The Organic Church On-Line Tour
featuring the insights of Bob Whitesel
“Our story is really the story of a missional church with a clustered structure,” explains Mike Breen, former rector of St. Thomas’ Church and co-author (with Walt Kallestad, Senior Pastor of Community Church of Joy in Glendale, Ariz.) of several books that have grown out of the St. Thomas’ discipleship training, A Passionate Life, and The Passionate Church: The Art of Life-Changing Discipleship.
Innovation #1: Clustering Small Groups
While most European and Anglican churches do not grow to over 1,000 attendees, St. Thomas’ has over 1700 people (most under 40) attending. The growth came through the normal mega-church model, but the maintenance of their size came through a strange turn of events. St. Thomas’ branched out and began meeting in a large disco in town, the Roxy, featuring contemporary worship that would attract a young crowd (the stately old St. Tom’s continued to offer a standard Anglican service as well as a more contemporary one). This sounds very much like any other mega-church growth story, with all its trappings: “We filled the Roxy but were really just like most mega-churches with brittleness and disconnection,” recalls Paul Maconochie, who is now the team leader at St Thomas' Philadelphia campus.
When the lease ran out at the Roxy, it forced the leadership to think creatively. They had already established small groups of 7-12 people, so their idea was to “cluster” small groups together into missional communities. These “clusters” combined 2-7 small groups together based on demographics and similar interests (for a total of about 25 to 85 people) so that they could do several things: (1) Instead of a large impersonal congregation that meets in a large venue like the Roxy, the church now meets at 17+ locations throughout the city. St. Thomas’ now looks more like a network of small churches meeting all over Sheffield. (2) These clusters provided just the right size for service to the community – Mick Woodhead, current rector (having just took over for Mike Breen) says, “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 size.” (Read more about clusters here.)
Innovation #2: Using Symbols for Retention and Comprehension for Discipleship Concepts
Breen and Kallestad have developed a discipleship plan that uses simple geometric shapes to train people in discipleship (See the shapes here). The thinking is that in an “icon-driven” society, young adults can latch onto these shapes and remember the implications and requirements of discipleship. The Lifeshapes© discipleship methodology has now been published for other churches to implement into their churches.
Innovation #3: Allow for Diversity of Sub-Congregations, While Maintaining Cohesiveness
Organic Churches, according to Bob Whitesel, embrace the idea of having multiple sub-congregations in order to carry out mission to the sub-populations in their community. What many modern churches seem to do is identify themselves by a particular style of ministry, limiting the number of people they can reach. The clustering format of St. Thomas’ Church allows for several different styles of churches to meet under the unified banner of St. Thomas’ Church. “Outreach thus trumps comfort.”
In order to keep cohesiveness, they schedule multiple pan-congregational unity gatherings (including a weekly Sunday evening worship event).
See Inside the Organic Church: Learning from 12 Emerging Congregations by Bob Whitesel (Abingdon, 2006)
technorati: emerging church, spiritual formation