Our cities remain the gathering place of culture, human capital, and change. Suburban flight is a reality as young educated creatives flock to cities for the opportunities and lifestyle they offer. All this comes on the heals of the American church surrendering property and influence in the urban core while finding its place as the religion of the suburbs. Evangelical Christianity doesn’t have a literal or cultural place in the city, we gave it up decades ago. Now, we’re trying to reengage in a context divergent from the orderly and homogeneous context of the suburbs the church has made its home.
Cities need both worship gatherings and missional communities to intersect the people and needs of the city. This article will focus on the need for missional communities in the city. The gospel shines brightly, speaks clearly, and welcomes sojourners with questions and doubts in the context of relationships.
Good News in the City
Oddly, the first step forward isn’t toward cutting edge strategies or culturally relevant events. It’s pressing into the gospel—the thing of first importance. The gospel is the good news that Jesus has defeated sin, death, and evil through his own death and resurrection and is making all things new, even us. This is good news in the city and for the city.
The city is where death, evil, and destruction is obvious to all. The affects of sin, whether it is acknowledged as sin or not, is exposed in every neighborhood. The city is where the abused gather together. Where the enslaved, broken, and downtrodden end up. It’s where schools fail to keep kids safe. The city is where injustice is present on almost every corner. Where isolation from community, family, and others is rampant. Cities are settling grounds for fugitives and refugees. They gather orphans.
The city is also a place for hope. It’s where we hope in our humanity, ingenuity, non-profits, and creative solutions. The city is a place of beautiful artwork, music, and cuisine. Cities gather ideas. The city is where humans, created in God’s image, thrive in expressing some of God’s most beautiful attributes: compassion, mercy, creativity, and justice.
Despite the high volume of humans, each made in God’s image, our hopes and solutions always fall short. Despite the population density, we need loving community. Despite the creative capital, we need justice and healing. Despite the plethora of opportunities, we need lasting satisfaction, joy.
The gospel of Jesus is good news in the city. He defeats sin, death, and evil through the cross and empty tomb. Jesus isn’t just defeating he is recreating, making all things new. This is good news in cities of unfulfilled promise and expectation of complete restoration. This good news is what every mayoral candidate promises, but only Jesus delivers—not only a new city, but a new humanity. The gospel offers redemption, restoration, and renewal.
Community and Mission in the City
The gospel saves us from sin and death toward something: unity with God, unity with his people, and the ministry of reconciliation the gospel of Jesus offers. In other words, Jesus calls us to himself, to his community, and to his restorative mission. The gospel is the starting place. The cause for the gathering and scattering of his people on mission.
I’ve never been around a community that was centered on the gospel that wasn’t on mission. A gospel-centered people is a missional people. I’ve never been around a community that loves one another, that doesn’t have Jesus at the middle of everything they do. A gospel-focused people is a missional community. If the truth of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection isn’t woven into the fabric of everything a community does, it has no purpose outside of its own will to make their cities better. Without the gospel at the center, the community has no reason to endure and bare all things together other than its consumeristic pursuit of ideal community. This is no different in the city.
Our cities need the gospel to be made visible and audible. This is certainly accomplished on Sunday mornings in worship service throughout the city. However, the gospel must pervade the city through God’s scattered people. The city needs gospel communities on mission nestled into every crack of the city.
What is a missional community? The space of this article does not allow me to get into the depths and nuances of a missional community. But simply put, gospel communities are a group of people learning to follow Jesus together in a way that renews their city, town, village, hamlet, or other space. They aren’t fancy. In fact, they are almost always a messy community of everyday citizens who are devoted to Jesus, one another, their neighbors, and their city. This means they invest in each others’ lives, calling one another to repent and behold Christ daily. A missional community reorients their activity to center not on themselves, but on Christ. They struggle forward as in process sinners redeemed by the unconditional and infinite grace of God. They share meals, step humbly into the injustice in their city, welcome others into community, and take care of each other.
How to Become a Missional Community
Every missional community has three natural ingredients: qualified and called leaders, a clear purpose, and committed participants. These three elements are where you must begin as a leader. After these components are brought together your first task is laying a biblical foundation for missional community.
Qualified and Called Leaders
As you dream about starting a community, you must ask these important questions about leadership and prayerfully consider them:
- Am I qualified and called to lead a missional community? Do I have capacity to be a leader? (See this article on leadership roles and calling)
- How do I need to grow as a follower of Jesus? (See this template of personal development as a leader)
- Who will lead alongside you? How will you invite them into leadership? How do they compliment your gifts?
The Purpose of Your Community
Before you start making phone calls and sending out invitations to start a missional community, take some time to think about why missional community. Why do you want to start one? Be honest with yourself. How would you describe a missional community in your own words? It’s important you describe it well as you invite people to participate. Your definition of a missional community should include: shared life, the gospel, care for the city and neighbors, and making disciples.
Think through what you are passionate about and who you are passionate about. Is it a neighborhood, a group of people, or the specific names and faces you interact with everyday? What would a community that proclaims and promotes the gospel to them look like? What would it look like to welcome your neighbors into that kind of community?
A Committed Core
Begin to pray for the people God will bring into that community. Pray for people to come alongside you and help. Pray for co-leaders and for God to connect you with others who have a similar passion. Pray for God to bring names to mind. Think through the specific people in your life you want to join your new missional community. They’ll need to live or work close to you since its hard to commute to community. You aren’t looking for all-stars or elite Christians—they don’t exist. Instead, you are praying for people who will commit to the process of becoming a community. Who will be teachable, humble, and honest in faith and repentance?
As you invite people, give them a picture of gospel-shaped community alive in God’s mission. As you describe what you are prayerfully starting, avoid making your invitation tailor-made to each person, where you sacrifice your convictions. For example, you really want your friends who are struggling in marriage to join, so you tell them it will be a group that fixes marriages. Invite people into a community that isn’t centered on their needs, hobbies, or passions but the gospel of Jesus and his mission.
Start by Laying a Foundation on the Gospel, Community, and Mission
Spend the first chunk of your time as a missional community growing in biblical understanding of what these large topics are. You cannot move forward without laying this foundation. However, your community’s foundation will be the composite assumptions and ideals of each individual member. It is painfully difficult to lead a community that doesn’t have a biblical foundation on the essentials. You can do this a variety of ways.
- Study a book of the Bible by asking these questions: what does this teach us about who God is, what he has done, who we are, and how we ought to live in our city? I would recommend Ephesians, Colossians, or 1 Peter. This helps a group of people see the connections between the gospel, community, mission while developing an understanding of the Scriptures.
- Go through an oral telling of the grand narrative of Scripture. This gives your community an understanding of the gospel and God’s mission for his people. It helps root a community in the big picture. An excellent version of this has been put together by Soma Communities.
- Use a Missional Community primer or curriculum. There are several options out there by the various missional community tribes. Jonathan Dodson and I recently released our eight week guide that spends considerable time unpacking the gospel, community, and mission.
Be Committed to the Process and Your City
Missional community is a mess and a process. A community leaning into this process is the ideal missional community on this side of new creation. A community that engages the journey of being conformed into the image of Christ is a dynamic picture of the gospel the city needs. Your calling is to start where you are and take steps forward, through prayer, study, shared meals, showing up to serve, inviting others in, and becoming increasingly present in your city. A great missional community is one that regularly asks: how are we allowing the gospel to shape us? What is God calling us to? How is God challenging us to be conformed into the image of Christ? This is the whole deal.
Brad Watson (@bradawatson) serves as a pastor of Bread&Wine Communities where he develops and teaches leaders how to form communities that love God and serve the city. Brad is the author of Raised? and Called Together: A Guide to Forming Missional Communities. He lives in southeast Portland with his wife and their two daughters. You can read more from Brad at www.bradawatson.com