What are micro churches and how do they disciple missional leaders? Bree Mills, director of Micro Churches Australia shares about the characteristics of micro churches, how they are formed, and how micro church leaders are developed.
Doug Powe: Bree, I’m so glad you’re joining us today and happy that you were willing to take this time. Share a little bit about yourself including your denominational background before we delve into the micro church movement.
Bree Mills: I’m from Melbourne, Australia, and by training and background I’m an ordained Anglican minister in the Anglican Church of Australia, but I work predominantly now in a multidenominational kind of space. I’m married with three teenage children, and we’re all still alive. So, that’s a good start. I was a minister for about 15 years in different capacities, and then I’ve moved more into this micro church space, training and resourcing others.
Doug Powe: Thank you for being with us. How do you define micro church? What is micro church?
Bree Mills: That’s a good question and the answer is it depends. It depends on who you are and what you’re talking about. But for me, it’s all about having a small community of disciples that’s intentional about reaching out in mission to a particular people or place and demonstrating and proclaiming the gospel and making disciples in that sort of space. It’s really about that small, intentional community that has a missional identity, that comes together for the purpose of mission and discipleship, whether that’s towards a network of people or a particular geographical place.
Doug Powe: I’m Methodist and in the Wesleyan tradition, and we have sort of moved away from this. But at one time, we had missionally focused small groups. So, would you see micro churches as different? How would you make the distinction between the two?
Bree Mills: It depends on what your small groups are. A lot of small groups these days tend to focus on fellowship together or on times of worship and learning, but they’re not missionally driven. Usually, the biggest difference between a small group and a micro church is they don’t have that that sense of being sent together out on mission. Maybe, if it’s a good group, they’ll have a sense of individually going and doing that. The goal of a micro church is to go together and focus on a particular people, group, or place together and generally to reach out. That’s one of the big differences.
I think the other difference is that the micro church is seen as church in itself. It’s a group of people who want to do life together and work together as opposed to people who just come together once a week. It’s a community. A lot of language is used around extended families. It’s a family on mission that does this work together and I think that is quite different from a typical small group.
Doug Powe: There’s an intentionality around micro churches; they are not just gathering on Sunday. Micro churches consider the following question: How do we structure our lives together for the whole week and live out our missional lives daily in whatever we’re doing or thinking about in terms of moving forward?
Bree Mills: Yes, absolutely, and do that together. Otherwise, we tend to spend a lot of our weeks on our own as believers in complete environments that are not supportive. So, it gives you a sense of doing mission together with others and of having an integrated flock. There’s that old African proverb that says it takes a village to raise a child, and I think it takes a village to raise a disciple, too. So, it has that kind of village mentality.
Doug Powe: Great. Can you share how you got into this? Did you pilot a micro church at one time? Did you fall into it accidentally? How did you get into what is now called the micro church movement?
Bree Mills: A mixture of “fell into it accidentally” and a really clear vision of God. This started when I was working in youth ministry. It came through an original youth ministry that we were trying in a small church, and we ended up reaching out to a whole lot of people that were never going to come into the church. We ended up with this group on the side, doing other things. That was kind of our first foray into this other form of small church that was attached to or connected to an existing church.
I had applied for a new job and was in the process of praying about which job to take and God gave me a really clear vision, but it was a bit of an odd vision. I’m an Anglican minister and it is not usual for Anglicans to receive prophetic pictures and visions like that. But it was a picture of these small square windows and some people I knew in this church kind of reaching their arms through this window and trying to pull people through it, and I knew they were not going to fit. This was kind of a bit of a crazy picture. Then, straightaway, God showed me another picture of us standing at the corner of our church block and then walking down the middle of the street and inviting people to come and join us. I didn’t get it at the time. It took me almost 12 months to work out what God was saying. But it was just a strong call for us to move outside our building and into our neighborhood. When we started doing that, we had never heard the terms micro church or missional community. We were obedient to what we sensed God was calling us to do, which was to take a step outside our church building.
Doug Powe: I’ve read and heard that you talked about five characteristics that frame micro churches. Do you mind sharing those five characteristics with our audience?
Bree Mills: For me, these are what we tend to call markers of micro churches. If you want to ask, “Is it a micro church?”, the answer must be yes to these five things. First, it must be Jesus centered. There’s a lot of things that happen in life and in churches that don’t have Jesus at the center. Micro churches can’t be birthed out of anything other than God’s leading and guidance, and they must be centered around the person and the work of Jesus. It sounds ridiculously obvious but for us it’s important.
Then, there are three other elements. What does a micro church engage in? For us, that’s worship, community, and mission. Some people use language of up, in, and out around these. Our time with worship is not necessarily music but anything that we do that ascribes worth to God. The time is a fellowship, and I think we’ve got to move away from that simplistic idea of fellowship as a cup of coffee together after the service to something a bit deeper like the “one anothers” that scripture talks about — doing life at that deeper level as believers. Then there is mission and engaging in that mission together. These are the three elements that sit at the center.
I’m unusual because I add a fifth one that most micro church practitioners don’t. I believe that micro churches must be in partnership with the broader body of Christ. I don’t think any single church is called to be the Church on their own. We’re all called to be part of the one Church, and that means that we remain in relationship and in connection with others around us. Whether you partner with an existing church, whether you have a network of micro churches, whether you’ve just got a good relationship with the other three churches around you, whatever that might be, you can’t exist in isolation. I think it’s a biblical imperative that we can’t exist in isolation. So, these are the five things that I hold pretty tightly to. When one of those is missing or something’s going wrong in one of those, I think you can see it really clearly. That’s where issues start to form with some of these micro churches.
Doug Powe: We could spend the rest of our time just around these five characteristics, but I have other things I want to get to. I have a couple of follow-up questions. The first is how do you help to make sure these five markers become a part of the DNA or fabric when a new micro church starts? Then the second part, which is just as hard, how do you maintain it? How can you create it and then maintain it?
Bree Mills: It’s in our training and resourcing of the micro churches we are connecting with. When someone comes to us and wants to start a micro church, they will be based around these five characteristics. We say, “Tell us why. What’s the vision behind it?” Basically, we’re looking for that sense of it being God-directed and not “Well, the pastor at my church is doing something I’m unhappy with, so I’m going to go do this” or we’re like, hang on, that doesn’t sound God-centered, and we tell you to sort that out before you come back to us. At the starting point, we’re checking and asking questions around these five aspects.
We’re also helping people set up rhythms. When you think through worship, community, and mission, you can see those lived out in the rhythms of life in the community. If they say, “We want to meet as a micro church. We’re going to meet on a Sunday morning. We’re going to read the Bible. We’re going to do this ….”, I’m going to respond, great, that’s excellent. That will give you times of worship and times of fellowship. Tell me how you’re going to do times of mission.
In the micro church that I’m currently involved in, we run a board game night at a local neighborhood house once a month. We do lots of other things in the community. We’ve got a netball team. There are so many things that are part of our rhythm of life together that are not all intentionally evangelistic — we don’t stand up and present the gospel at these places. They are places where we engage in our community and build relationships.
We’re particular about actually building those things into your rhythms. If you don’t build them into your rhythms, these things get lost. I’ve seen lots of micro churches who have great intentions to do something or serve someone in their community, but they spend most of their time just whistling through ideas. They haven’t structured it into their gatherings. They’re so busy with other gatherings, like Bible studies or meeting for prayer triplets or whatever it might be, that they don’t leave time on their calendar. It’s got to be structured into their rhythms of life.
Really the partnership is structured into accountability: who are you accountable to beyond yourself? You’re accountable to a network. You’re in accountability relationships with other pastors around you. To a degree, all of this can be structured into the process when you build it, depending on the metrics or accountability mechanisms you use.
We ask every six months, how’s it going? What do your rhythms look like? We have a little tool where we talk about being Jesus centered, about worship, community, and mission. We’re trying to get to the sweet spot in the middle. We say draw your community for us: huge worship now with a little bit of communion? A little mission? You can visually get people to map out where they think they are and therefore where they need to adjust. That’s one of the tools that we use to help people keep their eye on all three and not get moved in one direction.
Doug Powe: I know your context is Australia, but are you aware of micro churches within the United States? Do you have any connection or relationship with any of them?
Bree Mills: I do. There are a lot of micro churches in the States, and they’ve been a great blessing to us throughout our journey. I connected with the Underground Church in Tampa back in 2015. We were probably four or five years into what we were doing in Melbourne when suddenly a friend connected me to this underground church that wasn’t being public about what they were doing. We found a great relationship and friendship with those guys and a lot of similarities with what we were doing.
We’ve connected with lots of different groups in the U.S. over the years. There are the underground guys in the micro church space. There are a lot of guys in the missional community space and, more recently, a couple of guys in the house church space, who are slightly different. It has been interesting to talk with them and hear their stories. I spent some time with a guy who has planted some micro churches through the Disney Parks, which is an exciting story. He’s doing some great work training others through that space.
Doug Powe: The next thing I want to talk about is leadership. You’re ordained Anglican. If I came to you and I was not ordained, would I be allowed to start a micro church? Do I have to be ordained? How do you help people discern their role in terms of leadership of micro churches?
Bree Mills: I’d almost prefer you weren’t ordained, to be totally honest, and that’s not because I have anything against ordination. But if you see a micro church planted by an ordained person, everyone else thinks they must be ordained to plant one. And that’s not the case. This is a lay-led kind of movement. We equip anybody who is a follower of Jesus who wants to continue to grow in their relationship with him and to step out on mission. We will equip anyone to lead a micro church irrespective of whether they’re ordained or not. A lot of people who lead micro churches, especially in Australia, have full-time corporate jobs or jobs in other spaces. This is not a big heavy job they get paid for. This is something they do off the side and around what they’re already doing. You don’t need to be ordained. There’s still a lot of training that we encourage people to do as micro church leaders.
There’s a lot of responsibility in taking on the pastoral leadership of a micro church. But that’s also why I think it’s healthy to be in partnership with others in a network or in partnership with the local church. It’s great to have an ordained person overseeing the network or being a point of support, encouragement, and resourcing. Sometimes in these micro churches, you run into some really challenging stuff to deal with. Having that sort of connection to the broader body of Christ means you can bring in people who have resources to be able to deal with those situations in a different way than an everyday lay person who may not have those resources.
Doug Powe: Do you have a training program? If I came to you and said I believe God has called me to this ministry, would you then set me up with a training program before I started? How would that work for a lay person to begin this work?
Bree Mills: We have some training that we do as part of our network — Sent Collective, a church planting network in Melbourne. Micro Movements has some other trainings that they do. Micro Movements, the organization that I lead, is a collaborative of a whole lot of micro churches and networks from around Australia. They all have their own slightly different training, but we collaborate and share. Much like what’s going on in the U.S., there are lots of people out there who will train you in micro churches. They’re all slightly different and they all have their different values. But, yes, if you say, “Hey, I want to be a micro church leader,” we would say, “Great! Let’s do some training and coaching.”
I think coaching is even more important than training because it allows you to tackle character and stuff with a leader. It’s not just about giving people information so they can then lead a micro church and know how to do the right things, but it’s to make sure that their character is one that demonstrates Christ to their community and micro church and to help them hold accountability in that. We are really big on coaching. Every month the church leader needs to have a coach. In my network and across Australia, that’s pretty much the standard approach.
Doug Powe: For those individuals, is the expectation that it would not be their sole responsibility to carry the day? I’m assuming the hope is that the community is going to take responsibility and that this individual has different roles as “the leader.”
Bree Mills: Well, we usually talk about a core team. We basically won’t let you plant unless you’ve got a core team, and usually it is one person who’s the key leader, the one who comes to us and says, “Hey, I’ve got a heart for women struggling with homelessness in the city.” There is your heart, your missional identity. Then we say, go and see if there are others who will come alongside you who are interested in doing that, too, and form a core team. In the core team, we’re looking for a good mix of gifts — different skills and training and resourcing.
The core team leads the community, not the key leader. The key leader holds the vision for the community. Often the leader is the one we will coach so they can keep that vision centric in the community. We really are strong on team-based leadership because you can’t take this on if you have to do everything, especially if you’re holding a full-time job. It’s got to be a team approach.
Doug Powe: Let’s say that things just go wonderfully well, and my micro church suddenly has 100 people or 150 people. Is there a point in time where you are too big and no longer a micro church? How do you handle that situation?
Bree Mills: Yes. That’s a great problem to have. At 150, that would probably make you bigger than most Australian churches, non-micro churches. Our heart is to see multiplication, so we like to see churches multiplying wider rather than growing higher, if that makes sense. We really want to see churches multiply. In Australia we found that if you hit about forty, you really need to start moving towards multiplication. We had a micro church in our house that included kids; it was over 50 and it was a bit crazy. Thankfully, at that time we had one big rumpus room that worked for it. But that’s about as big as I would see them grow in Australia. I’d be keen to multiply them once they start getting over 35. We’ve seen different things in Australia. There are different visions that arise as people come to faith and have a sense of the people they’re called towards. You cultivate those visions and send them off.
We have seen a couple of micro churches become congregations of a normal church, which has been interesting. We planted them as micro churches. In both cases, they were ethnic micro churches, reaching a particular ethnic population. Because of the kind of cultural context of that ethnic congregation, they were often looking for high places to worship. They would reach out to friends and bring their friends, so they didn’t want to be small. Culturally, they wanted to get together with everyone, so they became congregations. That’s an excellent kingdom outcome.
I’m not particular about the model being the only way to go. It’s really a starting point. I hope it either multiplies outward or can grow into a congregation of the Church. If I had a lot of control over church planting, I’d encourage every church planter to start with a micro church rather than the model where they bring fifty or a hundred people and start a church that way. Start with a micro church so that you learn how to disciple people, and let it grow through discipleship rather than attendance transferred from other churches.
Doug Powe: That makes a lot of sense. I think within the U.S. context we’re moving more in that direction, but it has taken us a while to get there because we thought bigger was better instead of thinking in terms of micro churches.
Bree Mills: It’s hard to disciple people well in a big context. When our micro church hit 50, I realized I was not disciplining the people anymore. I’m gathering them, which is great. But when it was 20 to 25, we were able to disciple one another well, and that’s why we’ve moved in that model and really pushed multiplication.
Doug Powe: There are so many faith communities out there. Why is there a need for another movement like the micro church movement?
Bree Mills: Because they are still unreached people in our world. I’ll put my little evangelist hat on. The churches that we have are going to reach a certain group of people, and we need them. I’m not a proponent of shutting down megachurches or neighborhood churches. They reach particular people, and they will continue to reach the dechurched population. But what we’re seeing in Australia is that micro churches are reaching the unchurched who have never been to church in their life, have never been raised in faith, which in Australia is a much larger percentage of our population than in the U.S. now. People who have absolutely no affiliation with a Christian church are never going to come to church or seek a church, so the church must move and seek them out. Micro churches are a key tool that we need to be thinking through and really stepping into because I think they’re going to reach people that we can’t reach in other ways and reach them on their terms rather than on our terms. For a long time, the church has asked people to come to us on our terms, and I actually think scripture might flip that the other way.
Doug Powe: I don’t know if this happened in Australia, but I could certainly see it in the United States. Someone listens to the podcast, and they love everything you say. They are in a congregation, and they say, we can just start our own micro church right from our congregation. How would you respond to that individual?
Bree Mills: I would say, you can. But it would be even better if you talk to your church pastor and share that vision with them and work with them about what the possibilities could be. Our original network that we planted out of a place called Glen Waverly in Melbourne was a large church of about 500 people. We started planting these micros alongside of it, and we ended up having 12 or 13 micro churches planted alongside the existing church and running both in harmony mostly, together. What we saw was the resources of the large church really fed the small micro church movement and the missional energy from the micro church really enlivened the predominant model church. I’m a big fan of that kind of dual system. I would be really encouraging people: Don’t leave and start your own thing. Work together because I think it will benefit you in the long run and it will benefit your current church.
Doug Powe: Bree, this has been wonderful. I’m appreciative of the work that you’re doing. So, thank you for sharing about the micro church movement with us.
Bree Mills: Thanks for having me. It’s been great.
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