Back in college, I was part of a “cell church.” The idea was that the actual church meeting was the small-group meeting that happened during the week, where we shared a meal and spent time discussing how to apply the Bible to our lives. The Sunday morning gathering, where all the cells came together (in our case, in a rented synagogue), was not the church meeting proper, but a time of celebration and teaching. The goal was to get a little closer to the kind of church life we see in Acts 2, and it worked…we got a little closer.
Over the next couple decades, I had a variety of formative influences, and I grew as a Christian, but I never really learned how to disciple effectively. I learned how to teach effectively. Every attempt to make disciples devolved into teaching, and while teaching is part of the task — a necessary part — it’s not the whole job. I knew I was missing something, and didn’t know what, or how to get it.
Moving to Englewood, Colorado, changed that. Here, the local pastors gather monthly and pray for one another and the One Church in Englewood (which happens to meet in separate buildings). One of the older men in the group, a Dutch Reformed pastor named Dave, took several of us under his wing. Over the next couple years, Dave taught us to disciple effectively, and also pitched the concept of missional community: a spiritual extended family on mission together, as it were.
Now, most of the writing around missional communities at that time wanted to market it as some exciting new move of God, which didn’t make any sense. To the extent that there was a solid New Testament case for something like it–and there clearly was, in the first-century oikos–the missional community obviously couldn’t be new. Certainly there was a New Testament case for making disciples; that was hardly some exotic new move of God; it was Christianity 101.
And yet, the North American church, desperate for effective interventions in the culture, was doing everything but that. If we total up all the time, talent, energy, money, etc. that the churches were expending — a sort of ecclesiastical equivalent to the GNP — we’ll find that the vast majority of the Gross Church Product goes into things that really have nothing to do with making disciples. That being the case, the great need was and is simple repentance: We have occupied ourselves with secondary things at the expense of our primary mission. Time to get back to it.
No shortage of ink has been spilled on that particular subject, so I won’t belabor it here, except to say this: in the intervening decade or so, nearly every “missional community” I’ve seen, heard about, or been part of, has fizzled out, stagnated, or fallen back into being a standard-issue church small group (not necessarily a bad thing to be, but hardly the heady vision were were sold, is it?). Not coincidentally, there’s a significant difference between the first-century Christian oikos and the twenty-first century missional community that is supposedly emulating it. Joining a twenty-first century missional community was a boutique lifestyle choice. The members’ survival needs were attended to elsewhere; missional community was a leisure-time activity.
The preindustrial oikos was not a choice; it was a survival strategy. In the preindustrial oikos, members spent their days working shoulder to shoulder to care for one another and serve their larger community in ways that generated income for the oikos — whether they were making purple dye like Lydia’s household in Philippi or bringing fish to market like Simon Peter’s in Capernaum. An oikos like Lydia’s and Peter’s got transformed into an engine for mission when its members came to Jesus, of course, but that was never its only purpose. The preindustrial oikos was how people survived. Your oikos was not just a social club; it was your job, your living arrangements, your educational system, your medical care, and your retirement plan, all rolled into one. You couldn’t opt out of your oikos without cutting your own lifeline.
When we tried to replace the preindustrial oikos with a social club devoted to serving a particular group of people–however noble the cause–it overwhelmingly failed. Of course it did! We were trying to have an oikos without the glue that holds an oikos together.