Recently, a friend asked my opinion about the difference between missional communities and holistic small groups, or what has traditionally been called "cell groups." Here is an open letter (slightly edited for the sake of clarification):
In theory, they are very similar. This is especially obvious in the international cell churches. Holistic small groups in churches like Elim in El Salvador (150,000 people) are by nature missional. They seek to provide redemptive places for both community and mission. But mission goes far beyond mere evangelism and getting new members. They are seeking to bring redemptive life to neighborhoods, not just to get people saved and into the church.
However this imagination does not always transfer well to America. When small groups in the West aim to be holistic, at best a few might be evangelistic. But more often than not holistic just translates to "open" (vs. closed) which means that they are willing to add new people who need to be connected from the congregation. In other words, holistic groups gets watered down to a "close the back door" group.
Holistic has become an ideal that leaders want to see happening in their churches but for the most part the people in those groups are not being equipped to live in missional way. It's not so much about the specific structure. It's about creating a way of life that is distinctively Kingdom-like.
Now for some clarification: Some (Mike Breen for instance) have defined Missional Community as a mid-size group of 20-50. They state that small groups are small enough to care, but not big enough to share. While I don't have a problem with the mid-size manifestation, I think it is a mistake to make missional about groups size. When you read Mike Breen's stuff, of course he communicates that is about much more than group size. But for some reason, the technical detail of group size has been the key to which others have gravitated. People have turned it into another magic pill for making community work. "Now let's try mid-size groups and that will make us "missional." In the 1990s, this is what happened with the cell church. Then the church of small groups. Now it's missional communities. When will we learn?
Let me suggest that a better contrast is between a community that is missional and a community that is evangelistic. While there is overlap between the two they are not synonymous. Missional community seeks to focus on the redemption of life, not just the salvation of individuals. Too often the church and the small group movement has focused on getting people saved and getting them into a small group, as if that is the goal. While I am all for that, it's a very limited goal. It's only part of the redemptive plan of God's mission. Missional community done well will seek to bring God's restorative justice to individuals that need salvation along with other things like investing in the life of a neighborhood or a subdivision, seeking to end sex slavery in a local area, working toward the starting of local businesses, fighting for racial reconciliation and just getting to know one's neighbors and friends (without have an agenda to get them saved, although we all want them to "get saved.")
Properly understood, if you get missional, you get evangelism. But if you only do evangelism, you won't get missional. You won't see how God is bringing redemption to everything.
In the history of small group implementation in America, church leaders have been told that the goal is to get people in small groups and that they must be holistic small groups (both community and mission). But this has not worked. Now I'm observing churches who are corralling their people in what they are calling "missional communities." Getting people into groups will change some things, but not that much. We must think it in terms of equipping people for community and mission. This is something that the small group movement has talked very little about over the last five decades.
My upcoming book Difference Makers is a popular level book (with small group study guides) that helps average people enter into this kind of missional living in community. When it comes out, I hope that it will be a helpful resource in equipping people for missional life.
Hope we can connect soon,