Archives For Adaptability

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.

And then…

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.

When Storyline began, we committed ourselves to live out a value for adaptability in mission, knowing that times would come when we need to adapt and flex because of changing circumstances.

I’m so thankful that this value has not remained at the aspirational level. We have indeed practiced it. For instance:

  • We thought we were going to be a “Sunday morning” church. But we adapted and morphed into a network of house churches.
  • We thought we were going to be a church for young adult professionals. But we adapted as we spent time among friends in poverty and welcomed them into our spiritual family alongside young adults.

I feel strongly that these adaptations were in sync with promptings from God’s Spirit.

And now, Storyline finds itself in a season of adaptation again this spring.

The Backstory

Last fall, several things happened that helped us to see that Storyline was “missing” something:

  1. Approximately 30% of our small community transitioned awaynone because of any conflict or bad feeling toward Storyline (praise the Lord). Mainly because of life transitions – new jobs, new cities, moving to be closer to family, etc.
  2. Storyline had plateaued in its growth and development in the nine months preceding the transitions. No new groups had started. About the same number of people were participating as were at the beginning of 2010. (This was a new trend for us – Storyline had doubled or tripled in size each of the preceding two years.)
  3. Participation in our Formation Retreats had dwindled significantly. We cancelled two Marvelous Light retreats in 2010.
  4. The equipping staff – Ryan Porche and I – had taken second jobs to help sustain our ministry financially which resulted in us working less with Storyline.

What did we make of it? What was missing?

After spending much time in prayer and discernment with the leadership team, we sensed that at the heart of our plateau was a struggle to do discipleship at a deeper level. Storyliners, both those with Christian backgrounds and those without, were not being adequately equipped to follow Jesus in a way that led them out in consistent mission.

It’s not hard to grow a church. It’s just really hard to make disciples. — Mick Woodhead

One reason for the discipleship deficit, we perceived, was because we had developed no way to allow participants within Storyline to make a commitment to following Jesus with Storyline. In an attempt to be non-institutional amidst a context where people are very suspicious of the institution, we had shrunk back from asking for people to commit to the life of Storyline in any formal way.

I’ve come to the conclusion that a ‘bar’ cannot be set in following Jesus unless there exists such an underlying covenant to journey together. Discipleship is too hard to hope that people will just get it on their own. We were made to follow Jesus in community – together – and that assumes some kind of commitment to each other.

I’ve had a hard time admitting this, particularly because I have absolutely hated the frequently unjust and inhospitable practice of “church membership” up to this point in my life. And that might not be saying it strongly enough.

Further, the communal nature of discipleship means that programs and events – like our worship gatherings, retreats, and even house church gatherings – cannot accomplish our goals for discipleship in and of themselves. Learning to follow Jesus is something that takes place in the context of day-to-day relationships, where the lifestyle of Jesus is rubbed off from more radical followers (leaders) to others.

Acts 2:42-47 seems to represent a kind of covenant that followers of Jesus in the early church made with each other: they “devoted themselves” to the apostles’ teaching, prayer, giving, sharing, doing life together, and worshiping.

How are we responding? How are we adapting?

My friend and fellow Mission Alive church planter Kester Smith with the Immanuel Community in Austin, Texas, painted a winsome picture of communal discipleship for me in a class at the ACU Summit in September 2010.

He spoke about how the Immanuel Community, out of struggles similar to Storyline’s, had developed a “Way of Life” – a rule or order – that the members of the community had committed to live out together. The Way of Life included things like daily prayer, weekly worship with the community, hospitality toward new people, service and confession. Sounds like Acts 2:42-47. (You can read the whole thing here.)

The Immanuel Community reflects a growing movement in missional communities toward a “communal rule” as the primary way of doing discipleship.

Alan Hirsch, in The Forgotten Ways, describes it as a shift of focus from core beliefs to core practices — a shift from asking what do followers of Jesus believe to how do followers of Jesus live?

Beliefs are certainly important. They just mean very little unless they are put to action. James says that passive belief is dead (James 2:17). “Even the demons believe.”

It is less important to ask a Christian what he believes about the Bible than it is to inquire what he does with it. — Leslie Newbigin

This “rule of life” approach to discipleship has become so helpful that Mission Alive, my resourcing organization, has made the development of a communal rule of life the focus of its week long Strategy Lab for church planters and church leaders.

As a result, the Storyline Leadership Team has prayed through and developed what we’re calling the “Storyline Lifestyle.” It is our first attempt at a communal rule of life in the way of Jesus. It is the way, in our particular locale, we live out the STORY of God:

  • Sharing life with disconnected or downtrodden friends at least weekly
  • Taking ownership of our spiritual formation in formation groups weekly
  • Opening ourselves to God through prayer and Scripture daily
  • Rallying together with our spiritual family at least weekly
  • Yielding our resources generously to the mission at least monthly

To equip our community to begin to live this lifestyle, we’ve created a 6-week bootcamp that’s called Lifestyle DNA. It’s a catechesis of sorts – spiritual training for newcomers to Storyline. We spend one week framing up the gospel and the lifestyle of Jesus as a response of gratitude to the grace God gives us in Jesus; then the remaining five weeks practicing each of the five life rhythms in community.

At the end of Lifestyle DNA, previously Christian participants can choose to partner with Storyline in its mission and are commissioned publicly in our community gatherings. Not-yet-Christians are given the opportunity to make the decision to follow Jesus and demonstrate their commitment to God and the community publicly in baptism.

After completing Lifestyle DNA, two things keep the lifestyle in front of Storyliners: 1) Formation Groups – gender specific groups of 2-4 people who gather for confession and prayer – are being retooled to flow out of the Storyline Lifestyle; 2) House church leaders will also help by sharing life with and coaching those who have decided to partner with Storyline in mission.

Our leaders have just finished a pilot run of Lifestyle DNA together, and already I can see how my life is changing. Parts of my brokenness are healing up; my connection to God has deepened; and I have a much keener sense of God’s presence when I’m on mission.

Pray for our community as we start the first community-wide Lifestyle DNA tomorrow night!

Stay tuned for upcoming conversations about how Storyline is changing. Part two addresses how Storyline will change structurally. Part three addresses how Storyline will become even more of a training ground for future church planters.

God’s Surprises

Charles Kiser —  October 23, 2008 — Leave a comment

I’ve been reflecting in the last couple weeks about God’s surprises for Storyline since we’ve started—situations where things have taken shape, by God’s Spirit, differently than we expected.

Example #1

We expected that we’d be facilitating a weekly worship gathering starting in September 2008. We realized that such a timeline would allow us only four months before the worship gathering began to nurture a community of house churches—which to us are the foundation and heartbeat of the Storyline Community.

Gailyn Van Rheenen, one of our mentors and leader of Mission Alive, asked us why we were in such a hurry to start a weekly gathering. We weren’t sure why. So we shifted our expectations and planned for a weekly worship gathering in February 2009.

We began to wonder if a weekly worship gathering at any point in the early life of Storyline would distract and drain our resources away from what we saw to be most important (house church ministry). So now we’re expecting to launch a monthly, rather than weekly, worship gathering in December 2008.

Who knows, the day may come when we move to bi-weekly or weekly community worship gatherings. For now, we’ve sensed it will be better to “build out” incrementally than to front-load a bunch of programming we might later have to deprogram.

I believe it was God who surprised us with these developments.

Example #2

We expected that Storyline’s house church gatherings would consist almost exclusively of young adult professional types. We also expected that Storyline would be a community that cared about justice—loving the poor, caring for the marginalized, helping the helpless.

And then we started befriending and serving the poor. Many of our young professional friends began inviting their poor neighbors to our house church gatherings.

At first I was uncomfortable with this. Would it scare other Uptown young professionals away from Storyline to encounter our poor friends in our gatherings?

Larry James, a prophet who leads Central Dallas Ministries, said, “You should read James.” So we read James, especially the second chapter, and were reminded that it’s a sin to show favoritism to the rich and neglect the poor.

My instincts were wrong. So we’ve taken on a posture of full embrace toward all who desire to be a part of our community.

God surprised us by who he drew into our gatherings.

The Takeaway

God will undoubtedly continue to surprise us—hopefully whether we cooperate or not. We can only seek to be attentive to his leading.

I’m reminded of one of the Proverbs: “In their hearts human beings plan their course, but the Lord establishes their steps” (16:9).

We have a very limited view of what paths we’ll actually take. We plan the best we can—and we trust that God, who is infinitely creative in the way he oversees the unfolding of our lives, will establish our steps.

Earl Creps says there are at least three theories on how to plant churches: 1) the big bang theory—start a big gathering and draw the community; 2) the evolution theory—grow relationally at the grassroots level; and 3) the intelligent design theory—whether big bang or evolution, God is the one orchestrating the process.

I like that. Regardless of the model, I want God to be Storyline’s designer.