The first post in this series addressed how Storyline does discipleship. This post addresses how Storyline is structured.
I’ve always struggled to find literature and resources for methodology and structure that spoke to Storyline’s context. As a network of house churches that meets all together for a monthly gathering and every remaining weekend for house church gatherings, we fall in between the poles of ministry structure from which most material on church methodology is produced.
On one end, you have the traditional church growth, Sunday service-oriented, high impact, programmatic, megachurch literature. Think Andy Stanley; Rick Warren; Nelson Searcy. There’s some good stuff there, but it doesn’t fit a community that does not have as its primary strategy to grow by increasing the attendance of its weekend services.
On the other end is the simple, organic, house church, non-institutional, micro-church literature. Think Neil Cole; Wolfgang Simpson; Frank Viola. There’s some very good stuff here, too, but most of this literature is geared for individual organic communities that don’t ever exceed more than 20-30 people in size. Storyline, however, is structured as a network of house churches. A network has more organizational structure and different size dynamics than a single house church. So while Storyline shares most of the values of the missional paradigm found often in more organic-type churches, it is more structured than most.
As you can imagine, it’s been difficult finding mentors and resources to speak directly at what we’re experimenting with in the Storyline Community. For a long time, the most helpful by far were Hugh Halter and Matt Smay – particularly their book AND. The community they started in Denver, CO – Adullam – has a large gathering every Sunday, but is held together by a network of “incarnational communities” or “villages” that lives on mission in various neighborhoods. Still, the weekly frequency of Adullam’s large gatherings has different implications for them than for Storyline.
I discovered 3DM and “Missional Communities.”
The mental grenade was first thrown by Alan Hirsch at a small training event I attended for church planters in October 2010. He said, “The small group, nuclear family, 6-12 people approach to church is not sustainable. The structure of the early church centered on the form of oikos, an extended family household, usually between 20-50 people.”
As a house church planter, I knew he was right. Before that point, I had not been ready to admit it. The recent transitions and plateau in Storyline had prepared me to own up to it.
I later discovered that Hirsch was drawing on the very important work of Mike Breen (and company) around “Missional Communities.” In the past 20 years, they had facilitated the start of hundreds of missional communities all over Europe. In fact, the European Church Planting Network (associated with Leadership Network), adopted the MC approach and started more than 720 churches in three years (2006-2009). That’s a first in European church history.
Mike Breen has since moved to South Carolina and is training American pastors and church planters in this approach through the resource organization 3DM.
After years of demand, they finally produced a “field manual” in November 2010 for starting missional communities called Launching Missional Communities. I bought it and devoured it; it was worth every bit of the unusually high price ($29.95).
The Wikipedia article on “Missional Communities” (I suspect written by Breen or someone on his team) defines them as follows:
A Missional Community (also called Clusters, Mid-Sized Communities, Mission-Shaped Communities, MSCs) is a group of anything from 20 to 50 or more people who are united, through Christian community, around a common service and witness to a particular neighborhood or network of relationships. With a strong value on life together, the group has the expressed intention of seeing those they impact choose to start following Jesus, through this more flexible and locally incarnated expression of the church. The result will often be that the group will grow and ultimately multiply into further Missional Communities. Missional Communities are most often networked within a larger church community (often with many other Missional Communities). These mid-sized communities, led by laity, are “lightweight and low maintenance” and most often meet 3-4 times a month in their missional context.
When I read this, I thought, “this is Storyline!”
The only difference is the group size of Storyline house churches – which have ranged from 5-25 – when compared with missional communities. And that difference alone has proven to be significant, for at least two reasons:
1. The fragility of smallness.
- We had to wrap up one group this fall because about 10 of the 15 the participants moved away. Groups have life cycles, certainly. But this group’s substantial mission to a specific apartment community abruptly ceased. I didn’t sense that God was done with it, but after the transition the group lacked the social momentum to sustain the mission.
- We started another group with four people that struggled for a year before beginning to grow, I suspect largely because it lacked the critical social mass to move off center.
2. The social energy required to multiply.
- We learned from mentors in house church ministry that cell division was not the best approach to multiplication. Instead we sent small teams to start new house churches so as not to tear the fabric of community too much. Yet one of our house churches has sent teams to start new groups three times, and you can tell that it’s weary from it – both from saying goodbye to close spiritual friends, and also from the resulting vacuum of social energy left behind when a group sends its best people to start something new.
As a result, we’ve sensed God leading us to shift our approach from developing a network of small group-sized churches (5-20 people) to developing a network of mid-sized group churches (20-50+ people).
Here’s what it means practically for Storyline:
- Over the past six months, we’ve been in the process of consolidating from four groups of 5-15 to two groups of approximately 20 people each, both of which are poised to grow as mid-sized group churches
- Formation Groups (gender-specific groups of 2-4) will take on a much more prominent role as our small group structure
- Groups in our network will have to be creative as they grow in order to find affordable, friendly space for groups upwards of 50 people; groups will likely meet in public spaces within neighborhoods or locations that are popular among the target network of relationships
- Because we’ll soon no longer be meeting primarily in homes, we’ll increasingly begin to call our groups “churches” rather than “house churches”
- Groups will develop a “missional vision” that specifically targets either a neighborhood or network of relationships
- When a group reaches 40-50 people, it will look to send some of its leaders with a team of 10-15 people to start a new church in the Storyline network
- The network as a whole will continue to meet together monthly for storytelling, fellowship, vision casting, and encouragement
- We will shift from an individualized coaching structure (i.e., coach + house church leader) to a group coaching / discipleship “huddle,” akin to the kind practiced by 3DM (i.e., coach + all the church leaders; church leaders + their ministry teams)
- We will begin to set our sights on all the different neighborhoods and networks we’re connected to in Dallas for future mid-sized group church planting; I can count at least five off the top of my head.
Please pray for us as we live into this new approach to structure and mission.
And stay tuned for the final segment of the three-part series about How Storyline is Changing. I’ll discuss how Storyline will become even more of a training ground for future church planters.
Thanks, Charles, for these reflections. I have also been reading Breen and Absalom’s “Launching Missional Communities,” as we as a communities of church planters, have struggled with structures that reflect contextualized disciple-making Christian community in various social contexts in North America. Thanks for your good reflections. I anticipae learning with you and from you.
Grace and peace,
Charles – this is exactly some of the same questions I’ve been asking at a network level. I think the best solution is to hold multiple “models” at a tension (as it seems you’ve been doing) and finding what works in your unique context.
I’m going to check out 3DM today, might even get their book.
Lately, we’ve been offering courses for folks online in how a person is formed at varying “layers of Christ-centered community” – MONO, MICRO, MESO, MACRO and MONDO. Each one has vital resources, perspectives and places to die like Jesus for the sake of his family. For us, it has been a helpful way of talking about the “wine” underneath the wineskin.
I really respect you and your thoughtful journey in developing spiritually healthy “systems.” I’d love your thoughts on it. http://godgrown.net/resources
Great stuff Charles! The struggle to keep smaller groups alive (5-15) is certainly something that we can all identify with in our efforts to grow and multiply missional communities. And this certainly seems to me a healthy way forward. Thanks for your thoughts, resources, and of course, your heart to serve in the kingdom. God’s moving through you inspires me to keep on. Love you bro!
Charles, I can’t believe I’ve found you guys. I haven’t read everything on your site and FB page yet, but I will, and I know what I’m looking for because I’ve experienced it before. I pray, then, that God has led me to this…to you all. First, you need to know about Circle of Hope. Go to http://www.circleofhope.net. It’s a cell-group based network of churches in Philly that I think you might resonate a lot with. As a part of Circle in the early days we talked a lot about having an “Acts 20:20 vision” whereby we met “from house to house” weekly in order to BE the Church together and gathered in a large group publicly as well. I always talked about it by saying that our cells were where the life of the church really happened as we actually had a “life together” and then when all the cells got together on Sunday nights it was a chance to celebrate all that life that was already happening. I wrote about Circle myself some time ago here: http://robertbuck.wordpress.com/2008/10/27/this-is-your-life-or-is-it/ (more of the second part of that post). Anyway, while knowing I can’t project my needs/wants/desperate yearning on any community and expect it to be something it’s not, and while also knowing that I ought not “shop for church” and approach any of this consumeristically, I nonetheless long for the chance to be the church again with some like-minded Jesus-followers who are on a mission together to join Jesus in his ministry of reconciliation. I suspect Storyline might be just such a community, and I’m eager to find out.
Good to hear from you! Glad you found us.
We’d love for you to join us sometime to hang out and share life. Get to know each other. (I assume you’re now in Dallas?)
Funny you mentioned Circle of Hope…I love them! Even had a couple very good friends who are part of that community.
I blogged about it here: https://inthestoryline.com/2007/12/17/circle-of-hope/
Funny. Small world.
I love your passion for church, mission and Jesus. Hope our paths cross soon!
I really enjoy reading about this journey you are on as it develops. It is really exciting to hear what God is doing through Storyline Community.
Also, I think it’s funny how we hear a certain number (“6-12” people) and get stuck on that. I remember hearing that number in our small groups class and I’ve been stuck on that to as though it was book, chapter, and verse.
Grace and Peace,
Breen and Absalom have done some great work in Launching Missional Communities. I have to do a little more reading but I have really enjoyed that book so far. Thanks for sharing your thoughts here. I will link to it over on my blog.