What is a missional community? (Andrew Roberts)

Monday, 13 August, 2012

Andrew RobertsAndrew Roberts explores missional communities and whether the term is helpful.

The phrase missional community seems to be being used both more frequently and in more diverse ways in the mission-shaped/fresh expressions movement. In a moment I want to ask if the phrase is helpful but first here is a quick attempt at a typography.

I am aware of four ways in which the phrase is being used. You may well be aware of others so do please add to the list.

1. As an alternative description of a fresh expression

A pioneer minister in Birmingham said to me recently that his community were thinking of identifying themselves as a missional community rather than as a fresh expression. At the moment their website declares

we are a fresh expression of church and are currently exploring what it might mean for us to become a new monastic community for the city.

'Missional community' could be a very good descriptor of many a fresh expression. The bread-making church Somewhere Else for example is demonstrably both missional and a community. Interestingly their website declares them to be a

a Methodist church journeying with people of all faiths and none. Gathering as a community around the making and sharing of bread.

2. To describe intentionally-small fresh expressions or emerging churches

Especially those that might be described as new monastic. safespace in Telford might be described in this way. On the Fresh Expressions website, Mark Berry says

Perhaps the best way to describe who we are is as a new-monastic community, a community of followers who are seeking first and foremost to be equipped, resourced and supported in living a life that exudes mission.

3. To denote small- to medium-sized groups that are constituent parts of larger church

Groups that gather in community and who engage in mission together to a particular neighbourhood or network. Good examples would include those that are part of St George's, Deal and St Thomas', Sheffield. Confusingly they can also be called many other things including clusters, go communities, mid-sized communities, mission-shaped communities, and MSCs.

4. To describe an Order of Mission

A dispersed community of people who are united by a common rule or covenant and a shared commitment to mission. Examples would include The Order of Mission (TOM), the Methodist Diaconal Order and CMS.

Is the term 'missional community' helpful?

In the light of the above I want to ask:

  • first, is the language understandable when it is being applied in so many ways? Or has it becomes so complex that it has become devalued? We may understand what we mean and developing a comprehensive typography could be the basis for a good MA dissertation, but what does someone with no Christian experience make of it all?
  • second, is the term 'missional community' helpful, particularly when others (eg. the local Mosque, an AA group, the aficionados at the Apple Store) may legitimately argue they are a missional community too? Where is the Christian distinctiveness?
  • thirdly, and ironically, could the term be a hindrance to mission? Is there a risk that it objectifies and therefore puts off the people the community is seeking to reach?

As for an alternative, if it is necessary to explain what a missional community is by using the word Christian, why not simply talk of Christian community in the first place?

What are your thoughts?

About the author: 

Andrew Roberts is Director of Training for Fresh Expressions.


Hi Andrew,

Thank you for this. I have been viewing Grannie's Tea Room as a Missional Community for some time now because, in contrast to the local Methodist Church, our agenda is purely mission and disciple-building. We are not there to maintain an institution or to hold regular Sunday worship. However, this begs the other question - 'Why are Methodist Churches generally not missional communities?' Surely that's where it all started for us back in the 18th century.


Some interesting questions!

I can see why people want to use a different language. What does "fresh expression" mean to someone who has little or no church background? Describing something as a "community" perhaps has more currency in popular culture.

However if you call some things "missional" does that give permission for other things to be non-missional. For example, Roger asked why aren't all churches "missional communities"? Surely they should be but if some are designated as such, can those who aren't say "well, they do mission so we don't have to"? Secondly, is it a bit like using the term "spirit led worship" to describe certain expressions of worship. Isn't all worship spirit led? Therefore it could be seen as denigratory term?

Finally, I think the term could be seen as exclusive. In a way, we are all members of "the community". By mixing the use of the term, do we create division rather than unity because we are a "seperate" community? Would it be better to say we want to be missional in the community?

Hi Andrew, Thank you for this posting it provokes a response. Firstly I must declare and interest as my M.Phil thesis was relating the emerging church conversation to the Congregational tradition. In my studies I came to see how the popularizing of the leaders and language of Emerging Church created a bastardization of its origins. Relating this to the radical reformation of the sixteenth century it became clear that any movement that challenges our preconceptions of what it means to be a Christian community tends to suffer the same fate. Those who take the origins and use them as a spring board to apply their own agenda rarely do so with little regard for the integrity of the whole. So, with the emerging church birthing fresh expressions and fresh expressions birthing missional communities we find the same questions of authenticity arising. I will keep this simple though. When a group of like minded, outward looking, Christ-centered people do 'church' for those for whom the institutions (ancient or modern) don't connect there is a missional community (for want of a better title). If we are to revert to Christian community the possibility of offending others in calling it Christian is equal to that of missional. How that is lived out, related to others, and understood in context is most important. The mission of the Church is to make Christ known and, in doing so, seek to bring others into a saving knowledge of God's sacrificial love and mercy. There is nothing wrong with this substance of our faith however we brand it what is most important is that we do it. When the institutions of Christian community simply expect others to conform to their received form and practice (calling it orthodoxy) that is when we see maintaining bodies and not the mission of God. If the fluidity of God's purpose is centered on Jesus, the Bible narrative, and mission as we are led to believe in the conversation then how we name is less important than how we live. Peace to you and thank you again for this challenging posting.

Really interesting questions, Andrew. I suppose the bigger question for me that comes out of it is where and when is it appropriate or helpful to use such 'labels'.

i-church was widely advertised as an online Benedictine community when it was started in 2004 and this attracted a huge amount of attention and an overwhelming demand for membership. So that label/designation certainly tapped into a felt need. We were originally part of the Cutting Edge initiative of Oxford Diocese, so we also had the label 'a Cutting Edge project' and of course the label of 'church' which is in our name. Now I think we are classified as a Fresh Expression - though I don't know of any formal process by which you acquire that label - and, having worked on the concept of 'online Benedictine community', I think we could legitimately call ourselves an 'online missional community' as well as an 'experimental community'. And this doesn't bring in the word 'pioneering' which I would apply to my own ministry as the priest in charge of the community/project!

I think these labels and designations are an interesting way of tracking our history and development and the influences that have brought us to where we are, but would a single one of them mean anything to people outside the church, the ones we are there to be missional for? I doubt it.

Maybe it's a question of actions speaking louder than words. The labels may be helpful within the church as a way of helping people - including ourselves - to understand our part within the wider church - which is of course essentially THE missional community. But people to whom these words mean very little will judge us on our relationships with them and how we serve them.


The only groups in your list that identify with the term 'missional community' are your type 3s, the St Tom's model of mega-church with local missional communities. My experience of 'emerging' and 'alt worship' communities is that they would probably not own the term, even if some of them might be willing to talk about mission (see your own quotes above) and your type 4 groups are also more likely to use the terms 'order' or 'movement' rather than MC.

So I don't think the term is problematic as a technical definition of a particular way of doing church, and (I think) probably the most important way of doing church over the next few decades.

Are you concerned that the term missional is being used to describe a particular methodology rather than, say, a change in attitude?

It remains to be seen whether there is a single mission-shaped church in the UK - most churches are primarily shaped by liturgical, theological, social or traditional preferences... so I certainly think that the term missional can be helpful, prrecisely because it isn't clear - it requires us to consider what God's mission really is.


I asked my friendly (and very good) plumber, Graham, what he thought the term missional community might mean.

He thought for a moment and replied - "well I know what a community is but "missional"? The only thing I can think of is when I was driving artics to Morocco and used to stay at the Mission to Seamen place in Casablanca. There were some really good Aussies that ran it, good to talk to, hot showers and great food. So maybe a missional community is people doing that for their community?"

er - absolutely! ...so maybe a missional community near you could look like hospitality with a good welcome,food, conversation, a safe place and resting place for travelers in otherwise difficult terrain? Thanks Graham.

I'm a bit surprised at your question 'where is the Christian distinctiveness'? Mission is the Christian distinctiveness! Missio Dei expresses that drawing people into the love expressed in the Trinity is what God does, and it is pretty distinctive. Mission, of all sorts, flows from that, seeking to draw people into the life of love that is with God.

Small missional communities form and order their activities in order to draw people into that life (as opposed to churches, which at times are more self-serving of their existing members and their comforts and prefernces) Not being deliberately controversial there at all - there is an explicit intentionality about the purpose of a missonal community. Once they have drawn a community, discipled it and ot becomes steable, perhaps it starts the cycle of intentionality again.

There are so many phrases used in the above responces. Jesus spoke plainly so why can't we, when just stating the truth that we go to a Church as a practising Christian. We are commanded to go into all the world and preach the gospel (Matthew 10,vs 6-8).

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