In September 2009, Tim Haughton (Minister of Discipleship at St. Paul’s Bloor Street, Toronto) travelled to the UK to explore Fresh Expressions of Church. He is blogging about his experiences here.
My plane reading (Clusters – by Mike Breen and Bob Hopkins) had been preparing me for my first site visit. St. Thomas’ Sheffield is hailed as the largest Church in the North of England. I plugged the address into the ‘Sat Nav’ (GPS for us Canadians) from my home base in Liverpool and was taken on an early morning drive through snake pass to the British Version of a “Mega –Church”. Imagine my surprise when I pulled up to an older building of Norman Architecture – with a remodeled interior to seat 200 and a balcony to seat an additional 50 – “This is a MegaChurch”??? (I guess I was thinking Willow Creek)
A modern sign to the right of the door communicated both the vision and mission in the form of a triangle – Meet Friends (IN – Cell) – Meet God (UP – Sunday Gatherings) – live life better (OUT – Cluster).
I was one of the first to arrive – and at an early service of 40 regulars – a very similar crowd to the 8:15 service at St. Paul’s. Being the only newcomer I was the object of some interest. I was warmly greeted, offered a cup of tea (which they freshly made just for me) – and ushered to a seat. One of the student interns came and sat with me to introduce me to the church – nonchalantly mentioning that this morning they were planting a church for students in a pub near the university – “This Lot???” – I thought cynically as I scanned the crowd.
The 9am service, apart from the Lord’s prayer, and the words of institution had no C of E residue. Two moments in the service however bowled me over – as the minister held up the bread and wine he said “This is evidence of God’s love not just for us but for this world – this is not just for you – we are empowered here to bless and to serve the world God loves.” After the announcements of what was happening in the church (including the introduction of a dozen students who were giving up their “gap year” to minister in the church and city!!) – we split into groups of three or four to pray for the ministry of the church – as we did so – the minister again said “This is the purpose of this service to pray for the ministry of our church” – 15 minutes of Spirit – filled prayer concluded in a song and we were dismissed.
“Alice” came up to me during coffee – note paper in hand – asking if I was new. During the course of the conversation I ascertained that her cell group’s ministry was to connect with newcomers in a ministry of hospitality – inviting people around for tea to welcome them to the church.
After a few conversations – the church was getting ready for the 11am service – so I ducked out and walked around the block to re-enter the church again to get the “newcomer” experience – in the 5 minutes I was gone the church was flooded with 250 young families and students. I had to go right to the front to get a seat!!
The service – though with higher energy (drums, guitar and bass, added to the worship leader’s piano – as the songs were projected on the screen) – was very similar to the 9am – however without communion. One noteable difference was when, during announcements, the pastor pulled out his cell phone – asking people to take out their cell phones.
I know what you are thinking – I was thinking the same thing – he is going to ask us to turn them off.
On the contrary!!!
We were asked to turn them on – and text someone saying – I am in Church and God loves you – have a great day. He asked us to keep them on through the sermon – so we could together hear the ‘dinging’ of replies. Indeed – through the sermon we heard the dings of people responding to what they called “Instant Evangelism”.
After the service – I was again approached by members of the community asking if I was new – if I had not replied that I was a visiting minister learning from what they were doing – I would have been invited to a cluster to get connected. As I spoke with the people – the reality of the sign on the front door began to take shape.
The Sunday morning text is discussed and prayed through, as Christians support one another in their weekly cell. Three times a month all the members meet together on Sunday for the “Gathering”. Sounds like a church with coordinated small groups right?
Not at all!! On one Sunday a month the place closes for ‘Cluster Sunday’ – 2 to 5 cells meeting together in a cluster (Mid sized communities of 25 – 75) under a common vision to impact their neighbourhoods and city. Many of these clusters have branched out to form their own “church plants” – like the pub church starting that very Sunday – and the 2nd Church plant that was starting in October – a gathering for young families between the services – with about 100 people, many who weren’t Christians I was told.
Now I get it – I thought – This is how St. Thomas Crookes is the largest church in Northern England – it is a network of a number of different church plants that are the fruit of the ministry of cluster.
At the end of their cluster activity on that ‘cluster Sunday’ – each cluster gathers back at the Church to share what God has done in and through them that week – many said this was their favorite Sunday.
As I drove through Snake Pass on my way to Sheffield I wondered how the church would be doing after their charismatic leader Mike Breen had left years ago – would it decline like many other churches do after loosing such a leader? On the contrary – it has continued to grow in leaps and bounds. Why? In my observation it is because everyone knows, believes in, and can articulate not only the vision and mission of the church – BUT – the process by which the church will get there – AND – their specific role in that process. The greeters sought out newcomers to connect them to cluster – the cluster has vision for outreach into the city – the 9am service to pray for the ministry – and ‘Alice’ and her cell meeting people on the front steps on ‘cluster Sunday’ to meet, feed, and pray with those who forgot there wasn’t church that Sunday.