Summer 2016

“Church” Isn’t Only on Sunday Here

How thinking like family has transformed one church

by Jennifer M. Kvamme

“I tried to ‘preach people into mission,’” Mike Jarrell says now, “and that didn’t go well.”

As a pastor, Mike desperately wanted to see each church member living on-mission to his or her own neighbors, co-workers and friends. However, it became increasingly clear that people were either not motivated or not equipped to do so. And the Sunday-service-based structure of the church was not conducive to accomplishing that vision. “It was very frustrating,” he says.

That was four years ago. Narrow Road Communities (EFCA) in Summerdale, Pennsylvania, has now completely reversed that reality. And it started with upending the church structure and focus.

Mike began by launching what he called a missional action group—not a traditional small group (aimed at fellowship and Bible study) but an intentional gathering for living-out a missional lifestyle together. He describes that first MAG as “a smaller group of people where I tried to preach them into mission again, just in a smaller setting.”

Over time, however, the group became more like a family. Members connected with each others’ kids and attended their sporting events. They planned parties to build friendships with each others’ neighbors. They shared life over the dinner table. And as they began drawing others into this contagious, gospel-centered community, they experienced the joy of watching God transform lives through them.

Far better than a Bible story about evangelism is watching your friend come to faith in your living room.

Slow down your life

Today, in this church of about 120 people*, that first MAG has become 10 as people have come to Christ, friends have joined and groups have multiplied. “The Bible comes to life and people get excited about growing when they’re applying it with you,” Mike explains. “Far better than a Bible study about fellowship is having a party together. Far better than a Bible story about evangelism is watching your friend come to faith in your living room.”

As a result, Mike can’t imagine going back to a Sunday-morning-based church. “I’ve had people ask, ‘Am I part of the church if I’m not in a MAG?’” he shares.

“I’m so glad they’re feeling that way! I say, ‘You are always welcome to come here on Sunday, but my dream and my prayer is that you will go from sitting and watching to living out your faith in community and on-mission, ignited and excited about how God can use you.’”

The biggest pushback Mike gets is people saying it sounds too busy. Their lives are already stretched too thin, and committing to meeting frequently with a MAG, plus reaching out to the lost, seems overwhelming.

He used to tell people that MAGs weren’t about adding something new to their schedule but about learning to do, in community, what they already do—inviting others to watch football or have dinner or go shopping together.

He’s realized, though, that many people do need to adjust their schedules because they’re simply too busy for quality time with God or their families, much less others in community.

Now he asks, “How is God calling you to slow down with Him, with your family and with people your heart is breaking for?”

Mike finds that mindset to be freeing. “What Jesus said is actually a breath of fresh air: ‘Break away from the chaos of life and come rest with Me.’ We’re calling people to slow down with God and do life well. The best discipleship will happen over tacos in the kitchen. Have enough margin in your life to relax with [those you care about].”

Expand your family

Although most of the church’s MAGs do meet weekly as a group, Mike encourages people not to think about these communities in terms of weekly meetings but rather in terms of family. It’s about choosing to keep growing with the same people and keep reaching out to the same people. So it’s not a burden but a joy of focus and of deep friendships.

By nature, MAGs grow because they are focused on bringing more people into relationship with God. And these groups are often more accessible to the unreached than Sunday morning church services. “It’s hard to get my neighbor, who turned his garage into a man cave and drinks beer, to come to a place where we sing and read,” Mike says. “But he’ll come to a bonfire in our backyard, and then I build a relationship and can start to bring the gospel into conversation.”

The activity at a MAG gathering varies from group to group. In addition to bonfires and casual conversations, members might discuss a Bible passage or plan a future party, or simply pitch in for dinner together—their discussion dependent on who’s visiting that day. The major difference from MAG to MAG is the chosen “avenue” for mission. Some groups identify a people group they all care about. Other groups may be centrally located in a common neighborhood. In other groups, members each have their own neighbors/friends they want to reach, and they creatively plan ways to help each other do so.

Some members of Mike’s MAG were friends with a young woman who was a heroin addict, had demon tattoos and said she wasn’t interested in God. She was, however, interested in dinner with her friends and some of their friends, and through that she got to know others in the MAG. She opened up about her story and heard her friends talking about Jesus a lot.

Her views of God being distant, angry and hard to please were at a stark contrast to the way she heard her new friends describe Jesus, and she commented at one point, “This Jesus sounds pretty bad-ass.”

Her friends responded: “Well, you know what Jesus said? He said if you’ve seen Me, you’ve seen the Father. I am what God is like. I am God.”

The young woman’s image of God was shattered and redrawn. Not too long after, she asked to be baptized and even invited her drug dealer to her MAG. (Although he hasn’t yet visited, several other of her friends have.)

Because of these kinds of stories, there are many more people in the MAGs on a given week than show up to the Sunday morning gathering. That’s fine with Mike, because they’re being discipled and learning to do life together with God and each other, on-mission. As their desire to learn grows, they’ll often decide to come on Sundays, as well.

Become a coach for others

Even with frequent multiplication, the groups can grow rather large, so Narrow Road encourages everyone to also be part of a smaller huddle within the MAG—a group of three or four men or women (or a family unit) who regularly meet and pray together. The more intimate group is a place to check in on their home life, their walk with God, their outreach to others and, most importantly, their hearts.

Because MAGs and huddles are so decentralized—with only one under the direct care of the pastor—Mike has found good coaching to be an essential piece of the puzzle. Mike coaches a team of coaches who each oversees a few MAG leaders. And all leaders and coaches gather for ongoing training once every six weeks.

Mike’s passion for multiplying these MAGs has also led to coaching other pastors—such as Mark Fesmire, who has shepherded Grace EFC (Lynchburg, Virginia) since 1988.

Mark and other leaders at Grace EFC had once tried to encourage their small groups to function more like missional communities, too, but it didn’t catch on; most groups seemed to remain inward-focused fellowships or Bible studies. Mark couldn’t help but admit: His church members found it easier to support foreign missionaries than to build deep friendships with non-Christians nearby.

And Mark knew it was true for himself too: “I got to a point personally where I realized I’m trying to tell people to be involved with non-Christians and I’m not myself. I need to fix that.”

When Mark and his wife, Kathy, heard what Mike Jarrell was doing up in Pennsylvania, they asked Mike to coach them into starting their own missional action group. They handed their current life group to another leader, invited a second family to join them and started their own MAG with the goal of reaching the lost around them. As the group grows, they hope to see it multiply to include and reach others.

Evangelism isn’t Mark’s spiritual gift, and he’s honest about not yet having non-Christian friends in his life. But his desire to live God’s mission and to practice what he’s calling others to is leading him to be creative. He and Kathy plan to join a local book club in order to get to know others and then look for opportunities to introduce them to their community and to God. They’re excited about the potential for themselves, their church and the unreached people in their community.

Missional action groups can’t be taught from the pulpit; they have to be experienced. And the real-life nature of them means that there are many unknowns and few prescriptions, so church leaders need to be willing to release leadership and control. At the same time, once Christians get a taste of what it’s like to act as the family of God, to grow deeper in their walks with God and each other, and to live missionally toward the lost around them, together, there’s no telling what kind of ministry God will do through His people for His glory.

To learn more about starting missional action groups at your church, email Mike Jarrell.

*Church attendance is not the primary measurement at Narrow Road Communities. While about 120 attend Sunday services, closer to 175 are part of missional action groups.

Jennifer M. Kvamme is student ministries coordinator at Centennial EFC (Forest Lake, Minnesota), writer, wife, mother of two beautiful and energetic preschool girls, and an active member of her own gospel community, which is wrestling with what it looks like to live life together on-mission.