Video of the Jesus Pattern Tool

There are all different forms that “spiritual family” takes. Some are are really organic and seem to happen by accident, and some are a little bit more organized (things like small groups, Missional Communities, etc).

I’m using the term “spiritual family” in a broad way, but roughly speaking, I mean a group of people committed to living out the pattern of Jesus’ life together of UP (life with the Father) , IN (life with each other) and OUT (life demonstrating and proclaiming the Good News of Jesus with those who don’t know Jesus yet).

I helped create something called the Jesus Pattern Tool to help illustrate this. (You can even download the video here.But generally speaking, a spiritual family should grow and multiply over time, but they principally do that through people growing spiritually as they live on mission.


So what are the Top 10 practical reasons Spiritual Families fail?


1) The leaders of the spiritual family don’t know how to disciple the other people, apprenticing people and raising up future leaders. 

This can result in a few different outcomes:

  • The groups becomes the warped version of the culture they are trying to bring the Kingdom into. The leaders don’t know how to disciple people to be missionaries to a culture, therefore they never truly learn how to be “in the world but not of it.” Because of that, they are more influenced by the culture than redeeming the culture they find themselves in. In this case, there is a lot more cultural relevance than there is Jesus.
  • The group becomes a very religious space and is all about who is in and who is out. Doctrine is used as a weapon of defense and not something that helps to describe the reality of God’s Kingdom. People who don’t know Jesus find the MC the equivalent of running into a brick wall. In this case, there is a lot more law than there is Jesus.
  • When people become Christians, there is no one to disciple them as most (if not all) of the spiritual family doesn’t know how to disciple people. New believers become stagnant, and the life they were told about in the Gospel never comes to fruition and they become disenfranchised and divisions within the MC start to occur.

2) Lack of a clear mission vision.

Every single Christian could say, “We exist to love God, love people and serve the world.” But a spiritual family has a special Ephesians 2:10 calling. There are things that God has set aside form them to do. What are those things? A spiritual family should be discerning the crack or crevice of society where there is a lack of Gospel presence, and then form a Jesus community in that particular crack/crevice. It’s not generic, it’s specific.

For example, one spiritual family I worked with focused on artists.

In this case, the mission vision was very clear: Artists. However, this particular group of people in the burgeoning spiritual family were also VERY eclectic (and I mean that as a sincere compliment) and many of the things they commonly enjoyed weren’t necessarily artistic, but eclectic. What they ended up doing was many activities that eclectic people would have liked , but artists actually wouldn’t; so they never really grew by exposing artists to the Gospel. At the same time, the eclectic friends they had were never terribly interested in the community because it was stated that it was for artists…but they weren’t artists. So neither artists nor eclectic people found a family. In this case, the leader needed to decide: Does this group exist for artists for for eclectic people? Because it will actually be hard to do both. And because of that, the group found itself stuck in the middle, unable to grow or gain momentum.


3) Launching with too few people.

I think sociologically, families work best at the extended family size. It doesn’t mean there isn’t a place for nuclear families; it’s just that nuclear families exist as part of something larger than itself. So with spiritual families, it’s most common to see them thriving and multiplying in the size range of 20-40 people.

One critical mistake many groups make when launching is doing so with less than 15-20 people in the core group as they are starting. Why you may ask? The reason mission works so well with this size group is that new people who don’t know Jesus are welcome to hang out, observe, form relationships, but they can also be semi-anonymous if they choose. Because of the number of people, they don’t feel uncomfortable if they don’t fully participate or are simply in observation mode when the “family” has spiritual time together. There is a certain gravitational pull to these group dynamics; it really brings people in. HOWEVER…if you have fewer than 15 people, you’ll almost inevitably default to the social dynamics of a small group (6-12 people), where it’s very personal, everyone shares, and is very inward focused. That’s not terribly comfortable for someone who doesn’t know Jesus! We’ve found that at 15 people, there is a shift in these dynamics.

One exception to the general rule: If the leader of the group is an OUTSTANDING people gatherer. In other words, they could start something with 6 people and next week there would be 25 people there…they just have a gift.

4) The Spiritual Family isn’t part of a larger, worshipping body.

Church plants might be able to get around this (though in many cases they can’t either), but the reality is that life on the missional frontier isn’t easy. It’s incredibly exciting, an amazing adventure and it’s worth every ounce of prayer and effort you put into it…but it really is hard. Because of that, it’s really important that spiritual families regularly cycle into a worship service with a larger group of people (more than 75 people) to be reminded they are part of a bigger story, to hear how God is working in places other than just theirs, to hear teaching/preaching for the wider community, to take the sacraments together and to worship with one, unified voice. Another way of putting it: The scattered church gathers in order to scatter. Perhaps another way of putting it: We gather together so mission is sustainable. Spiritual families that operate alone will eventually wither and fall off the vine because it’s generally too hard to sustain apart from a wider community.

5) Leaders who aren’t accountable.

A good spiritual family is built on the principle of “Low Control/High Accountability” in how they relate to living under the spiritual authority of someone other than them. If your leaders aren’t willing to be held accountable, this is a spiritual problem (i.e. also a discipleship issue) and it WILL come back to bite you. You don’t want spiritual families to be the place where the rebellious renegades of the church are leading…the mission is simply too important. If you’re a leader at the wider church and they are refusing to be held accountable in whatever leadership accountability system you have, have some serious discussions with them about whether they should be leading a spiritual family under the spiritual protection of your church. Eventually, whatever is toxic in them that refuses to let them submit to someone in authority will eek out into the rest of the group and the toxicity will spread. Be clear what accountability looks like, what those rhythms look like, what the expectations are and make sure you follow through on these expectations as the person holding them accountable.


6) Too little mission…particularly at the start.

If you’re just starting, you need to do a LOT more mission than you do worship/teaching(UP) or times of hanging out with people already in the group (IN). You need to be out doing things that connect to Persons of Peace (people God has already prepared in advance to be open to you and your vision). This is essential to life as a spiritual family. If it doesn’t get into your DNA early…it probably won’t get in.

A general rule of thumb: For every time you do something UP or IN focused in the first 3-4 months, you need to do AT LEAST 2-3 outward, mission focused things.

7) The leaders do everything.

In many ways, when we talk about Spiritual Family, we’re talking about the texture of what we see in the early church. The word used in scripture is oikos, meaning household, and when we get down to the historical data, we see the average church size was maybe 40-60 people. So the book of 1st Corinthians is written to a fairly small group of people. The book of Romans is written to a collection of Spiritual Families (and Paul addresses the various household spiritual families in Romans 16). In chapters 10-14 of his first letter to Corinth, Paul outlines some really clear principles of how this community gathers, functions, participates, etc when they are together. One of the key principles? Everyone participates. Everyone gets to play. That’s the beauty of this Spiritual Family life.  Everyone brings something (food, a word of encouragement, a prayer, a song, etc). The point isn’t just that you’re together. If the leader is doing everything and isn’t dispersing either leadership or responsibilities, the group is done for.


8) The time together looks like a mini-Sunday service.

This is one of the more common mistakes people make. They don’t realize that what we’re talking about is a spiritual FAMILY on mission together, so the task is to build a family, not an event. But because all they have seen most of their lives is a Sunday morning church service (i.e. event), they do that…just without the same quality or number of people to make it appropriate from a socio-dynamic perspective. These communities sink faster than an anvil in the ocean. If people who don’t know Jesus were interested in going to a worship service, they’d find one that’s done well with a number of people that allows them to observe in an anonymous fashion.


9) The Spiritual Family doesn’t actively and regularly engage in evangelism.

I think there are two realities to this.

Reality #1: In the last 20-30 years, we’ve seen A LOT of evangelism done very poorly and through a lot of manipulation. Because of this, we have a generation or two of people who are VERY leery of actually sharing the good news of the Kingdom and make it easy for people step into discipleship who don’t know Jesus. Timid would probably be the right word to describe it. What we’ve done is jump from ditch to ditch. There are some major soteriological issues at play here, but I’ll just hop on one in particular by summarizing some thoughts by Dallas Willard. He says two things that I think are really helpful as we think about “evangelizing” people:

  • The point isn’t to get people into heaven after they die, but to get people into heaven before they die. (The point of the good news is that the Kingdom is available now…you don’t have to wait!)
  • If that’s true, evangelism isn’t really about getting people into heaven after they die, but getting them before they die. (Which means if we aren’t evangelizing people towards discipleship rather than heaven, we’ve completely missed Jesus’ message)

What we understand is the Kingdom is exactly what Jesus said it was: Available to us now. That means that the sin, pain, sadness, shame, brokeness, injustice and isolation that affects all of us, that all of us live in and out of each and every day…God can bring life to that TODAY. Discipleship is the process of living in the Kingdom more and more each day while we are on earth. While we should be concerned about people being with us and Jesus for all eternity, it says something about us if we don’t really care about getting people out of the hell they are currently living in.

The practical reality is people don’t become disciples of Jesus by rubbing shoulders with us long enough. At some point…we have to take a step towards them with an invitation into a new life! A Spiritual Family who isn’t bold in asking people to live into the new reality of the Kingdom will be like dry milk toast.

Reality #2: For quite some time, evangelicals have sadly and frustratingly neglected Kingdom work as it pertains to social justice and inequity. Finally, that tide is starting to turn and we are thinking more holistically about the Gospel. HOWEVER, I’m also starting to observe a different ditch-to-ditch reality…one where Christians say they exist to bring heaven to earth in terms of social justice, but do nothing about evangelism. If you are working and trying to do something about injustice but care nothing for evangelism, you are still missing quite a large chunk of Jesus’ message…just like when you were saying that everyone was missing a large chunk of Jesus’ message without addressing social inequities. You can deal with SYSTEMS of injustice that are inherently broken or evil, but there are still broken, warped, sinful people in needs of God’s transformation living IN those systems (which is how those systems were first built, groups of broken people created them). We need the WHOLE of the Gospel, not just the bits we are personally passionate about.

Here’s what I can tell you: When you have both of these working in concert with each other (seeing the KIngdom advance in social justice arenas while being partnered with individuals being brought from death to life)…that will change cities.

So if your Spiritual Family is heavily involved with social justice engagement (sex trafficking, homeless, racial issues, poverty, etc), you will not be functioning as Jesus imagined it without evangelism as part of the coming Kingdom.

10)  You don’t really engage with the supernatural.

I don’t think I’ll ever be accused of being a wild “charismatic,” but I’m not going to beat around the bush: If your Spiritual Family isn’t very good at praying or listening to the voice of God and responding or engaging with the presence, power and leading of the Holy Spirit…you’re pretty much done (Yes, I’m implicitly saying you can be bad at prayer. In the same way you can be bad at tennis, it’s something you can learn to do better over time. In the same way you can improve communication habits with your spouse over time, you can improve your prayer life with your Father).

Don’t believe me? Try to imagine the early church not only surviving, but thriving without the Holy Spirit on the forefront. Prayer isn’t a box you check.

Does your Spiritual Family actually believe you can do nothing without God’s leading? Something to ask yourself: When your Spiritual Family prays, what happens? I’m not saying things always happen like you envisioned it, but are things different in heaven and on earth because of the prayer life your family on mission is tethered to?



Not every Spiritual Family makes it…and that’s OK! Even if you attended to all of the things listed above. Paul failed as much as he succeeded. So if it doesn’t make it, learn from what happened, grab a season of rest, listen for fresh vision from the Holy Spirit…and have another go at it!

There are all different forms that “spiritual family” takes. Some are are really organic and seem to happen by accident, and some are a little bit more organized (things like small groups, Missional Communities, etc).

I’m using the term “spiritual family” in a broad way, but roughly speaking, I mean a group of people committed to living out the pattern of Jesus’ life together of UP (life with the Father) , IN (life with each other) and OUT (life demonstrating and proclaiming the Good News of Jesus with those who don’t know Jesus yet). The spiritual family should grow and multiply over time, but they do that through people growing spiritually as they live on mission. (Here’s a video you can watch that I helped created call the Jesus Pattern Tool. You can even download the video here.)