Three Streams of Missional/Ecclesial Multiplication

It is becoming widely accepted that the church has to go on a journey of change to respond to our changed context.  Most agree that the change must involve discipleship and becoming missional.

But there are all sorts of models and principles being strongly promoted. Our experience of involvement with many of these is that we need discretion and clear understanding of what is involved in each if they are to be implemented healthily.

Among many important insights, we recognise one particular understanding of the varied field that we don’t pick up elsewhere. Namely, that among the wide array of models for discipleship, mission and ecclesial multiplication… there seem to be 3 overall “streams”. We describe them as “streams” since they are broader than any one model and leaders are tending to favour and identify themselves with one rather than the others. And the leaders identification with one stream seems more about the network they are linked to than the appropriateness of the particular journey and challenge for them and their context. We briefly describe these here and go on to highlight key issues for their healthy development.

  1. Church Planting

This stream has been around the longest. At its simplest, it is about multiplication which results in a distinct new faith community that in time expects to “stand alone”. It may stay relationally connected with “parent” and even share resources, but it develops a life of its own, often requiring its own constitution and charitable status. Many of these “church plants” tend to be building-centred and event-centred… like their parent. They also usually require high capacity pioneer leaders who, if not ordained, are recognised and paid.

  1. Missional Communities

Some call these “clusters” which was how these were first described. And they illustrate that language is a problem since there are now different people using the name to mean something quite different.

However, here we mean “midsized missional communities”. They are typically between 15 and 50 people seeking extended family dynamics gathered around a strongly shared mission vision and practice. In direct contrast to church plants, they arise by an existing church congregation transitioning to become a church made up almost exclusively of many clusters/missional communities. And as we shall see, this is a most important distinctive.

These missional communities stay connected to a resourcing centre and are networked together. Almost always these midsize communities are much lighter weight than church plants, less building and event-centred and are led by non-professional, unpaid, lay people.

  1. Fresh expressions of Church

This term, coined in Mission Shaped Church Report in 2004, was intended as an umbrella term. The report specifically included “traditional church plants” as one of more than a dozen types of fresh expression. As a movement, it also recognises Missional Communities as one extremely good version of fresh expression.

However, like it or not, the fresh expression term is becoming widely associated with a “stream” that would use it more narrowly, and for our purposes here we accept this meaning as this enables us to highlight the key understandings that we wish to draw.

In this use of the term… fresh expressions of church, like Messy Church or Café Church, are not intending like church planting, to become stand alone, disconnected, faith communities, independent of their parent. Rather, these fresh expressions, much more like Missional Communities stay connected to the parent and come under the same governance structures. But unlike missional communities, there is no intention of transitioning the parent congregation to become like them. These fresh expressions normally remain part of the ministry of the parent congregation whilst often gaining greater independent identity than missional communities.

Understanding Key Contrasting Issues for Healthy Development

Having explained these three distinct approaches to missional multiplication, we return to our serious concern that these three streams seem to be being engaged with by churches more on the basis of the network they are linked to than the vitally important strategic differences between the three approaches.

Those who are successfully church planting seem to promote the model to all as though widely appropriate. Those seeing growth and breakthrough from missional communities encourage any and all to join them on the journey, as though it was equally appropriate to all. And enthusiasts for fresh expressions can be understood as envisioning all for this narrower use of the term. We believe such undiscriminating approaches to have potential dangers – some unfortunately already being realised.

Now we assess that the key distinct issues to recognise relate to a) overall leader capacity; b) congregation change responsiveness and c) capacity or scope of pioneers available. In our view, these should be essential areas of exploration before deciding on any of/which of the three streams could be suitable in any given local situation. The table that follows summarises these distinctive and the key issues, which we describe briefly here.

  1. All the approaches require overall leaders who have a vision for mission and multiplication. They can effectively cast the vision for multiplication and are secure enough to release others to pioneer them.
  2. All three streams require pioneers to initiate the model of missional multiplication. However, in general, a church plant with higher maintenance requirement and greater independence requires pioneers of considerably greater capacity. They are often accredited and paid and may be recruited from outside. In contrast missional communities and fresh expressions mainly depend on lay pioneers from within the existing congregation of lesser capacity. A very important difference is therefore the wider scope and greater potential for multiplication of the other two approaches.
  3. Perhaps the most important distinctive is the effect on the parent congregation. As has been explained, both church plants and fresh expressions, whilst requiring the release of some visionary pioneer lay people to form the initial team… will leave the rest of the congregation largely unaffected. In contrast, the normal missional community journey involves the whole congregation accepting the challenge of a transformation of how they are church.

This is a crucial difference which doesn’t seem to be being assessed in leaders exploring and choosing this particular “stream” of multiplying discipleship and mission. Once this critical distinctive is realised, the greater challenge of the journey to missional communities becomes clear. And there are two linked dynamics that vitally need assessing here.

Firstly, to transition the whole congregation requires all (or almost all) to embrace change. And it is radical change to a discipling culture and sacrificial missional engagement. Few of us love change. So it is so important to assess the overall leader’s capacity for change management. Enthusiasm for something more missional is laudable, but if not combined with humble realism about ones level of gifting in this area, can lead to traumatic divisions emerging on the journey.

And secondly, it is a journey in effect  from a more “modal” community identity to a more “sodal” community identity (see Dr Ralph Winter, The Two Structures of God’s Redemptive Mission, 1973). The much more challenging sodal environment will expose the congregations openness to change and in particular, where there are hidden “power bases” that are likely to resist change (and these may well not be those in formal authority roles). If these two aspects of change responsiveness are not realistically discerned, again there can be serious battles ahead for the leader (and team).

It should be clear that these two factors of leader’s change management ability and congregations change responsiveness are closely linked. If both have negative impact on the journey, one can magnify the other in a rocky road that, at worst has led to schism. The warnings of these most unhappy outcomes should lead to great caution in choosing this route, combined with clear understanding of these two challenges and best practice to navigate them with minimised trauma.

Of course it should be clear that the principles of mid size missional communities with their foundational shift to discipling culture, can be initiated as a separate journey from the main congregation. In this strategy, first just one or two, then a third or fourth missional community can be launched without total congregational transformation. This implementation of missional communities puts it in exactly the same category as fresh expressions, with the same key characteristics as in that section of the table. When adopting this “pilot” approach, the can be the possibility of bringing about a gradual transformation of most of the original congregation as the new model and reality is progressively embraced by other congregational members. This is in fact exactly how Phil Potter introduced missional community principles to St Marks Haydock under the heading of a “Lake and River Church”. The two streams flowing alongside one another and into one another.

In our view, missional communities are in fact one of the most effective forms of fresh expression of church. But their implementation needs this sort of careful discernment.

Three Streams of Missional Multiplication

Model of Missional Multiplication Effect on Parent Lay Resources Overall Leader Requirement
Church Planting Largely unaffected Needs a high capacity pioneer a)     Vision caster

b)    Identify and recruit pioneer(s)

fresh expressions Largely unaffected Lay teams a)     Vision caster

b)    Releasing laity

Missional Communities Complete transition of whole congregation


Change responsiveness?

Exposes power bases!


(potential for schism)

Lay teams





a)     Exceptional change management

b)    Vision caster

c)     Releasing laity

d)    Ongoing support

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