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Unity 246Microchurches: co-existing with existing churches, working in partnership

From the 2022 Annual Tinsley Lecture

Microchurches, missional communities, and house churches are on the rise in Australia. As Australians seek authenticity and connection these more innovative forms of church seem to connect well, but, are they new? Isn't that the way the early church lived? Many movements have been born from small communities seeking to be conformed to Christ and love their neighbours, but where are they today? Will this movement last, or is it just the latest fad in church growth?

Bree Mills, an Anglican minister of Melbourne and Victoria with an MA Missional Leadership believes microchurches are going to increasingly become a part of the Australian church landscape. Microchurches are adaptable, lightweight, and lay-led communities that live out their missional identity in a particular network or neighbourhood. If we are willing to learn from biblical and historical examples, Bree suggests that microchurches can co-exist with existing churches, working in partnership to reach all the nooks and crannies of society.

Bree outlined her thoughts in the Annual Tinsley Lecture at Morling College based in Sydney and Perth. Here are some extracts:

I believe there's four key shifts that I've seen in Australia that have caused the increase in the number of microchurches.

The first shift is a cultural shift to go local, resulting from climate concerns, the pandemic, a reaction to some multinational organisations. The success of the local pub, cafés and corner stores have been a testament to that for years in Australia. This shift to live and engage more locally has been accelerated.

Heart of what's causing shift to go local is a second shift - the increased desire of connection and community. Australians are shifting to value community and belonging more than ever before. Community provides us with a level of emotional security and moral guidance now in a world where we no longer seek moral guidance from organisations such as the church. Think of the changing qualities that Gen Y and Z are looking for in their employment decisions - work that will provide community and a sense of belonging.

The third shift, influencing the rise of microchurches is a broader shift towards decentralization in society. I believe we're seeing the same push against the church as an institution. The church has lost the trust of people in Australia. Leadership failures, tribalism, high boundaries on complex, logical issues have caused people to just walk away from the church as an institution and when you pair this with decentralisation - a kind of personalised economy where whatever you have can be personalised to your exact needs. Decentralisation allows for this increasing personalization and micro churches, rightly or wrongly, actually provides space for this to happen.

And the final shift is the shift that's occurred in understanding that it's not the church who has a mission, but God who has a mission and he invites his people to participate in. A shift in understanding from mission as an activity of the church to describing the essential nature of the church. The shift to understanding the missional nature of all we do in the world which has shifted the focus away from the Sunday service. When our Sunday services was shut down due to Covid, it caused a lot of people to rethink the way they go about things.
Which brings us I think, to a valid question, is the increasing prevalence of microchurches a cultural adaption to our times, or is there something more to it? Now I would argue that that church has often and continually adapted and these have been vital to the health and the fruitfulness of the church. However, it's my conviction, that microchurches, that this size and form of church is more than just a cultural adaptation. Microchurch movements, of one sort or another, have been continually emerging throughout history as a base that God has used to birth gospel movements from the early church until today.

I think it is evident that ekklesia did not designate a single form in scripture. Ekklesia in scripture is often used to refer to both larger public gatherings such as those in Solomon's colonnade, as well as household gatherings. Paul speaks about teaching in public and from house to house.

[Lot of church history outlined here in the lecture].

Here is an example of a current partnership. The Church of England has partnerships between churches and expressions of church.  The Fresh Expressions movement saw different expressions of church launched outside the parish system, which target an underserved population. And instead of resisting these options when they popped up, the Archbishop of Canterbury said it is clear to us the parochial systems remains an essential part of the national Church's strategy but the existing system alone is no longer able to fully deliver its underlying mission purpose. We need to recognise that a variety of integrated missionary approaches, a mixed economy.  A heirarchical organisation changing as it can and an entrepreneurial network that can pioneer.

What makes microchurch? There are five things:

  • Firstly and obviously, their size. They're intentionally small communities. And they often range from 10 to 40 people. This helps depth of relationship, culture and communication. There are many potential microchurch leaders in a church who will never want to lead 100+ people or programmes and ministries. It is an effective size for leadership development and allows for the releasing of gifts and every member ministry more effectively.
  • Secondly, they are Jesus centred communities - they seek to be conformed to the image of Christ. Now this should be true of any church regardless, us but they make space for people to do live life and mission together. Sharpen one other.
  • Thirdly, they serve a community in the area. Whether this is a space like a particular neighbourhood, or an affinity network e.g. Bike Club, there is a genuine Spirit-led desire to invest in this community, listening and loving and serving the community. The missional people of God within that particular work feel the Spirit is calling them.
  • Fourthly, microchurches hold to a simple ecclesiology - together they live out their love for God and each other and seek to demonstrate that love to their work or their neighbourhood. There is a key difference to a house group - while both microchurch and housegroup engage in worship and fellowship, microchurch also regularly engages together in God's mission to the world - worship (up), fellowship (in), mission (out) being the eccelesial minimum of  church.
  • Finally, microchurches seek multiplication. They desire to multiply disciples and communities - seeking to grow wider NOT larger. They are not birthed to continue as they are. They grow, they divide, they close. Multiplication is actually what gives these communities longevity. A single microchurch may not live more than five years but its legacy is in the communities it births. Multiplication forces these communities to remain adaptive to the Spirit and the cultural shifts that they're seeing. This also keeps the focus on growing disciples who are able to lead these future communities.

I'm also increasingly convinced that unity and collaboration are essential here. The 'established' church and microchurches must be willing to partner. In my experience, often, microchurch leaders are innovative and humble missionaries and therefore they have the vision and ability to see God given possibilities in a place often out of the reach of local church. That can cause some disgruntlement. Their innovativeness may cause them to work creatively around leadership, particularly if that seeks to control rather than empower. But generally the microchurch movements that we're seeing currently in Australia have been birthed out of churches or denominations with their blessing.

Listen to the 80 min lecture here:

See also the blog; Repositioning church as a mission agency.

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From the 2022 Annual Tinsley Lecture, 12/07/2022

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