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Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Doing Church Differently 3: A Few More Types of Clusters

Everybody’s way too busy to read long blog posts at Christmas time, so I’ll briefly describe a couple of more variations on the cluster theme.

One Church, Multiple Locations

A few years ago I ran across something called Cariboo Presbyterian House Church Ministries.  This is a “church” in the interior of British Columbia that consists of between 16 and 20 house churches. Located in remote communities, the network is served by three ordained clergy whose main job is to equip local lay people to lead home based gatherings.

I’ve always thought this could be a brilliant model for the United Church to explore as churches become more isolated even within high population urban areas. It would require a big shift in the understanding of ministry. Lay people become the providers of hands-on ministry, and trained clergy become trainers and equippers rather than those who “run the church.” But in the long term, wouldn’t that be a healthier mode of being church?

 Here’s their website:


Multiple Churches, One Location

This is apparently a common model in Australia where congregations tend to be a lot smaller than they are in Canada (although we may be fast closing the gap!)

The advantages of this arrangement are obvious. Instead of each church struggling to maintain a building, several congregations move into one facility. It represents better stewardship and would create immediate financial viability for many struggling churches.

But it would demand an equally big attitude adjustment. Congregations would have to get over their proprietorial attitude to “our church building” and really learn how to share and cooperate (not a bad idea.)

But each congregation would have to have a sufficiently clear understanding of their own unique identity that they wouldn’t be tempted to “all just get together and make one church.” The value of this model is that it would make the coexistence of distinctive communities financially possible.

Why We Do This

With those thoughts, I’ll close the 2014 version of Mission, Health and Vitality. I pray that, at this season of the year, we’ll remember why we keep doing this in the face of dwindling numbers and public indifference.

It’s because we worship a God who does not exist as a remote “First Cause” or a vague spiritual idea, but who actually entered into the world in weakness and humility to reveal the power of self-giving Love.  As Eugene Peterson puts it in his Message version of the Gospel of John, God “moved into our neighborhood.”

If we could proclaim that good news effectively, we would not be wondering how we can keep our churches vibrant and alive.

I want to wish you, the congregations of which you are a part, and those you love a Blessed and Holy Christmas and Happy and Prosperous New Year.

Thursday, December 11, 2014


Nobody needs to be convinced that the world has changed. Or that the church of our childhood no longer exists. Every congregation has been profoundly affected by the deep changes in our society over the last fifty years.
But what to do?
In a series of blog posts, I am exploring some different models of church that I believe are absolutely workable in a United Church context -- if there is a commitment to change for the sake of church's mission.
Last week, I looked a Missional Communities. This week I’ll look at Clusters.

What is a Cluster?
Part of the problem is with the terminology itself. The same word can mean different things to different people. For example, some people call the Missional Communities I described in my last post Clusters.

And Waterloo Presbytery has had experience with geographical groupings of congregations that were called Clusters.
I am using the word Cluster to mean “a network of congregations sharing a team of ministry leaders.”
This is nothing new. It’s the main organizational model of the Methodist Church in many places even today, such as Great Britain, where it’s called a “Circuit.”
Basically, a Cluster, or a Circuit is a grouping of congregations, usually between three and twelve in number, that are served by a team of ministry leaders who provide worship, pastoral care and programming.
Let’s imagine a hypothetical example. Six congregations decide to form a Cluster or Circuit. Most of them are served by part time ministers. All of them are struggling to maintain their buildings and pay their bills.
A ministry staff team is assembled that could include two full time Order of Ministry persons, two Licensed Lay Worship Leaders, two Congregational Designated Ministers specializing in Pastoral Care and Children and Youth, and a couple of retired ministers who are available for occasional preaching and visiting.
Between the Ordered Ministers and the LLWLs, each church would have someone to lead their worship service each week, although not the same person every week. All of the other aspects of ministry would be divided up among the team. Coverage for holidays and sabbaticals would be arranged from within the team.
Initially, the congregations might feel that they had lost something by not having their “own minister.” In order to accommodate the preaching schedule, some might need to change the time of their worship service.
But all of the churches would have the benefits of a full-time, called minister, each of whom would be able to concentrate on their own particular areas of strength, plus the services of the other members of the team. The entire circuit of 6 churches would be served by the equivalent of 4 or 4 1/2  full time staff, which would reduce the cost to each individual congregation.  They would also have access to the gifts and expertise of the several leaders with different training and gifts, not just one part-time minister.
This model would also lend itself to sharing of administrative and custodial services, office equipment and purchasing.
There are several possible variations to this model.

Variation #1:  Hub and Satellite
In this model, one larger church joins with one or more smaller churches. Staffing and administration are done through the large church, which agrees to provide worship leadership, pastoral care and support to the satellite congregations in return for paying a share of the total budget to the central treasury. The smaller churches would be guaranteed stable ministry without having to operate their own offices or do their own administration.
A further variation of this model would be live streamed worship from the hub congregation at one or more of the satellites.
While this sounds like an organizational change, it really depends on a change of attitude. People in all of the churches would need to move from thinking only about their own needs to the welfare and mission of the whole cluster. The smaller churches would have to get over their fears of being dominated or swallowed up by the larger church, while the larger church would have to agree not to regard the smaller churches as a burden. Everyone would need to be motivated by a commitment to the wellbeing of all, and the mission of the whole church.

Variation 2:  Congregational Specialization.
Think of how many of our towns and cities have two or more United Churches that all offer basically the same thing at the same hour every week. Four, five, six churches more or less the same worship service at 10:30 on Sunday morning.

Supposing a community with that number of United Churches agreed that they would each offer something different based on their particular character, strengths and resources.

Church A would offer high quality traditional worship led by the organ and chancel choir and outstanding biblical preaching at 10 a.m.
Church B would offer high energy contemporary worship led by a praise band, together with programming for children and youth at 11 a.m.
Church C has a long history of contemplative prayer and spiritual practices. They decide to forego Sunday morning altogether and offer meditative, experiential worship on Wednesday evening, plus weekday morning prayer.
Church D offers family inclusive worship on the Messy Church model at 4 p.m. on Saturday.
Church E attracts a community from a specific population and ministers to their particular needs – persons with disabilities, for example, or persons in recovery.

Together, these five churches support and encourage each other’s unique ministry in the name of the mission of the United Church of Canada. Only two or perhaps three of them occupy the traditional Sunday morning time slot, but together they offer multiple points of connection to the community.

Get Over Yourself
Significant changes are not just organizational, they are cultural. They depend on an attitude adjustment, from thinking that the church’s job is to cater to the needs, wants, desires and tastes of its membership, to thinking in terms of the church’s mission. Which is really Jesus’ mission to the world through gathered communities called churches.
Congregations need to be prepared to set aside what is most convenient and satisfying for their current members for the sake of a larger vision.
Because, ironically, the more churches focus only on their inward needs, the less likely they are to survive in a rapidly changing society. The shift from the inward needs of church members to mission and discipleship for the sake of God’s reign is the key to any renewal of the church.

Thursday, December 4, 2014


“We need to do things differently.” “The church has to change.” “Business as usual is not an option.”

We all know these statements are true. But the big question is: How? How does a long-established church begin to do things in a radically different way? Can an old dog really learn new tricks?
The answer to that question is an emphatic “Yes.” The Christian church could not have survived for 2000 years if it wasn’t able to adjust, evolve and adapt to changing circumstances. Historically, it’s change and not refusal to change that has characterized the Christian church.
But we need guidance. We need vision. We need models and patterns and templates we can follow.
In the next few blog posts, I’m going to describe models of doing church differently that I believe are accessible and doable for a United Church congregation that is motivated and willing to take some risks.
Today, I’m going to look at Missional Communities.

A Missional Community is a mid-sized grouping, normally between 30 and 60 people, who are committed to growing in three areas:  their relationship with God (faith), their relationships with one another (community) and their relationship with their neighbors outside the church (mission.)

Missional communities were pioneered at  St. Thomas Church in Sheffield, England
( ). But really, they are as old as the New Testament.
MCs seek a “Balanced Life”
The “core business” of a Missional Community (MC) can be pictured as a triangle:


“Up” is our relationship with God. “In” is our relationship with one another in Christian community. “Out” is our relationship with those outside the church. NOTE: The triangle is equilateral. All the sides are equal. None dominates the others, but supports and is supported by the others. Missional Communities intentionally work at achieving balance between these three dimensions of life, being careful not to over-emphasize one and neglect another.

MCs are about Discipleship
The purpose of a MC is to make disciples – to form people who will follow the healing, reconciling and redeeming way of Jesus in their daily life.
MCs are “lightweight and low maintenance”
MCs are not burdened with top-heavy decision-making structures or bureaucratic inertia. They are free to fail and can change directions easily if they find a better way of doing things.
MCs are lay led
MCs do not depend on already overworked professional clergy. Because they are lay-led, MCs are a highly effective way of developing the gifts and unlocking the potential of lay people.
MCs are “mid-sized”
An MC is bigger than a small group, but smaller than (most) congregations. They are analogous to an “extended family.” They are small enough that people can know and care for one another, but there are enough of them that they can get things done.
MCs operate on the principle of “Low Control/ High Accountability”
MCs are free to experiment and release people’s gifts without the multiple layers of control and micromanaging that characterize many congregations.
BUT – MCs are highly accountable to their mission and to one another. No one can lead an MC unless she or he is a covenant of accountability to an experienced mentor, to other leaders and to the group.
MCs are Reproducible
Unlike some small groups where the intensity of relationships makes it hard for new people to “break in,” MCs are intentionally hospitable to newcomers. When they reach an optimum size, it is expected that some will leave to begin a new MC. The goal of making more disciples trumps the desire to people to stay in the comfort zone of their familiar group.
MCs are Missional
MCs do not exist to support the current institutional structure of the church, but to participate in Christ’s mission of reconciliation, healing, and shalom. MCs normally organize around a specific passion or concern. Some examples: isolated seniors, at risk youth, a particular language or cultural community, people in recovery, persons with intellectual or physical disabilities, those who have experienced abuse in the church, single parent families, people in a particular neighborhood or housing development, etc., etc., etc. Their goal is to incarnate the presence of Christ among that chosen group, not simply to serve the spiritual or emotional needs of their own members.

MCs do whatever is needed to achieve that balance of relationships with God, each other, and the outside community. Each MC will develop its own rhythm, but typically it would involve meeting at least once a month to share a meal, once a month to engage in study and learning, and once a month to participate in hands on mission. These practices could be combined, but MCs should expect to gather at least three times a month, in addition to regular worship and prayer, and the mentoring of leaders.

Some MCs are formed within existing congregations as a more effective way to grow spiritually, build community and engage in mission. People join MCs because they want to do more than show up for church on Sunday morning.
But when a congregation decides to encourage MCs it is ESSENTIAL that it not attempt to control or micromanage them but leave the MCs free to develop their own organic life and mission.

MCs could be part of a congregation’s outreach. An MC could be formed to reach out intentionally to a neighborhood or population that the church is not currently reaching.
MCs can also be a tool for church planting. Some new “churches” consist of a network of Missional Communities.

WHAT ABOUT SUNDAY WORSHIP?MCs usually incorporate some kind of worship into their life together. However, preparing and leading a Sunday worship service demands a lot of resources. Think about how much time and effort goes into that one hour on Sunday morning in a typical church.
MCs need to remain focused on the triangle of relationships, and therefore need to be careful they don’t divert effort into a worship service that people simply “attend.”

Where MCs are part of an existing congregation, members will continue to attend their own Sunday worship service.
However, they might also decide to attend other churches either individually or as a group.

First, what not to do. Don’t start by asking your Board or Council to approve the formation of a missional community. That immediately creates the expectation that the Board will exercise control over the MC. MCs have to grow from the bottom up, from the passion and vocation of people, not as the result of a top-down decision.
But, if your congregation really does want to “do things differently,” and really believes that “business as usual” no longer cuts it, start by redefining “success.” Decide that the measure of success will no longer be simply the number of people who show up on Sunday morning, or the number of busy activities the church puts on, but the number of people who are growing as disciples.

Incidentally, churches with active MCs also tend to have vibrant, inspiring and well attended Sunday worship. Becoming less anxious about Sunday worship can actually end up strengthening Sunday worship!)  
Identify 2, 4, 6 people of passionate faith who are hungering for a fuller expression of Christian life. Invite them to begin learning how to be missional leaders. There is a wealth of resources available to accomplish that goal.
Ask these people to prayerfully discern a vision, and then invite others to join them. Learn as you go along, don’t be afraid to make mistakes, but don’t waver from that goal of creating a community that balances the Up, In and Out dimensions of their Christian life.

If you want to know more about Missional Communities, contact me at and I will be able to help you get started.