Read an Excerpt
Inside the Organic Church
Learning from 12 Emerging Congregations
By Bob Whitesel
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2006 Abingdon Press
All rights reserved.
St. Thomas' Church Sheffield, England
And a believer, after all, is a lover; as a matter of fact, when it comes to enthusiasm, the most rapturous lover of all lovers is but a stripling compared with a believer.
— Søren Kierkegaard, Danish philosopher
I was unprepared for my experience at St. Thomas', an Anglican church in Sheffield, England. Earlier that day I had perused their auditorium, a renovated warehouse that could hold barely one thousand people. And as a researcher and writer on church growth I knew that churches in Europe rarely grew over one thousand attendees, with even smaller gatherings in the Anglican Church and among younger generations. Therefore I was astounded when arriving late for Sunday evening worship I found crowds of young people extending out the door. I estimated there were over seventeen hundred attendees, almost all under the age of thirty. I wondered what was happening, as I began a four-day exploration into one of Europe's fastest growing postmodern churches.
"Our story is really the story of a missional church with a clustered structure,"explained former rector Mike Breen, who, sporting a plaid shirt, jeans, and closely cropped hair, looked nothing like my memory of an English rector. "By missional we mean a networked congregation where being 'sent' is stressed, rather than just sending others."He explained that writings by Darrell Guder and Eddie Gibbs had led them to see a missional church as "an organism or tribe, unified by a mission to reach unchurched friends with utmost flexibility."
Church: Saint Thomas' Church (mother church) and The Philadelphia Church (daughter church)
Leaders: Mike Breen (former rector), Mick Woodhead (current rector), Paul Maconochie (pastor of Philadelphia campus), Anne MacLaurin (assistant pastor)
Location: Sheffield, England
Affiliations: Anglican Church of England, Baptist Union of Great Britain
Audience: Non-Christians, postmoderns, multiple generations, and diverse social classes throughout and around Sheffield, England
Websites: sttoms.net; tribalgeneration.com
A Fusion of Rhythms
The Rhythm of Place
St. Thomas mirrors many organic congregations, meeting in unusual locations as availability and adaptability require. Originally headquartered within the stately stone walls of St. Thomas' Anglican Church, the church's growth drove them to lease Sheffield's largest disco: the Roxy. Within three years had packed the Roxy, largely resembling an American mega-church. "We filled the Roxy but were really just like most mega-churches with brittleness and disconnection," recalled Paul Maconochie, a thirty-four-year-old former chemistry teacher and now one of the leaders tapped to replace Breen.
While one portion of the church grew in the downtown disco, mother church also grew, choosing to continue worship services in the stately confines of St. Tom's. The church now resembled many organic churches with two distinct campuses, allowing to provide diverse options in music, liturgy, and ministry.
The Rhythm of Worship
The two locations allowed experimentation in music as well as liturgy. St. Tom's, now referred to as the mother church, hosted Sunday worship services: a more traditional early service, followed by a modern service. The traditional service continued draw traditional Anglicans from the neighborhood, while the modern option drew city residents who wanted updated worship still retained traditional elements and atmospheres in keeping the stately halls of St. Tom's.
The worship celebrations at the Roxy nightclub followed more modern route. Today in a converted warehouse, this postmodern worship celebration embraces rhythmic music, testimonials from the crowd, prayer for salvation as well as personal needs, and worship that is led by listening than by liturgy. When I attended, I noticed a leader on platform holding a fist of archery arrows. He did not embarrassed, self-conscious, or even in the slightest concerned about an explanation. It was not until later his testimony did we learn that God had directed him purchase arrows from the window of a small sports shop Sheffield. Dutifully following what he perceived as leading, the leader encountered a distraught shopkeeper who responded joyfully to the encounter and was in attendance at the celebration. More testimonials the crowd followed, and while in many nonorganic churches, these testimonials might follow the format of praising God for some personal healing or need addressed; this missional congregation, almost all of the testimonials about connecting the good news to friends, relatives, appreciation for God's Word, his power, and his desire to the Sheffield community.
The Rhythm of Discipleship and the Word
From its beginning to this day, St. Thomas' retains much of its Anglican heritage in its theology, its discipleship expectations, its rites. And it parallels other organic churches by requiring passage into leadership that crosses several well-defined demarcations. The Order of Mission (which they abbreviate to TOM) is requisite and written strategy for those who wish to join the In TOM, attendees will find three levels of commitment.
The first stage of commitment is to become a "temporary," introductory period that broadly parallels the novitiate in monasteries. During this time the temporary gains experience participation in a lay-led ministry. This position is analogous to the new recruit in many nonorganic congregations; but the organic church, it is seen not as end, but as a point of departure.
The second stage involves becoming a "permanent," which by very name denotes a long-term commitment to the church and mission. These will be the committed church leaders, which in nonorganic congregations are often the 20 percent that seem to do percent of the work. However, at St. Tom's the expectation is permanents will be managers, expected to direct and oversee ministry conducted by temporaries.
Finally, associates are individuals or churches who share St. missional perspective. This is St. Tom's way of defining who are networked to it.
The church's missional perspective is clearly stated in TOM, in under the heading "Why Establish a Missionary Order?" declare: "We are living in missionary days. The Church in West no longer finds itself situated in a pastoral context but a missionary one. Much of the Church, however, still operates as if lived in the past—engaging, as a result, with fewer and fewer people every year."
Inspired Rhythms of Place
Several years earlier, at the height of its popularity, St. Tom's been informed that they would soon lose their lease to the the only venue of such size in Sheffield. Although such a predicament is not unique, their reaction was. This news in nonorganic churches might cause consternation or at least annoyance, the young leaders of St. Tom's saw a God-given opportunity improvise with new forms of church structure.
While at the Roxy, small groups of seven to twelve people had developed throughout the congregation. But the leaders had experimented with clustering or combining two to seven small into what they called "missional communities" or simply clusters." Clusters ranged in size from twenty-five to eighty-five and thus were flexible in time, location, and ministry. In addition, lay volunteers who were proved in small group scenarios the clusters, expanding the lay shepherding base.
With a large venue unavailable, the leaders decided these clusters would substitute for the all-church worship celebrations. Now, instead of gathering as a large impersonal congregation at the Roxy, the church met in seventeen-plus missional communities every weekend at seventeen-plus locations across the city. Since the average size of a cluster was twenty-five to eighty-five, St. Tom's now resembled a network small churches meeting across Sheffield. They had created a filled with small churches called clusters, which provided only intimacy and familiarity, but also vision, focus, and direction.
However, the leaders also felt there were other ministry opportunities that required more person power than even a cluster of five to eighty-five people could muster. These opportunities would include expansive outreach to Sheffield's urban community, the popular dance club scene, the large University of impact and transform these English subcultures, something larger a cluster of people would be necessary.
As a result they created "celebrations," gatherings of two to clusters and organized around social subcultures. Ranging size from 125 to over 700 attendees, St. Tom's has over nine celebrations with names such as Connect (ministry to young adults), Encompass (ministry to specific neighborhoods), Mother Church (the original church in the Crookes area), Community Church at Crookes (an urban outreach based in Crookes), Expression (outreach to college students), Radiate (ministry to young adults in the workplace), and the Forge (inner-city ministry).
Celebrations meet for worship one Sunday a month, leaving the three to four Sundays for the individual clusters to meet for worship and the Word. Celebrations include worship and teaching give the smaller clusters a sense of a larger community. In addition, due to their size, celebrations foster community effectiveness and awareness. In addition, every Sunday evening, an optional worship gathering for all celebrations regularly attracts than fifteen hundred young people and resulted in my first exposure to St. Tom's.
Inspired Rhythms of Discipleship and the Word
Another unique contribution is their use of symbols to help young people grasp the implications and requirements of discipleship. Similar to the icons of the Middle Ages designed to educate illiterate populace, their use of symbols helps young adults bombarded by media-borne stimuli remember the essence of Christian discipleship.
Recognizing we live in an "icon-driven" society, in which icons Internet browsers or word processing programs convey a wealth of information, Rector Mike Breen sought out to convey essentials of discipleship in an easy-to-remember series of geometric patterns. Called Lifeshapes©, below is a brief explanation of each.
The Circle. The life of discipleship is like a circle: process of lifelong learning in which God breaks in to cause us to reevaluate progress. This may require us to go back and our basic commitment to Christ, our ministry and where we have fundamentally from his original intentions.
The Semi-circle. This icon reminds us that there rhythms of life, seasons with work Based and rest. On the Old and New Testament teachings Sabbath, healthy spiritual growth includes and seasonal respite.
The Triangle. Perhaps the most pervasively icon at St. Tom's, it conveys that the balanced Christian life requires three dimensions: (1) relationship with God, (2) an inward with one another, and (3) an outward in evangelism and service to the world.
Square. This reminds us that there are four in the developing life of disciples: (1) follow, (2) a coming to terms with challenges, (3) delegation with oversight, and (4) the to go and make followers of Christ.
Pentagon. This reminds us of the five aspects in the body of Christ as set out in 4. Here each disciple is reminded that gives them opportunity to experience and within five ministry roles.
Toolbox. This icon underscores that God many other biblical gifts (1 Corinthians 12, 12, and 1 Peter) and that these gifts are
These Lifeshapes© icons, while simple, are surprisingly effective in communicating the important elements of Christian discipleship to an increasingly visually driven and icon-based culture.
An Interview with My Tour Guides
Mike Breen (former rector)
Mick Woodhead (rector)
Paul Maconochie (pastor of the Philadelphia campus)
Bob Hopkins (staff member)
Clustering two to seven small groups into flexible, movable, and adaptable missional subcongregations has helped St. Tom's weather many storms. Today you have a sizable membership, with most under the age of forty. Can you describe the role clustering small groups played in this growth?
Mick: Clusters are adaptable in the times they meet, the places they meet, and the ministries they undertake. And clusters are small enough to share a common vision, yet large enough to do something about it. If a small group undertakes community service, some people won't show up and the group will be shorthanded. Soon, the small group gets burned out. But clusters of small groups can staff and maintain community ministry longer because of their greater size.
Paul: And clusters are very effective in reaching new people. Small groups are often too intimate for new people to feel at home, and a big hall like the Roxy could be too impersonal. Therefore, when we knew we might lose our lease, we put our small groups into clusters and gave the clusters the responsibility of meeting once a week for worship and outreach.
Mike: The clusters are like a big extended family. It's like the movie My Big Fat Greek Wedding— you have your favorite extended relatives and even some eccentric ones. But you don't have to be chummy with anyone unless you want to. Young people crave this extended family experience because their families are disconnected.
Can you give me examples of ministries that are suited to clusters?
Mick: One cluster hosts a drop-in café to feed homeless people, while others serve nursing homes by providing prayer, worship, and pastoral ministry. Many more clusters serve impoverished people. And some clusters reach out to preschoolers and their parents, providing childrearing advice, parenting courses, and baby-sitting services. All of these are long-term ministries to ensure they are effective, and the greater resources clusters makes longevity possible. In all of these activities our is to be sent out and therefore connect people with similar interests to Jesus Christ.
It seems that clusters create flexibility in meeting places and opportunities to personalize outreach, and an indigenized environment that puts newcomers at ease. Have you seen other churches benefit from clustering their small groups?
Bob: Yes, one church is considering calling them 'mid-sized community groups' ... or MSCs for short.
Today, St. Tom's has evolved into two covenant-related congregations: an Anglican congregation at St. Tom's and a daughter church "called the Philadelphia Church associated the Baptist Union of Great Britain. Together they are composed of nine celebrations (groupings of clusters), with more thirty-six clusters, uniting more than 170 small groups. though St. Thomas/Philadelphia has navigated stormy waters, its ability to adapt and change while retaining its connectedness through clusters has led to what the leaders call "a networked church."
Do you have any parting thoughts?
Mike: Yes, it's a village really. A type of network composed of celebrations, with even more clusters and many more small
Four days of living among this adaptable and flexible congregation led me to agree.
What Every Church Can Learn
Cluster small groups to maximize effectiveness. Church leaders recognize that many missional tasks are better suited to the twenty-five to eighty-five people that a cluster of small groups can muster. Try combining small groups of similar interests and demographics for a specific task or opportunity. See if clustering groups doesn't allow you greater flexibility, longevity, and consistency in ministry.
Use symbols and icons for retention and comprehension of important spiritual truths. Boomers have grown up in a society which reading smaller and smaller books was the rule, not the exception. Clark Pinnock's influential apologetic Set Forth Your Case: An Examination of Christianity's Credentials was initially dismissed in 1967 as a serious Christian apologetic due to its size (a four-by-six-inch paperback) and its short length (139 pages). Yet for many boomers it became the requisite text to concisely refute early vestiges of postmodern culture. Today's youth are discovering in Breen's deceptively simple geometric an even more concise yet just as sophisticated explanation Christian discipleship and authenticity.
Mike Breen's book Lifeskills describes these symbols in detail explains how each connotes a biblical principle to a postmodern mind. Consider using these symbols and Breen's book, perhaps even indigenizing them to your local scenario.
Excerpted from Inside the Organic Church by Bob Whitesel. Copyright © 2006 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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