One of the very LARGE and looming questions we hear from churches is how to transition from inward and program oriented to outward in mission. As Mike Breen and Bob Hopkins point out so ably in “Clusters,” the question is not adding a new program, or shifting deck chairs, but a call for a shift in the very culture of the community. The most profound shift is from control to accountability: away from the centralization of ministry and the cult of leadership. Part of this shift, however, and supporting the cultural shift is the need of new wineskins.

“Clusters” are combinations of small groups, usually numbering in total from twenty-five to fifty people. (Clusters that exceed about sixty souls are usually divided into two. Clusters are also sometimes called “MMC’s,” for “multiplying missional communities.”)

Clusters are:

*a place of identity, belonging and ownership
*a point of gathering – a gathering of small groups, usually in a geographic area
*a context of training – the opportunity for all to raise their capacity
*embryos – potential church plants.. though not all will be, or should be

Clusters are a specific response to a social and cultural shift that impacts church congregations.

First, a response to a social need. Any gathering over 150 persons loses some essential biblical qualities of community. Therefore there is a need to break large communities into small. Joseph Myers in The Search to Belong documents that people experience a sense of belonging in four different spheres: public, social, personal, and intimate.

Most churches facilitate public space (worship services) and a blend of personal and intimate space (small groups), but few have an environment for people to experience the kind of social belonging we long for. Mid-sized communities supply the missing link (Clusters, p 25).

Moreover, experience has shown that breaking into smaller community groups enables easily lost qualities of biblical life to thrive – leadership growth, growth by mission and evangelism, deeper qualities of belonging. In fact, Clusters are a specific response to certain conditions that have been eating away at the health of our congregations – and our mission- in Canada.

1. a response to the collapse of Christendom

contextIn Christendom the church was at the center of the community and neighbourhood. It provided the focus and fabric of community life. Furthermore, it was the location and provider for rites of passage, festivals and events of local life. Furthermore, the church provided and sustained a biblical worldview and values that impacted all of life.

When congregations pass about 150 persons they lose some qualities of belonging. The Sunday school and Christian schools, as mid sized groups, provided some of this and thus were a context for discipleship. The lack of a mid sized group in our large congregations has contributed to fragmentation and brokenness. Fragmentation: finding community in other places and by other means. Brokenness: without the significant and personal connection that parallels family life we do not experience the healing dynamic of body life. Whole life discipleship has thus been handed off to other institutions or has ceased to exist, leaving the church as barely a “chaplain” to its families.

2. a response to pluralism

The church has moved from the center to the fringes. It is no longer seen as relevant or as providing answers to important questions. The answers out there now come from a smorgasbord of sources. However, our churches have people who are “bridge people,” who move in other communities and networks. These people can form the core of cross-cultural mission teams to create fresh expressions of church in their sub-cultures. Clusters are flexible and contextual, allowing the church to become more fluid, to match the many and changing shapes of our society. Clusters can seek to be communities in mission, doing discipleship in ways appropriate to a range of contexts.

3. a shift from consumers to producers

The Internet, the world-wide web, and the explosion of information technologies and social networking means that people are thinking about and doing community in a new way. The biggest part of this shift is that everyone can play. It’s not a bad support for a movement that advocates believer-priests.

More than ever, people want to belong, but they want also to participate. They want to have a voice. Clusters make this much easier.

4. the changing structure of culture

contextThere are at least five groupings in relation to mission in western culture. Regular attenders make up perhaps 10-12% of our communities. This group is further divided between core members and fringe.

The third and largest group is unreached. This group is perhaps 50% of our community.

The fourth and fifth groups are de-churched. They are further divided between “open” and “closed.” “Open” de-churched are those who have left because of neutral factors, like outgrowing a youth group, moving because of a job change, getting married etc. Under the right circumstances they are open to come back.

The “closed” de-churched, however, are closed because they have been hurt, disillusioned, had a fight, lost their faith etc. This group has strong negative attitudes to church and are the hardest to reach.

Clusters, however, can be effective in reaching and incorporating people on the fringe, especially the open de-churched and the unreached. Mid sized groups more readily offer the sense of belonging and participation that larger groups lack. Moreover, because clusters are usually formed around a particular mission engagement, they offer both belonging and action. Clusters develop their own internal, non-professional leaders, which also helps overcome some of the barriers to traditional church. Yet Clusters can still connect with the larger congregation.

Finally, studies show that the fastest growing churches number around 50 to 75 persons. Clusters, because of both their social size and flexibility, are a powerful mission environment – more like a lifeboat than a big ship.

Attractional or Incarnational?

One of the popular labels and ways of thinking about doing church relative to mission has come out of Frost and Hirsch, The Shaping of Things to Come.. These brothers looked around and saw that most traditional forms of church depended on the consumer appeal of their programs to “attract” people to come to church. However, they also discovered that as a method of reaching postmodern communities, “attractional” was no longer working. Instead, there has been a need to shift to a “GO” form, which is more “incarnational.” This latter form also has more resonance with the gospel call to “go into all the world and make disciples.”

But to shift an established and “attractional” mode of church toward the “incarnational” end requires either a huge shock (like closing the doors for six months) or some kind of transitional structure than can help bridge the gap. Some structures for mission, like Clusters, seem well adapted to exist as a parallel system in the existing “attractional,” or program centered church. Clusters are a sort of in-between, “engaged” mode, that allows many life-boat communities to exist alongside or as a particular expression of the centered life of the larger congregation.

Adding Clusters

Like any new structure or any significant shift in congregational life, adding Clusters requires a process — a shift in congregational culture. Clusters are not merely a structure for mission – they are a different way of thinking about the church, with mission at the center. As with any significant shift, conversation and leadership are key. Depending on the types of existing groups in the church, and depending on the gifts of key (especially key “lay”) leaders, clusters can be added to a congregation within six months to a year of first introducing the concept. A complete change, where desirable, to making clusters the center of congregational life, can happen within three years.

Clusters are NOT a replacement for Sunday services. It is not the intention of clusters to replace the large gathering, or to replicate it. Clusters are for community. People who participate in the life of a small group and a Cluster continue to attend a celebration service (the large gathering) at least twice a month. The reduction in attendance acknowledges that Sunday is no longer the center of church life, though still an important aspect. It also allows more space, since clusters tend to produce growth and the Sunday meeting can quickly become overcrowded.

Mission should occur out of small groups, and then small groups combine around a mission and context and become a Cluster. Where mission is particularly effective, and where leadership growth and gifting allow, Clusters can become new church plants.

What Clusters Do

What do Clusters do, if not Sunday type services? They do community and they do mission. The most important gifts for clusters are community building gifts, and connection and service gifts. The passage in the New Testament that best presents the life of a Cluster is 1 Cor. 11-14. Clusters usually center around a meal. Many clusters meet in pubs, others meet in homes that have a large gathering space. When weather allows, Clusters also gather out of doors. Some Clusters may do mission trips, but the primary mission should be close to home.

Cluster Leaders

How are Cluster leaders supported? Cluster leaders gather twice a month in a huddle with key resource people, usually staff members, from the larger body. Meetings are then oriented around mutual support, equipping one another and learning together. These meetings are designed with a high degree of mutuality. Part of the effort at cultural shift needed to support Clusters is a moving away from professionally driven ministry. Since the Cluster and its leaders are directly engaged in mission, learning is often quite intense and the Cluster will have much to teach.