Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Celebration Disease

Recently struck by a passage from Bob Hopkins & Mike Breen 'Clusters'

"As the local building gets more grand, it mirrors the cathedral in layout. As local gifts develop, the single sackbut is repalced by the orchestra, and then a smaller version of the cathedral organ. Then the parish church added the cathedral procession wtih robed choir and associated servers all adding to the colour and pageant.

And subtly begins the separation into a non-congregation..... even the impersonal, anonymous characteristic of the cathedral seems to have filtered down to the parish congregation. As a child i was taken religiously to our parish church but no one would speak to each other, let alone minister to one another with gifts and interaction.

All the good qualities that make the Cathedral celebration such a blessing, have turned up as curses of the local congregation to make it what it's not supposed to be."

I don't know how historically accurate this is, but the picture rings true. The parish church, the local gathered community, morphs from a congregation - an interactive gathering of the body of Christ - into a spectator sport, as everything they've seen on pilgrimage to the Cathedral gets imported into parish worship.

The same thing has a modern parallel, as pilgrims to New Wine or Spring Harvest return loaded with new songs and the latest guitar chord, and seek to recreate Big Top Worship in the 25-strong 9am congregation in a draughty Victorian barn. The same perhaps applies to Walsingham, but I don't really move in those circles, so I'm not sure.

Are celebrations simply a bigger and better version of what we do every Sunday in our churches? Or, to put it another way, is what we do every Sunday in our churches supposed to be a smaller and more local version of what we experience at big celebrations? Or should they be more distinct from one another?

The church of Acts met for worship, teaching, prayer, fellowship and food - we manage the first two, have someone lead us in prayer for the third, manage the 4th over coffee if people don't have to rush off to fix the roast, and the food is custard creams, or hobnobs if you're lucky. The dynamics of meeting in a home, around a table, as the natural place for worship, teaching, prayer and fellowship, has been traded in for the more formal setting of the theatre/classroom. That works if you don't need to interact with what's going on up front, with the 'performance'. But does that really serve the gathered local church in its life as the body of Christ?

Breen & Hopkins book is about 'clusters' - drawing on several large UK churches who now break their congregations into groups of 30-50, as a natural sized gathering for mission and fellowship. These either have a neighbourhood focus, or focus on particular subcultures (e.g. clubbers, the homeless, a school, old folks homes). The cell group remains key for pastoral support and accountability, and the larger celebration for teaching and vision, but it seems to be the 'cluster' sized community - small enough that everyone knows everyone else, but big enough to actually get things done - which is proving most effective in mission. Cells are too scary for new members, and ironically so are the big celebrations, as the pool for 'come to church' invitations is fished to exhaustion.

- how accurate is this picture?

- how do clusters work in places which aren't megachurches like Chorleywood and St. Thomas' Sheffield?

- is this an admission of the failure of cell church as the latest mission solution - and how big a part do structures actually play anyway?

- The 'clusters' literature suggests that this is the structural change which will unlock mission through the local church. Perhaps, but how do you apply the logic to a church that only has 50 members? A big church can maintain both its Sunday gathering, and cluster life. A smaller church doesn't have the resources to do both, does it?

Comments may take some time to appear, as I'm not at my desk much in the next couple of days. But please post them anyway!

1 comment:

  1. A church of 50 people (like ours) *is* a cluster as far as I can see. But its effectiveness in use is dependent on churches co-operating in a sensible way at a local level. Less deanery services and more lending of Readers, musicians, drama groups etc would be good. But depends on a broad-based view of mission.