Review: Launching Missional Communities

A review of Mike Breen and Alex Absalom, Launching Missional Communities: A Field Guide, 3DM, 2010.

Launching Missional Communities by Mike Breen and Alex Absalom of 3 Dimension Ministries is a book on both how to transition to missional communities and how to run a missional community. In common with most missional church material, the theology is largely based on the pattern of the New Testament rather than systematic or biblical theology which makes it somewhat thin. But then the book does not set out to be a theology of missional community. It is intended as a how-to book and styled as a manual with two columns per page plus suggestion boxes, lists, case studies and space for notes.

At times it is quite prescriptive. ‘We strongly encourage you to follow this guide as closely as is appropriate for your church situation,’ they say at one point (80). So, for example, they provide a ‘service outline’ for a launch meeting (107) and a five stage process for evangelising individuals (110). At other times it lists different ideas in a way that makes concepts concrete without prescribing specific solutions.

Along the way there’s lots of helpful material, especially on identifying a common missional project for a missional community. I also like the idea of encouraging missional communities to set a sustainable pace by having a one-month period each year when it scales down it activities for a period of rest.

Launching Missional Communities advocates a four-tier model of church life. This is because it relies heavily on the sociological analysis of Edward Hall who divides space into public space, social space, personal space and intimate space. The model is this:

— public space = celebration (over 100 people)

— social space = missional community or cluster (20-50 people)

— personal space = small group or cell (3-12 people)

— intimate space = accountability partners (1-2 people)

A fifth group overlays this framework: what they call a ‘huddle’.  A huddle is a group of four to twelve leaders and potential leaders who meet at least every other week for discipleship and accountability with a focus on two questions: ‘What is God saying to me?’ and ‘How will I respond?’

This may be a great model in specific contexts though I’m not persuaded it reflects the most common New Testament pattern of a city-wide entity made up of household congregations. It also creates large missional communities – too large, for example, to fit into most UK homes. But their concern that small groups (less than twelve) often struggle to be missional because they default to introspective intimacy is an important point.

The main area where I would want to supplement the book is this. It describes groups of people with a common mission. But it does not take this to the next level to see both community and mission as our identity. The result is that there is still a significant emphasis on meetings, and community and mission are not pushed down into everyday life as much as they could be. Nor do we discover how mission can be done not only by community but through community. But this is not to fault the actual content of the book, much of which is very useful.

I must confess the extravagant claims grated with me – you couldn’t call it a humble book! The authors claim to have invented missional communities when they were at St Thomas’ Church in Sheffield which may come as a surprise to you if you’ve being doing missional communities for many years without knowing this, even more so if you’ve been based in the same city all that time! Surely one of the features of a genuine move of God’s Spirit is that it starts spontaneously in various places in unrelated ways.

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8 thoughts on “Review: Launching Missional Communities

  1. Tim, thanks so much for the review of our new book! Appreciate the work it takes to read and review. If I could clarify two things that might prove helpful:

    1) We certainly didn’t mean to articulate that we “invented” missional communities. As you mentioned, when the Spirit is at work, these types of things seem to pop up all over the place and are often called different things in different places. We tried to lay that out in the introduction, but could probably be spelled out more plainly again throughout the book for future editions.

    2) We’ve seen Missional Communities work, as you expressed, as a “city-wide entity made up of household congregations” so we would agree with you in this New Testament pattern. In essence, that’s what a network of MCs is. It’s just that MCs are endlessly flexible so they can meet in an actual house (which many do), or out in various public spaces. The specific mission of the MC helps set the location of the MC for it’s “formal” gatherings (though the organic is happening constantly, we chose not to go into too much detail about that, as you mentioned as well). So if it’s a neighborhood based MC, it would probably meet in the home and would be on the smaller side (maybe 20-25 people). Many of the neighborhood MCs in the UK do that. But if it’s a MC reaching out, say, to club culture (which we had a few in Sheffield doing), the MC would literally meet out on the street or a shop at 3am on a Saturday morning. College kids who were clubbing weren’t going to come to a home, so we incarnated ourselves where they were. So our understanding of MC is that they are households, but they are spiritual households on mission together and are flexible to the mission context.

    Again, appreciate the review and will definitely use your feedback for future editions. God bless!

  2. Hi Mike, thanks for the comments. My comment about the NT pattern was not focused on location. I’m very happy for mission to determine the most appropriate context for meeting. Indeed I think location is a red herring because missional community is not about a meeting, but about a shared missional life. My comment was more about prescribing a four-tier structure when the most common pattern (though probably not the only one) in the NT is a two-tier pattern. But don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying a four-tier pattern is wrong. Plus I think personal accountability or wider connectedness should be there (though they may not need to be locked down in a specific structures). But I don’t think we can read any specific model off the pages of the NT. So I would advocate much more flexibility for mission to set the agenda. I would prefer to emphasize setting a gospel culture rather than developing any specific structural model. Blessings, Tim

  3. Tim, completely agree.

    I think what we’ve tried to do with the 4 spaces is give people a lens to understand how people most naturally gather. In all honesty, our experience wasn’t that we came across research that said people gather this way and then we tried it…we tripped into it and found that people gathering in groups of 20-50 had the most missional and communal momentum (and also coincided with many of the ‘congregational’ sizes we find in the NT). It was only when we started to ask “OK, why is this working like this?” that we stumbled onto this research. The 4 spaces isn’t meant to be used as a rigid structure or model (and certainly isn’t in the churches we’ve worked with because, as you know, theory only works 100% of the time on paper!), but as a helpful guide when asking how people normally function. As you mention in your review, it is crucial for people to find their IDENTITY within this community and this research simply aided to explain why this is so important: It’s how we are hard-wired as humans. All this to say, the 4 spaces was meant only to be descriptive of what we see happening a lot rather than a rigid, prescriptive model of the way it “has” to be done. Cheers!

  4. Howdy Tim…thanks for the review. I have a somewhat unrelated question. If you were to stock 5-10 books (other than yours) in a location that is most likely to be visited by a mix of classes and cultures in a coffee shop type of atmosphere, what would they be? I am thinking of books especially accessible to less theologically trained people….Cheers

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