Ways into Small Missional Community

Taken from Ian’s blog the following entries were created for the Small Missional Community project that he is facilitating with CMS, aimed at offering insights to help people form new community-projects. He has posted these on the kindling network and invites you to contribute to the conversation.

Ways into small missional community [1] starting out in company

Many of the small missional communities that I work with seem to be have flickered into life in the dreams of one or two visionary people. But there’s very good reason to seek company, even at this early stage. The project will almost certainly have greater vitality and resourcefulness if the vision is shared and shaped by a few others – perhaps even just 2 or 3 people who will be part of the project with you and who will love it and commit to it, rather than just you being the one person blazing a lone trail.

There’s good precedent for this of course – in the Gospels we see Jesus sending disciples out in 2’s, and the missionary saint Paul always seems to have worked in groups of 2 or 3 when facilitating new Christ-following communities.

So perhaps the question is ‘who is with you in this?’ And if at the moment you are alone in carrying the vision, the question is ‘who might be with you?’ Let the ever-surprising Spirit bring you together with the people who will be your visionary companions.

Ways into small missional community [2] what’s the big idea?

If you are reading this I guess that you may have come to some sort of realisation that you want to bring something new into being! Your imagination has been excited by the possibility of following Christ in the company of others, in a way that engages creatively with your culture and emerges from your setting [and there’ll be more on working with our setting in another post soon].

A really good question to ask now is this – what’s the big idea? What are you aiming to create? And how you can you express this simply?

One way to access this is to come up with what Robin Yourston calls the ‘elevator conversation’. Here’s how it works: imagine you get into a lift [the elevator] and you bump into someone you know who asks you what you are doing – and so you’ve got, say 30 seconds max between floors to tell the beginning of this new story. What will you say?

Try to write or draw what this big idea is. Aim for simplicity. If you use Twitter, you might try to write in 140 characters what you are looking to bring into being. Or if you use SMS try to come up with a single text message.

Give it a try. My experience is that the big idea will evolve over time, but even at an early stage you will have the beginnings of this big idea within you. This is potentially a really helpful was of getting started – through telling the story to yourselves and others, and focussing on what is really important.

So what’s your big idea?

Ways into small missional community [3] beginning to live a simple pattern

So perhaps there’s a few of you setting out, with an idea of what you hope might come into being. How do you actually get started?

A really good way to begin is to start living a simple pattern of life. This would be the core happenings that you can imagine coming into being for the community-project. The stuff you do every week or so.

Keep the pattern simple. Don’t wait until you have it all worked out, begin with what you sense is being given to you. In time the pattern will evolve. Don’t try to do too much. Give attention to each other, don’t get too wrapped up in the idea of the thing and miss out on the people. Even if there’s only 2 or 3 of you, live it as if there are all the people that you hope in time will be with you. Try to sense what the pivot point – the central element – of the community’s life will be in the week. Make it a priority – and love it!

So if you are already part of something like a small missional community, what’s your community pattern of life? And what was your experience of living it from the beginning? If you are thinking about starting a community-project, what do you sense might be the simple pattern, the vital elements in the week?

Ways into small missional community [4] finding the spirit of the community

In any community there will be always be a lot of focus on what we do. That’s fine – the actions of the community, its surface life – are important. But behind the activity is something less obvious, more subtle, and perhaps even more important. This is what I think of as the spirit of the community.

Almost every family, project, team, society or business has a spirit or value system, often unrecognised, and sometimes less than positive. Gracious or greedy, caring or care-less, transparent or manipulative [or a mix of those] – the spirit of a community is how it feels to encounter it – and the spirit of thing has the power to create something beautiful – or to trash it.

When combined with ‘the big idea’ [see the previous ‘ways into… no 3’] a good spirit can produce something truly creative – a community that in small ways begins to reshape us and the world around us for good. So it can be really helpful in beginning a new community to identify what we hope the spirit will be, describe it, and begin to try to live it.

One way of getting a handle on this idea of spirit is to ask this question: how will we be when we are doing the things we hope to do? This is a question about the sort of people we want to be as we journey. It’s about how we do anything – and as one of my mentors Fr Richard Rohr says – ‘how we do anything is how we do everything!’ So, for example, how do we do the washing up? Happily, together, well? Or reluctantly, left for others, badly?

So what might be the spirit of the community-project that you are part of, or that you hope will come into being? Can you describe the spirit somehow – and if so what words or pictures convey this?

Ways into small missional community [5] being shaped by our setting

At various times in history Christian mission has tended to clone what has gone before, with little attention being paid to the context. One example might be the way in which, with the best intent, some 18th and 19th missionaries simply took the model of an English parish church and [literally] rebuilt that church and way of life around the British empire.

But the Gospel – the good news of Jesus – is a story of incarnation, of ‘God with us’ where we are, as we are, coming into our experience of the world. Christ’s coming gives dignity and attention to human culture.

So, whilst holding key elements in common – such as the new beginning of baptism, communal life nourished in the Jesus meal, love of the scriptures, and Jesus’s practises of prayer and action – we should expect the life of Christ-following communities to reflect something of the brilliant diversity of human culture.

One of the most compelling possibilities for small missional communities is that they can reflect their context, celebrate their setting and energise their local culture. A truly authentic communal following of Christ will be shaped by and shaped for our setting.

There’s lots of ways into this, but here’s 2 opening questions that may help us to find a way in where we are:
What are some of the elements that make this community/neighbourhood/network distinctive?
And if Jesus was one of us in this place, where would he be, what might he be doing?

Ways into small missional community [6] small is good

It may not always feel like it, but I want to suggest that when we start something like a missional community, small is good! I’d go on to suggest that smallness may even be good throughout the life of a community.

Be assured that there are really tough things that go with smallness – fragility, vulnerability, lack of recognition to name just 3 – but these challenges are full of possibility and hope.

Small is good because it opens the way to participation. If the thing is small it requires us to be involved – and when we get involved we both shape and are shaped by the experience.

Small is good because it takes us into relationship. This path can, of course also be hugely uncomfortable. But it’s in relationship with others that some of our rough edges become beautiful shapes, that Christ may be glimpsed as we learn to live, argue, accept and perhaps ultimately love our traveling companions.

Small is good because it has a vitality that cannot be easily defeated by difficulty, let-down or even persecution. The experience of people who attempt this way is that in the exposed state of smallness there can be a rediscovery of the God who is closer than we can imagine.

Perhaps we should not be surprised to discover that small can be good. For 2000 years would-followers of Jesus have banded together in small groups to share the journey. It could be argued that the Church has been at its most vital and authentic when characterised by being small – and that we have struggled to live the way of Christ whenever we have become big, powerful, or the majority. So don’t be afraid of smallness. Work with it, embrace it, love it. Small is good!

Ways into small missional community [7] eating, drinking together

Interesting things can happen when people eat and drink together.

Some of the most memorable stories left to us in the gospels from the life, death and resurrection of Jesus happen when food and drink are being shared. A woman anoints Jesus with her tears when he is at table. A life-changing conversation with Zachaeus takes place in the context of hospitality. Jesus bids farewell to his followers in the setting of a shared meal. The disciples at Emmaus recognise Jesus in the breaking and blessing of bread. And an early morning breakfast on the beach is hosted by the same risen Christ.

Interesting things can happen when people eat and drink together. Our common humanity becomes more apparent. Differences diminish. Neighbours and strangers find a place of belonging. Community can deepen. So if we are interested in starting or sustaining a new project-community in the way of Jesus it is worth imagining the place of eating and/or drinking together.

Any pattern of eating and drinking needs to be true to our setting and reflect our culture. An example from experience: from the start of its life the community of which I have been part for 5 years has centred its life on a simple community meal in someone’s home each week. And each weekend the eucharist is followed by a visit to cafe or pub. The community’s life and mission happen in the context of food and drink, in ways that fit the city setting and the life-patterns of the people.

Inspired by the practise of Jesus, what might be the place of shared eating and/or drinking in your community?

Ways into small missional community [8] finding a name

:What’s in a name? Cumbrae, Emerge, hOME, Ithaca, mayBe, Sanctuary, and Third Space are some of the names that are represented on this network at the moment.

The process of discovering a name for your community-project can be a really important part in its creation. The imaginative conversations, the prayers and the waiting that are part of the journey towards a name take us right into the reasons that we are setting out on this course. The process will make us think through what the big idea is, it will immerse us in the spirit of the community [see earlier posts in this series of ways into small missional community], and it will help us understand how we can serve the people around us in the name of Jesus.

My experience is that an interesting thing sometimes happens in this process. You may find that the name is somehow waiting for you, that the name in some sense discovers you and your friends as much as you discover the name. If you don’t have a name yet, it’s a really good idea to make sure that everyone who is with you is involved in the process.

Although Jesus doesn’t seemed to have named the little community he created, he did give a new name to the disciple we know as Peter – which means something like ‘stone’ or ‘rock’ – and in so doing perhaps Jesus enabled this disciple to become more fully the character that he could see was within him.

So what’s the naming process like for you? If you have a name, how did you discover it? And how might the name be helping to shape your life as a small missional community of the world-changing Jesus?

Ways into small missional community [9] earthy good news?

This latest post in the ‘ways into small missional community’ series is an exercise in [re]discovering roots and imagining the future.

The great story of Jesus is known as ‘Gospel’ – which means ‘good news’. So it may be important to ask how Jesus could be good news where we are, in this place, for these people and for this setting.

It can be helpful to break this down into two questions:
first [and here’s the return to roots] ‘why is Jesus good news?’
then second [and here’s imagining the future] ‘so what could this good news look like here?’

We may have lots of responses to the roots question. But what might that lead to? How is the good news felt and tasted, lived and experienced? In the task of creating Christ-following missional communities we need to discover earthy ways of expressing and living the good news where we are.

An example: one of many possible answers to the roots question might be to say that Jesus is good news because he shows us that God is love. Now there’s wonder in that idea – it’s perhaps the most beautiful of all equations – but how do we say it and live it in ways that are more than cliche or jargon? The imagined future question takes us into the earthy business of how God’s love could be lived and experienced here. What might that actually look like ‘on the ground’? How could ‘God’s love’ be shared and encountered in real ways in this neighbourhood or network? What can you imagine happening?

So why is Jesus good news for you? And what could the good news look like where you are – in, around and through the community-project of which you are part, or of which you are dreaming?

Ways into small missional community [10] a transparent, light and freeing framework

If you’ve followed this series you’ll know that I encourage people to look out for a few others who share similar hopes to be committed to the project with you [see ways into smc [1] starting out in company]. I also encourage smc’s to find a bigger place of belonging of some sort – for encouragement, shared learning and some accountability – be it diocese or parish, network or circuit, or a wider community of mission like CMS.

When you set out on a new venture like this, one of the delights is the freedom to imagine and shape the thing as you go. The three or four of you, over a coffee, in the pub or over a meal. This is good! Enjoy the freedom and the creativity of this early phase. You will then reach a point, sooner than you might imagine, where it’s really important to work out a framework for how decisions will be made in the longer term.

I’m not advocating any particular type of organisation. That will depend on the sort of people you are, the nature of the project-community and your setting. But here are a few key principles that I find helpful:

– trust people: involve everyone in the framework-finding process
– seek transparency: make sure that any framework will show everyone very clearly how decisions are made and who makes them
– keep the framework light and freeing: aim for simplicity and remember it only exists to help the community to live out it’s calling
– put the framework in place with some provisionality: agree to try it out, and revisit it after a period and ask how it is working
– treasure listening: make sure that everyone has a voice in decision-making
– aim for consensus in the big issues: allow for any really big decision to be made by consensus
– find wise guidance: give to some wise, prayerful and humble person in the community a role to include calling a provisional way forward should there ever be a real impasse – in my experience this is very rarely needed if deep attention is paid to the big idea [see ways into smc [2] ]and to the spirit of the community [see ways into smc [4] ]
– don’t create jobs for life: find a framework that allows people to move in and out of roles
– seek the Christ: remember where the community belongs…

© Ian Adams 2009

Ian looks after various pace bene projects which aim to bring peace and well-being to our world, local and global. He is a writer, mentor and teacher around themes of community, spirituality and prayer. He was co-founder and first abbot of mayBe community in Oxford, and now helps other similar projects and communities to come into being. He’s a partner in the StillPoint centre for the practise of Christian spirituality, is responsible for the CMS ‘Small Missional Communities’ project, and is an Associate Missioner with Fresh Expressions.