We had this ritual before our weekly missional community meal. A vase full of plastic daisies was passed around, each person taking out exactly one flower until everyone, kids included, held a daisy.
One by one, we’d hold our flower in front of us and name one thing we were thankful for. As we named our thanksgiving, everyone would say “Amen!” The flower would be placed back in the vase, and during dinner the vase of thanksgiving flowers served as our centerpiece.
The ritual was good for all of us, but we decided on it specifically because it included our kids. We were always looking for ways to include the kids (even though sometimes we just wanted to let them play video games while the adults talked).
This particular night was fairly normal. Some kids too shy to speak or taking a very long time to decide which of their stuffed animals they wanted to thank God for.
I was leading the missional community, and because it was taking a little longer than usual, I was watching the clock, and faces, wondering how people were processing this.
Do we have the patience to include our kids? Did that couple even want to be here tonight? What will my son say?
My attention snapped back to the group as Lisa abruptly moved to the center of the circle and shouted, “I’m thankful I don’t have any stupid kids,” as she threw her flower toward the vase.
Nervous laughter rippled through the group. Others just stared as she stormed out the front door and slammed it behind her.
This sort of thing happened a lot with Lisa — every other week.
Every week I hoped Lisa wouldn’t come. All day long I’d have anxiety about whether she’d be there that evening, and what she’d say or do this time. I’ve never been around someone with so much anger who wanted to take it out on others in a public setting.
A typical group conversation with Lisa went like this:
Me: “So, what do you think, Lisa?”
Lisa: “Nobody cares what I think.”
Me: “Where did you get that idea?”
Lisa: “Everyone here hates me.”
Me: “Why do you tell yourself that? I
don’t hate you.”
Lisa: “Well, I can’t stand you or this
Lisa storms out, slams the door and sits in the car waiting for her husband to drive her home. Her husband Bob sheepishly excuses himself and leaves 30 minutes early.
Here’s another typical interaction:
Me: “Who else wants to share?”
Lisa: “Well, nobody wants to hear this, but I think everyone is wrong and this whole thing is stupid.”
Lisa: “Now everyone wants me to leave.”
Me: “That’s not true, Lisa. You seem pretty upset.”
Lisa: “Well, I’ll just leave then and make it easier for everyone.”
Me: (as Lisa walks out of the house and slams the door) “No one wants you to leave, Lisa. You don’t have to go outside this time.”
We’d always debrief as a missional community, pondering what we should do, what we did wrong and what we could say. Bob would try to give some perspective while dealing with his own embarrassment. I’d try to cast vision about bearing with one another in hurt and weakness, but I was running out of energy for this.
Frankly, I was relieved when Lisa didn’t show up. It was so much easier.
But she usually showed up.
And I’m thankful she did because she taught us how to love.
Early in their participation with our missional community, Bob told us that Lisa had recently lost her mom to cancer, obviously a horrible, traumatic experience for any 24-year-old to endure. Lisa’s father was her best friend, and they grew even closer in the months preceding her mother’s death.
At the funeral a woman, who was a friend of her dad’s from college, introduced herself to Lisa to offer condolences. Four months later, that woman was her new stepmother.
Lisa and her new stepmom did not get along and that put incredible strain on Lisa’s relationship with her dad.
So really, in a matter of months, it was as though she had lost both her mom and her dad.
As a missional community, we ached for her. We felt empathy and reached out to her. But whenever we got emotionally close to her she would lash out.
It’s hard to be empathetic when you get punched as you lean in to love.
I always tried to use words to reach Lisa. Talking. Writing. Preaching. Teaching. But it wasn’t words that finally reached Lisa. It was presence.
There was our presence as a community, welcoming Lisa and Bob every week. But even more than this communal presence, it was the personal presence of Jennifer.
One night, after about a year of this pattern from Lisa, Jennifer got up and followed Lisa out the door.
We finished up 45 minutes later, and as families left the house we saw Jennifer and Lisa sitting on the front lawn.
Just sitting there.
I asked Jennifer later what she had said, thinking I could learn from her what to say in a situation like that, and she told me, “I just sat with her.”
For 45 minutes, Jennifer just sat with Lisa.
This happened a few more times. Lisa would storm out. Jennifer would follow and just sit with her on the front lawn.
And eventually Lisa began to open up. That’s all I know. What Lisa shared and Jennifer spoke remains only with them. But eventually Lisa stopped leaving, she stopped insulting us, and she started trusting.
The person I fretted about most as the leader of our missional community helped us grow more than any of my teachings. We became a community of compassion, tough enough to bear the beams of love in the valley of the shadow of death.
And we became that community through the leadership of Jennifer and her silent ministry of presence on the front lawn.
What is a Missional Community?
With Matt Tebbe and Ben Sternke
Missional communities aren’t like a concert or movie showing. They aren’t events that people attend. They are communities that people belong to.
It’s the difference between going to a movie and going to Thanksgiving dinner with your extended family. Both are technically “events,” but you belong to your extended family and you don’t belong to the people attending the same movie as you.
In Acts 2:42, Luke mentions the early church devoting itself to fellowship. Fellowship is a strong word that denotes kinship and family, a mutual sharing with one another in good times and bad. Missional communities have this kind of bond—a strong identity as a spiritual, extended family living out the life of Christ together.
Missional communities are also missional. Since they are living the life of Christ together, their mission is the same as His: to make disciples. And since missional communities are typically the size of an extended family (15-40 adults, plus kids), they focus on making disciples among a specifi c group of people.
Sometimes this is a geographically based group such as a neighborhood. Other times it is a relational network, like punk culture or families with special needs kids.
As they live out the life of Christ together in the midst of their mission context, they look for ways to practice hospitality and invite people to join them in following Jesus as disciples.
Finally, missional communities sustain and energize their missional life by cultivating an active life of worship and prayer together. They seek to grow as disciples of Jesus together. They pray for one another and their mission context. God is intimately involved in their lives and their community.