Turning small groups into missional communities
From a talk by Sanjay Mahtani at Ekklesia ’22
Sanjay Mahtani is an Assistant Pastor at Oxford Community Church, with responsibility for local mission. Prior to this, he spent 7 years as a consultant to social impact organisations, which included some co-founding, some investing and lots of strategic advising. His experience spans social enterprises, start-ups and Christian ministries in South Asia and Europe.
Here are some extracts from his talk:
My hope is that the journey that we've been on over the last few years at Oxford Community Church will be a blessing and hopefully a provocation.
Twelve years ago we were in a similar place to what I presume many churches are. As John Tyson, pastor of Church in the City, New York honestly revealed recently, although the church he pastors has a $4M budget and 1500 weekly attendees, they only baptised 9 people in 2021. He says we've collapsed inward to get through the pandemic and that was painful for me. How many of us would also acknowledge in a moment of honesty that actually we collapsed inward to some degree as well?
About 12 years ago, we were grappling with a similar situation. We'd seen very few people baptized in our local church context. So we started exploring ideas of how we might see more people born again. We heard some stories of churches who were pioneering and exploring a concept called missional communities. They were seeing 10% of their congregation born again year on year. For John Tyson's church that would be 150 people baptised not 9.
We obviously had something to learn, explore, connect with here. We joined what was called a learning community - a multi-year process of discovering, repenting, learning, connecting. The basic theory of missional communities is that church wasn't meant to be an attractional thing. It was meant to be a missional thing. It wasn't meant to be a cruise ship, it was meant to be lifeboats. Small enough to care but large enough to dare. Big enough so that people could take risks and feel safe but also small enough that if they were not around people would notice. Prioritizing connecting
with God, connecting with one another and out connecting with the world and finding a balance and a healthy rhythm between these three.
So what did we learn then and what about now?
Over the last 10 years, we saw a whole bunch of activity start. Some examples. A stroke support group. A few couples where one of the couple had had had a stroke started meeting together for dinner every week with a couple of other couples who weren't churched who had been through that same trauma. The non-Christian couples shared deeply as they came to regard the people there as their family. We saw youth work form on an estate where people shared a vision for that geographical area and decided to pioneer something. We saw a group start reaching out to Muslims in East Oxford with a heart to see Muslims come to faith.
Each of the groups formed around a shared missional endeavour that could have been a geographical area, a group of people, a type of ministry but each of them shared DNA; they were outward focused, they weren't just small groups, they weren't just Bible studies. (The Bible was shared but in an open way in order for people who had never read the Bible to connect with it).
So over the last 10 years we've discovered a language or a vocabulary for mission, the importance of each group ministering to the city, doing things that build relationship with people beyond the walls of the church, the priority of local mission.
We also learned a bunch of stuff about our city. We discovered who these 150 000 people across Oxford are that God's put alongside us. We've learned how many people from different nations are in the city. We've learned that about a quarter to a third of the city turns over every year. Who's homeless and where and why. We've learnt about poverty, deprivation, social inequality, different life expectancy in some parts of the city.
We've also learned about how to do mission in a structured way. We've started a primary school with a Christian ethos which people are delighted to send their children to. It was chosen as the one of the flagship examples of intercultural integration. We've learned some lessons about how to bring mission back into the heart of the church so it's not just a fringe activity but core to where we are.
In the last few years, we've seen some fruit, but I want to share that we've not seen all that we long to see. We've seen about a dozen people born
again over the last couple of years. Interestingly only some of those have actually been born again through those missional communities. It seems that the impact of moving in that missional direction has, in part, been to enable and release some of the evangelists among us. It's created space, given room for people to reach out in their own context. But over the last couple of years, we found that many of the groups have indeed retreated inward. They've become places of much needed community and support.
There was a raid on one of the early churches in AD303. It was in North Africa, a city called Cirta which is now called Constantine in Algeria and the raid was to loot everything that was valuable to this church to destroy it. In the basement they found manuscripts in book form that held the scriptures but they didn't find treasures. They listed what they found; 16 tunics for men, 82 dresses for women,13 pairs of men's shoes, 47 pairs of women's shoes, 19 peasant capes and 10 vats of oil and wine. What they found in the basement of that church was not treasures, precious gems or metals. What they found was a storehouse for the local poor. The early church understood that while the ministry was the ministry of the gospel of the kingdom, the means was through service of the poor.
It made me wonder if they raided our stores, if they raided your basement or your church hall or your storeroom what would they find and who are they for? Are they lecterns and resources for the church or are they something of a storehouse for the local poor? What assets are your church reserves tied up in? 50 years before that church raid, the Church in Rome had about 14 serving deacons - we know from Eusebius's writings that they were serving daily about 1500 widows and other persons in distress. So the Church exists to be a service and a provision.
The last two years have been marked by incredible pain, grief, loss and shaking. The last couple of years have shown us that our pristine services, our ceremonies and our sermons actually aren't as effective at ministering the gospel to the world as our brokenness, our weakness, our grief and our lament because there's beauty in the ugliness, there's power in the weakness, there's depth in the simplicity and that's what the early church got hold of and I want to suggest that we need to get hold of that again.
I want to suggest two simple ways of embedding this into our church practice.
First would be personal priority. Jesus says that he came not for the healthy but for the sick. How much of your personal priority is not for the healthy but for the sick? How much of your time is spent focused outwards towards those who don't know Jesus? I'm not particularly thinking about you equipping others to engage with people who don't know Jesus. I'm thinking about you personally. Do you have space and time in your diary to do the work of the evangelist as Paul writes to Timothy?
Second is around gospel confidence. I think the last couple of years of shaking have taught us lots of things, but one thing we can be confident in, is a dying, wounded Saviour and extend that that gospel of a wounded Saviour to a wounded world. How much are you speaking of Jesus in your daily life? I was super challenged in the taxi on the way over. One of our missional leaders started a conversation about Jesus with the Uber driver. It was super simple and it ended up with sharing one of the alpha videos with him. How much are you speaking of Jesus in your daily life?
Watch the 28 min video here which includes a segment from one of the Missional Community leaders:
For more details of Missional Communities see the book Breakout. It tells the story of when St Andrew's Chorleywood had to close their building due to renovation and the congregation of 600 formed into Missional Communities. When the building reopened 18 months later, the congregation had grown to over 1000 and many leaders had been developed. See also the blog, Underground Church.
Retweet about this article: