Three years ago, Austin Stone Community Church in Texas was recognized as one of the fastest growing churches in America by Outreach magazine.
But what might have privately been a proud moment for most church leaders was keeping the megachurch's lead pastor, Matt Carter, awake at night.
"I knew we might have just made a list for the top whatever fastest growing churches of wherever, but I knew that I would also make another list if we were making a real true list of the churches, and that's the top 10 crappiest churches in America in assimilating growth," recalled Carter during a recent gathering of church leaders and innovators.
"Congratulations, Mr. Carter, you are on the top 10 crappiest churches in America at forming disciples from this huge crowd that's walking through your doors," he imagined someone saying.
While the Austin-based church was certainly growing, the need to deepen relationships and raise and engage disciples became larger as well.
And although Carter's church had formed what they called "community groups" and congregants "signed up in droves," most of the groups weren't working.
"Some of them worked. Some of them formed actual community," recalled Carter, whose church was co-founded by Christian music star Chris Tomlin.
Most, however, didn't.
"Most of them were dismal failures. They couldn't connect with one another. They didn't feel like they fit in. Or they became inwardly focused and were completely not on mission to engage culture or the city or people that didn't know Jesus. Or they began to fight and argue ... it was ridiculous," Carter said. "We stunk at building community as a church. [We were] growing, but stinking at community."
So what Carter and his staff did was they went back to the drawing board, back to the Bible, to look at the bond, the unity, and the community that was recorded there and asked themselves where in today's world, today's culture could they see such an image appear.
Among the first images that came to mind for Carter was the book Band of Brothers, which tells the story of a World War II military unit that developed a "deep and abiding" bond – even deeper sometimes than the one they share with their wives.
"Now, I don't think that's godly, but this is what they (surviving members of the 'E Company') are saying," Carter said.
"What happened to this group of people that formed such a significant sense of community?" Carter posed. "[T]he answer is very simple. It's one word: mission."
And as Carter noted after the "ah-ha moment," that is exactly how Jesus built community.
"He called them (his disciples) to himself, and secondly ... he called them to mission," Carter said.
After identifying that principle, Austin Stone staff took it and applied it to the church's small group ministries, centering them on mission – around a cause or a need – rather than around "chips and dip," fellowship, or on Bible studies alone. And the result was "missional communities" that looked far different from "community groups" the church started off with.
"Bible studies are happening. They're loving each other. They're walking together. They're serving together. And this beautiful, beautiful picture of biblical, authentic, deep bond and community is forming there," Carter reported. "And it's happening all over our church. We have 300 'missional communities.'"
That said, Carter challenged attendees of the Innovation3 conference in Carrollton, Texas, as they prepared to leave the two-day gathering to look at the people in their churches and ask the simple question "Are they actually engaging?"
"Are they actually engaging with one another and engaging in a biblical, real community? And how can we go about making that happen in our church?" Carter posed before concluding in prayer.
Carter's comments were delivered during the final session at the Jan. 27-28 conference hosted by the Leadership Network, which drew church leaders and innovators from across the nation to transform minds and ministries through connecting, networking, and collaboration.
The Innovation3 conference was organized as the Leadership Network celebrated its 25th anniversary and featured over 100 presenters including Craig Groeschel, Mark Driscoll, Nancy Ortberg, Scott Thumma, and Ed Stetzer.
The four main themes at the conference were "Risk & Failure in Ministry," "Shaping the Culture through the Church," "The Dangerous Church in 2020," and "Achieving Missional Community."