fact, I had talked to Liz and some friends about whether or not it was time to give up church ministry and start looking for something else to do.
As I've written about previously, Elizabeth and I went to a Vineyard Pastors' Sabbath Retreat 2 years ago, and I know those 2 weeks played a major role in why we are looking forward to our next ministry adventure in Dublin rather than running away from the church thinking "we are never, ever doing that again." In addition, I owe a great deal of gratitude to the leaders at the Vineyard who backed me 100% and worked with me, and are still working to see that the role of lead pastor at the Vineyard can be a healthy one.
At this point, I'm still trying to unlearn some old patterns. "Stop working on this important project, and simply sit in silence, in God's presence for a while? That doesn't seem very productive." Or when our counselor encouraged me to put more time and effort into Liz & the kids during this transition, and trust that God will provide the support. When I first heard that, it was like the old science fiction shows where some illogical formula is plugged in the the robot, and the things starts smoking and breaks down because it doesn't compute. But it was advice we followed, and l'm so grateful we did. But I'm still learning.
So, this post did not at all go the way I was planning it going...hope it was helpful...and made sense...kind of what's bouncing around my head right now...talk a bit more about our vision over the next few days. Please leave anything you're wondering in the comment section.
Last week I wrote a bit about our desire to start a church in Dublin that is "Reproducible & Sustainable." The comments that came helped me realize how difficult something like this is to clarify in a few blog posts.
I believe one difficulty is the perceptions many of us carry when someone says "plant a church." We immediately start thinking about the building where this church will meet and how the Sunday services will be structured. I know that's how it worked for me most of my life.
But as we've thought about church planting in Dublin, we've had something very different in mind…I wouldn't say original…but maybe a bit of a hybrid. When we went over there last summer, the phrase that we used to convey what we were thinking was "parish model."
It actually came out of something that I'd been thinking about our church here in Ithaca. Let me explain...We have been, like a lot of contemporary evangelical churches, a "regional" church. While we have had people at times drive from Bath, or Auburn, both over 50 minutes away, that has not been the norm. However, we regularly (& currently) have people come from Trumansburg (15 miles from the church's facility), Aurora (25), Cortland (20) & Sayre, PA (41).
[While I spent the first 11 years of our church's history in Ithaca, I have lived in Trumansburg for the past two (long story.)]
While I'm glad people have decided to travel to be part of what we are doing in Ithaca, (many of the people who've live in these outer areas have been leaders at our church,) I've wondered more and more lately about the impact of that.
While I do think there are a great deal of positives to having people come in from all over, in the 13 years that I was lead pastor at the Ithaca Vineyard, the number of outreach/service events that I've planned/organized for Cortland, Tburg, Sayre, or Aurora would be a grand total of 0. Why? Because I believe God called our church to serve/lover/reach out to Ithaca. And that's where I've focused…that's where our church has focused. At the same time, it has meant that many those who are driving into Ithaca have not been able to be as involved as they would be if their church was right where they lived.
So here's what I've been thinking as far a Dublin. Rather than building something and expecting them to come, our family is going to focus on serving, relating to & loving people in Clontarf. As we start to see people come from other areas, we'll invite them to join us, have them learn along side of us what we are doing there, and then send them out to into their neighborhood and communities to begin doing the same thing.
(If you're familiar with Alan Hirsch, this is pretty similar to the hub/network model he writes about.)
Now, this probably means smaller groups of people meeting in any one place, but the potential for many more of these small groups spread out through out the city & beyond.
So with that said, what would be the first question that would pop into your head? What concerns? Or what opportunities. Love to continue the discussion.
When I posted yesterday, I said I wanted to share about why, at least in my thinking, being truly reproducible has been a bit of a challenge.
And I'm really wrestling with getting this into words. And while I'm wrestling with getting this into words, my wife is working like crazy packing up our house...(I'm trying not to feel too guilty, but it isn't working well).
So I want to throw out one idea and I'd love to hear from you as to why you think it is difficult for churches to reproduce what they are doing on a regular basis. (or if you totally disagree with my premise, let me know that.)
Again, using the church I started as an example...with this plant in Dublin upcoming, we will have planted 2 churches in 13 years. Now, I used the words "regular basis" because they are intentionally vague...however, I'm pretty sure that 1 every 6.5 years does not qualify as regular.
For me, the biggest hinderance to being reproducible was finding people who could do all of the stuff a church planter was supposed to do. They often need to be a bit super human... They need to be able to cast vision, evangelize, recruit, train new people, teach, administrate, market, lead small groups, set up systems, oversee finances... and the list actually goes on a bit longer, but you get the idea. And for the first few years, they usually need to be bi-vocational as well. (Not only is that a challenge to being reproducible, not the most sustainable process either.)
The guy who planted out of our church in Wellsboro PA, was a retired CEO with an MBA from Cornell before church planting.
My thought is, what if the bar was lowered? Now, not in character or godliness, spiritual formation...I'd actually like to see that bar raised a bit. But lowered in the job description? What if what was expected of the planter was much less than it is now? What if what was expected form a lead pastor was much less? WWhat if rather than going out on their own, they were more part of a network of related churches? What if you had a model where someone could be bi-vocational for years, while pastoring/leading a church and feel energized rather than burnt-out?
I'm still working this out...it's more of a conversation I'm having with friends over a meal rather than a well written concept at this point.
I'd love to hear any thoughts you had on why reproducing can be a challenge...or if any of my random questions struck a chord with you.
One of the things we have sensed since we first got the idea of moving to Dublin to plant a church was that we needed to spend sometime getting to know and simply listening to people there. What helps people in Ithaca connect with Jesus may not have any impact in Dublin….or it might. But we are going there as students...to listen and learn.
At the same time, there are a couple things about what we are hoping to do there that are becoming more and more clear as we move forward. For example there are two words that we have strongly believed need to describe what we build in Dublin...Sustainable & Reproducible.
Over the next few days I wanted to look at what those two words mean to us. Let me start by talking about what I mean by reproducible. (as an aside, I have learned that if you and your spouse reproduce after a certain age, people feel they have a right to ask you very personal questions...this also seems to be true for people who have 4 or more kids. When we had our first 3 kids, no one asked us if we were trying to have kids...but when Liz was pregnant with Méabh, countless people asked us if we were surprised...we simply assured them that we understand how the process works.)
At least with humans...
But say you have a church of 1000 people. Over the course of 15 years, they plant 10 new churches. And say one of those churches grows to 200. Two more make it to 100, and the rest struggle to make it year to year, and never really become established.
I’m 6 feet (72 inches) tall. My wife is 5’6”. We have 4 kids. Say one of them grew to 36 inches tall. Another to 28 inches, and the other two were still struggling to get past 20 inches. On the one hand, sure, we’ve reproduced, but no one would look at that and see our family as healthy. In fact, everyone would recognize something somewhere had gone wrong.
And obviously, they would still be human...they would still matter...we would still love them...they would have value...but we would all want so much more for them.
Or even take our church in Ithaca. I’ve wanted to plant churches. I’ve prayed about it. Talked to people with potential, and encouraged them to plant...and in 13 years, we’ve planted 1 church (and that involved someone who came to our church wanting to plant.) Now that church (in Wellsboro PA) is about the same size as our church in Ithaca. So on the one hand we’ve reproduced...what we reproduced has grown to look like us...but after 13 years of trying, we reproduced once.
Again, if Liz and I had been trying to have kids for 13 years & had one, most everyone would recognize that there is something not working as it is supposed to.
I have some thoughts as to why it has worked this way...tomorrow I’ll share a couple of thoughts on that.