This book tells the story of how St Andrews Church in Chorleywood transitioned from meeting weekly as a whole church in their building, to becoming a collection of “mid-sized communities” (MSCs, later rebranded “mission-shaped communities”), meeting at various locations in the community, and only gathering as a whole church once a month.
The reason that they got started on this venture was that their church building was due to be refurbished, so they would need to move out for a period of time. What started as an idea for the interim, became so successful that they continued the model once back in the church.
The authors take it in turns to write a chapter, and the story itself is a very interesting one, particularly due to their reliance on prophetic words as they decided what to do. Their vision could be described as changing the church from being a cruise ship into a fleet of lifeboats. The church needed to change from an attractional (come to us) model to a missional one (“go to them”).
Their church websites describes the MSCs in the following way:
Each MSC has a name, a clear mission purpose and is no larger than fifty adult members. Led by teams from the church family, MSCs are bringing the Father’s love to the lost and the poor in diverse and creative ways. We have MSCs that are serving neighbourhoods, children, the elderly, the deaf community, prisoners, young people, adults with special learning needs and the homeless.
MSCs meet out in the community in a variety of venues across an increasing geographical area. Most meet on Sundays but others meet during the week. Everyone gathers at St Andrew’s on the fourth Sunday of the month for a celebration service.
Whilst the story is interesting enough in its own right, I imagine that many readers of this book are asking two questions – “how exactly do these MSCs work?” and “could this be implemented in my local context?”.
In answer to the first question, the book was good at giving examples of the sorts of things that these MSCs got up to. Some met in coffee shops, some worked with the homeless, while others formed out of pre-existing groups within the church such as those working with mothers and toddlers. They also explained that the groups needed to be vision-led by lay-leaders. These small gatherings allowed a much greater variety of people to exercise preaching and worship-leading ministry, and develop their giftings. When the church gathered as a whole once a month, they watched short video clips of what was happening in the MSCs.
One question that I felt went unanswered was how, if at all, this related to cell / home groups. Many churches already have these small communities in place, and they were not mentioned, so I am assuming that MSCs served as a replacement for cell groups. In many ways it makes sense. I am not sure there would be the time and energy available for churches to simply add MSCs on top of existing small groups. It also takes the pressure off finding quite so many people willing to lead, as the group sizes are three-four times larger. Interestingly they do seem to have drawn inspiration from St Thomas’ Crookes in Sheffield, who do make use of three levels – cells, clusters (MSCs) and celebrations. I expect Mike Breen’s new book “Clusters” will shed further light on this.
As for the question, “could this work in my context?”, that also is unclear in my mind. For one thing, the simple fact that their church building was unavailable was probably an important factor in helping people to be willing to give it a try. Also, Mark Stibbe is an outstanding Bible teacher. It is clear that he produced copious amounts of training material for MSC leaders as well as provided outlines for the preachers in the MSCs on Sundays. I don’t imagine every church will be quite so well positioned to resource their small group leaders.
Overall, I would say that this book is a fascinating read for anyone who is looking for some fresh ideas for how they can reinvigorate small groups and create a better missional presence in the local community. It doesn’t provide a blueprint, but it does provide some inspiring examples and some honesty about mistakes that were made along the way. It also continually emphasises the need to be led by the Spirit, rather than to look for the next “technique” that will usher in a new phase of church growth.