Within the space of seven days three different people had talked to me about Missional Communities. It was the latter part of 2008 and I was seriously asking God the question ‘where do we go from here now?’ For five years we had seen strong growth through our G12 cell system. But it was beginning to creak and groan, and leaders were beginning to burn out. Something had to change!
And so God began to talk to me about Missional Communities. Frontline church had been on a journey of transition from cell church, which was characterised by high control and being centrally driven, to a Missional Community church that is both highly autonomous (low control) and emphasises high accountability. The transition to this culture has been much slower than I anticipated but we’ve learnt lots along the way!
Along the way we have sought many ways to communicate with the church, with Community Leaders, and with new people joining us.
These are some of my key reflections on how to transition to Missional Communities and communicate that transition to the whole church.
1. Communicate the initial vision for change
The first steps in communication were obviously with the Senior Leadership team. Much debate, hand wringing, and prayer ensued. Eventually by the beginning of 2009 we had made an agreement and were ready to take the next step together. We gathered all our primary cell leaders and began to share what we thought God was saying. We held two evenings, making sure everyone could hear what we were thinking – we didn’t want anyone to miss out on hearing that. Over those two events we sought to not only hear their concerns, answer their questions, but also listen to what God might be saying to us through them.
2. Choose the Key Messages – don’t over communicate
One of the biggest problems has been the sheer amount of stuff we have wanted to communicate; when you’re excited about the potential of a movement that multiplies missionary disciples (which I am), then there is a high risk of information overload!
3. Hold your nerve – stick to what you believe God has said
When we shared what we had heard with the whole church it didn’t go down very well! Half the church were delighted and relieved, excited for this new season, but the other half were assembling paper-mache effigies of me and sticking pins in them! It was a completely divided response. It was at this time that we needed to hold our nerve; sure that God had given us a clear direction to follow. And so on Jan 1st 2010 we did what many churches had done before us and began the big bang transition, and shifted from cells to Missional Communities.
4. Pick potential Community Leaders
New potential Community leaders were recruited on the basis that they were able to gather 6-12 people around a missional vision, and were willing to build on the DNA of up, in, and out (what we now sometimes refer to as our 3 values of growing, giving, and going). It was a pretty low bar, to be honest. The new leaders loved the low control side, but were not so quick to buy-in to the high accountability (we’re still working on that one!). With about 35 Missional Communities currently operational and about 10 that have closed, I’m not overly discouraged – but I know that we have much further to go in our longing to see a movement fuelled by multiplying missionary disciples.
5. Lead with culture change before structure change
We led the process with structure change and didn’t address the significant culture changes that were necessary. We ended up having to retro-engineer those over the next 5 years (and we still are – you can read about some of that process in an older blog of mine here). Perhaps if we had started by addressing the culture changes then the structural transition would have been much smoother.
If there was a way to have done the process more gradually and with a pilot group, or with an initial leadership huddle to start the process, then I think we would have done that. But at the time our understanding was limited and we had the problem of trying to provide a place of spiritual connection and belonging for 1000 adults and children. The idea of a gradual transition just looked too complicated and messy.
6. Don’t underestimate how long the process will take
As always I underestimated how long it would take for others to catch the heart of what it meant to raise missionary disciples through authentic, outwardly focused community. Why did I think that something that had taken me over a year to thoroughly investigate would be caught by the masses through a few preaches and some written material? How dumb can you be and still breathe!
7. Pick your communication vehicles to key leaders
We have found two main face-to-face vehicles invaluable when communicating new information effectively:
As founding pastor I huddle fortnightly with seven coaches, most of whom are senior staff. It took a while to start meeting that frequently, starting with just monthly huddles. But now the fortnightly rhythm is working well and allowing for more momentum to build. These meetings are at my house; I wanted to get away from the offices and bring a bit of oikos in to the proceedings with fun, food, and prayer as part of the process. We talk about all sorts of things, including key messages that we want to communicate to the community leaders. The coaches in turn all huddle with groups of community leaders every four weeks.
ii) Community Leader Gatherings
We gather the missional community leaders termly for training on a Saturday morning. There is often a theme around either up, in, or out, and we sometimes ask CLs to create a plan for the coming term. The offer of bacon butties on arrival and chinese takeaway or pizza for lunch tends to get a pretty good turn out!
8. Be intentional about whole-church communication
Since then we have continued to communicate with the church through Sunday preaching, through gathering the Community leaders termly, through stories on a Sunday, and on the Frontline Facebook page. Some people respond better to one type of communication than another. Some are digital natives who will get all their information from social media sources. Others are digital dinosaurs who will prefer physical sources of information (paper and people).
9. Use email sparingly
We do a fortnightly e-shot to all the community leaders, cycling between information, inspiration, and input:
This tends to be about organisational stuff, dates, up-coming things we want the Missional Communities to be ready for. Right now we want our Communities to get the message about a month of mission in March next year, as well as the next Community Leaders gathering
This is usually around testimonies that we have collected from members of Communities. The idea is to inspire others by seeing what God is doing and what is possible. Testimonies not only encourage but also release faith. Collecting those testimonies has been the hardest part. We (the coaches) have all had to take responsibility for looking out for them and reporting them back to our MC coordinator (my PA). They usually have to be chased. We try and keep a bit of a stock that we can draw on.
This is an opportunity for someone (usually me) to give some simple short insights that will help the Community Leaders understand a key principle or practice that we see as important. Often we combine this with a link to a 3dm blog, giving the opportunity for the same message to be reinforced by ‘another voice’, or sometimes offering input on other subjects that they can access if they are interested in the topic.
We have found that communication is a crucial part of effectively developing Missional Communities, and that you can never over-communicate.
As we continue to transition our churches to the vision of the future that burns in our hearts, we need to become masters of the airwaves, and overcome the one who is called ‘the prince of the power of the air’. At the end of the day communication is a battle we must win. It is a matter of spiritual warfare. May you have victory in the battle!
Nic is senior pastor of Frontline Church in Liverpool. Nic and Jenny have 4 daughters and 6 grandchildren. Nic also has an increasing role in the Covenant Kingdom Network of churches. A good book in a coffee shop is his favourite kind of recharging time.