(The following is excerpted from Bob Whitesel’s chapter, “St. Tom’s: From Gathered to Scattered” in Ryan Bolger and Eddie Gibb’s book, Gospel After Christendom: New Voices, New Cultures, New Expressions [Baker Academic, 2012]).
From Gathered to Scattered: a Dispersed Missional Structure Results in England’s Largest Anglican Congregation
by Bob Whitesel
Dr. Eddie Gibbs has been involved as a member and board member of St. Thomas Anglican Church (Sheffield, England) for over two decades. As a PhD student under Eddie Gibbs, I studied the rapid change that St. Thomas underwent when the leaders had only five weeks to vacate their church facility due to asbestos. As England’s largest Anglican church with a congregation of 2,000 meeting weekly in Sheffield’s largest indoor arena, simply moving to a bigger locale was not feasible. The rapidity of the move would not allow a new facility to be constructed or converted. The result was that a congregation where 85% of the attendees were under the age of 40 had only a matter of days to inaugurate a strategy, implement change and maintain ministry effectiveness while holding true to their theology and values. The result was that not only did St. Thomas expand its cultural pluralism though a creative dispersed model, but it also created unity amid hybridity. Yet, the seed for this change was planted many years earlier.
COMMENT by Bob Whitesel
I have seen few churches embrace a scattered model without being forced to do so. This may be due to the establishment of fiefdoms that so often characterize ecclessial movements. I and other researchers would welcome examples of churches that are proactively disperseing from a mega-model to a scattered-approach. Bob Whtiesel
From Gathered to Scattered to Gathered: A History
A Yoked Congregation
In 1978 renovations at St. Thomas’ forced it to share facilities with Crookes Baptist Church. In 1982 the two churches became a yoked Anglican and Baptist Congregation designed a Local Ecumenical Project or LEP (Mallon 2003:20).s
In 1983 Robert Warren became Rector of St. Thomas. Two years later John Wimber, leader of the network of Vineyard Churches, conducted a series of renewal meetings at Warren’s request. Soon after, Robert Warren invited a local charismatic community, the Nairn Street Community, to conduct a 9 p.m. alternative worship celebration on Sunday nights (Warren 1989). This became known as the Nine O’clock Service (NOC) which has been called the “birth of a postmodern worshipping community” in the UK (Gibbs and Bolger 2005:82).
Mike Breen’s Leadership.
In October 1993 Warren resigned to work with the Anglican denomination and Paddy Mallon became the Baptist minister of the LEP (Mallon 2003:25-26). Soon after Mike Breen accepted the call to St. Thomas’ and sensed the Lord underscoring the word “Ephesus” in his prayer life. Breen emphasized to the congregation that in Acts 19 Ephesus had several unique characteristics (Mallon 2003:26): it was the principal city of the region, Paul trained local leaders in a rented building, leaders went out from Ephesus to plant churches in neighboring areas, and from there “the word of the Lord spread widely and grew in power” (Acts 19:20). Breen concluded that, “the church of St. Thomas’ was to function as a resource to its city and region. It was to be a base for church planting and mission and a centre for teaching and training” (Breen 1997:25).
In March 1994 Breen introduced an icon-based training program based of Biblical principles eventually calling it Lifeshapes (Mallon 2003:18, 25). The six icons of the training tool were readily adopted by the expanding base of small “cell” groups. Mallon credits Lifeshapes as “the most fundamental change in this period … an easily transferable method of planned, disciplined and structured membership activity, at a person as well as a corporate level …” (ibid.). Small group participation was also expected. “In the UK it is different,” stated Johanna Saxton, one of the early leaders. “It is not popular to be part of a church in the post-Christian culture of the UK. So if you are going to get involved, you get involved all the way and you attend a small group” (Saxton 2011).
In 1996 the leaders combined three to seven small groups into what they called “clusters” to better manage the burgeoning small group network (Saxton 2011). Clusters gave the small groups an “extended-family” feel providing a social gathering larger than a small group, but still smaller than the church-wide meetings (Mallon 2003:37-43). To the surprise of St. Tom’s leaders, most evangelism now took place through the semi-autonomous environment of the clusters (Hopkins and Breen 2007:38-39). Clusters also become the social action arm of the church. Breen reflected, “If you say you are going to help someone in need, say paint their house; and a small group of 12-16 people plans to do this, you only get 3-4 people showing up. It’s a disaster. But, if you cluster together three to seven small groups to do this, you get a couple dozen showing up. Then you get something done!” (Breen 2007).
An Anglican Mega-church
In September 1998 leaders began to sense that the size of the parish facilities was “restricting growth” (Mallon 2007:1). To alleviate this problem, the congregation held services one Sunday each month in a community center (Mallon 2007:4). Because the venue was more accessible for unchurched people than the parish facility, growth among unchurched attendees increased. The temporary nature of the facility was fostered in part because the facility was only available 35 Sundays a year, it was expensive to rent, and much labor and time was spent in setup and teardown (Mallon 2003:36).
In January 2000 The Roxy nightclub became available for lease, and appeared to overcome the sociological strangulation of the community center. Media attention was fostered because The Roxy had been a bawdy concert venue. In one month 400 people joined the church (Mallon 2003:36-37). “I think what we saw was every time we created space people joined us,” recalled Mallon. “Some of that was transfer growth, but a lot of it was conversionary growth” (Mallon 2007:4).
Three different worship expressions drew three different audiences. Sunday mornings at The Roxy mainly attracted Baby Boomers, while Sunday evenings attracted Generation X. Services also continued at the parish church in Crookes and were attended by approximately 300 people committed to the local Crookes parish (Mallon 2003:36-37). Almost without strategic intent, St. Thomas’ had evolved into multiple sub-congregations (Hunter 1979:63; Whitesel and Hunter 2001:26-27). They designated these sub-congregations “celebrations” after a term used by C. Peter Wagner (1976:101-2).
From Mega-church to Dispersed-church
In January 2001 Mike Breen sensed God saying to him, “What would you do if I took away The Roxy?” (Mallon 2003:38; Breen 2007:1-2). “I was in a bit of a panic about that,” recalled Breen. “Because we had just been surveyed with the rest of the churches in Great Britain…. as being the largest church in Great Britain at that time. So most certainly we were a mega-church. And, it felt like God was giving me the option of really going in the mega-church direction or really embracing this thing he had been developing in us the last few years” (Breen 2007:2).
In December 2001 an attendee who had concerns about the safely of the “torpedo-style heaters” used to heat The Roxy contacted the local authorities requesting a safety inspection (Mallon 2003:39; Calladine 2007:14-15). A subsequent inspection revealed that asbestos rendered The Roxy an immediate health hazard (Calladine 2007:4). “If we were going to do the work on the building that we wanted to, we would have had to put a bubble over the building and put people in space suits” remembered Calladine. “It would have cost around $7 million to renovate…We could’ve come up with 60 thousand, but it’s 60 thousand into a money pit …” (Calladine 2007:4).
“One minute we were in the building and basically several weeks later we were out because we had to close immediately due to the health and safety issues” remembered Woodhead (Woodhead 2007:2). Though this event occurred just before Christmas 2001, the leaders were able to negotiate a five week grace period before they were forced to leave (Mallon 2007:2).
Maconochie recounts the spiritual preparation for this change, stating “We’d been talking about it for nearly a year and so we just said to the guys ‘well the Lord said it was going to happen and it has happened and there you go’.” (Maconochie 2007:2). Woodhead added, “So he’d (Breen) already shared that with the staff team, the senior staff and then the staff team and some of the cluster leaders were aware of this word. But was it going to happen? We don’t know because we’ve got this building and then that was it … it was taken away so they (the leaders) were ready to go” (Woodhead 2007:2).
On January 27, 2002 the last celebration was held in The Roxy with 17 clusters commissioned to begin meeting the following week to replace the two Sunday gatherings at The Roxy (Mallon 2003:39, Calladine 2007:15). The diffusion from two weekly Roxy events to 17 weekly cluster meetings, democratized the process according to Woodhead, for “people had to really begin to sort things out for themselves. They couldn’t depend on the center for everything. So leadership took on much more of a dynamic, much more of a community (that) ‘we’re in this together’ for each cluster. ‘We’ve got to go out and find the venues. And, we’re looking to see what God’s heart is for this particular area.’ So there was a whole different dynamic it seemed to me when guys were reporting back” (Woodhead 2007:1).
Growth as a Dispersed Church
On February 3, 2002 17 clusters, meeting weekly, were planted throughout Sheffield as St. Thomas’ takes on a “dispersed church” mode (Mallon 2007:3). The Bishop gave permission for clusters to meet within the boundaries of other Anglican parishes (Mallon 2007:2-3). That same year, the Diocesan Handbook indicated the average Anglican parish in Sheffield has 25 worshippers (Mallon 2003:36). One year later St. Thomas’ Church had 34-35 clusters (Mallon 2007:4; Breen 2007:2) comprised of 2,500 members with 85 percent under the ages of 40 (Mallon 2003:36):
In one year the church had morphed into a network of 34-35 small churches meeting across Sheffield. Mallon believes this one year period was “the greatest growth we saw as a church. It showed us what we weren’t going to go down the mega-church road, which was an option. And when we had The Roxy, a plan was to make it a large worship complex that would have been glass and chrome and glitter. And now, we were spared all of that” (Mallon 2007:4).
This growth surprised the leaders. Mallon recalls, “Even developing the resources for the clustering for the six months beforehand, we had no idea we would double in size in terms of cluster leaders in the subsequent 12 months that we were in a dispersed mode. It’s a bit like The Acts of the Apostles: the idea of expansion, contraction, consolidation and then you grow again” (Mallon 2007:6).
By 2005 the church was comprised of a network of clusters, which in turn were joined together into seven “celebrations,” including Connect (ministry to young adults), Encompass (ministry to specific neighborhoods), Mother Church (the original church in the Crookes area), Community Church at Crookes (an urban outreach based in Crookes), Expression (outreach to college students led by Johanna Saxton), Radiate (ministry to young professionals in the workplace), and The Forge (inner city ministry). The diversity of celebrations allowed the church to reach out to Sheffield’s diverse population. The dispersed model created a multi-cultural church by emphasizing culturally and aesthetically different celebrations united within one church organization.
A Rhythm From Dispersed to Gathered to the Present
In 2006, sensing that unity was needed among the seven culturally diverse celebrations, the leaders created a Sunday evening “uniting” worship service. Leadership and worship teams from the different celebrations were rotated each week, allowing attendees from other celebrations to hear testimonies, music and preaching from the culturally distinct celebrations.
In 2009 the availability of a large warehouse provided an alternative to the often packed Sunday evening unity gatherings. This space also compelled the leaders to combine celebrations on Sunday morning. Soon, the church no longer had more than seven Sunday morning celebrations but only two: the warehouse celebration (increasingly identified as the “Philadelphia Campus” to which the Baptist leaders and congregants were attracted) and the “Crookes Campus” (e.g. the Mother Church). With this contraction into fewer culturally distinct celebrations, the church may have contracted into what Mallon described as a rhythm where, “it’s a bit like The Acts of the Apostles: the idea of expansion, contraction, consolidation and then you grow again” (Mallon 2007:6).
Recently, the church has functionally returned, if not officially, into two, possibly three congregations: The Anglican St. Thomas Church (at the Mother Church venue) and the Philadelphia Church (at the Philadelphia Warehouse) along with a new experiment called “city:base,” an emerging urban congregation. Though attempts have been made to maintain a degree of unity, for instance with the commissioning of Anglican Vicar Anne MacLaurin as a leader with Baptist Paul Maconochie at The Philadelphia Church, the church is moving back toward 2-3 distinct mega-congregations. The remarkable growth appears to have subsided, perhaps as a result of fewer culturally distinct celebrations, though according to Saxton the ministry to youth continues to flourish (Saxton 2011).
Lessons from the Dispersed Model of Church
Worship in Dispersion
In just five weeks in 2001-2002 St. Thomas morphed from what one leader describes as “going down the mega-church road” (Mallon 2007:4) to an indigenous network of 17 “clusters” which resembled small churches. One year later there were 34-35 of these clusters dispersed throughout Sheffield. The organizational complexity of the move also forced the church to link culturally similar clusters together into what they called “celebrations.” These then created a multi-cultural church with nine different worship expressions.
Lessons to replicate:
Multiple worship expressions exist in the same church, allowing the church to connect with more cultures. By linking together two to eight clusters into “celebrations” the church was able to eventually offer nine culturally distinct styles of worship. This connected the church to more cultures within the Sheffield community.
Unity gatherings emerge as venues for creating unity amid diversity. The Sunday uniting service exposed the burgeoning congregation to its various cultural counterparts.
Lessons to avoid:
Facilities can undercut multiple worship options. When the Philadelphia Warehouse became available, a push to fully utilize this facility steered the church toward fewer worship celebrations. This is not too dissimilar to churches across England and North America who build a bigger facility and then combine multiple worship expressions into fewer options with fewer cultural styles.
The energy created at large worship gatherings can undermine diversity. St. Thomas’ “uniting service” was even more animated than the other celebrations I visited. This could have to do with the pan-cultural feel of this Sunday evening event. However, when the large Philadelphia Warehouse became available this enthusiasm for energy and largeness seems to have resulted in combining celebrations into bigger gatherings. A secondary result was that this consolidation would fill up the warehouse space, but this also resulted in fewer cultural options. Subsequently, the nine distinct cultural celebrations received less attention and eventually two larger gatherings (Sunday mornings at The Philadelphia campus and at the Crookes Mother Church campus) replaced the nine culturally distinct celebrations. Thus, the energy created at the large gatherings seems to have influenced the church to move back into contraction and consolidation.
Spiritual Formation in Dispersion
St. Thomas’ leaders built a foundational structure of small “cell” groups, eventually requiring participation in these groups as a condition of membership. Since the “clusters” were focused more on their extended family feel, the intimacy of small groups became the main teaching and discipling venue of the church. Small group leaders would meet with their “cluster leader” to go over that week’s small group lesson. The cluster leaders had already received this lesson in their weekly meeting with their “celebration” leader. The result was the teaching became a unifying connection among the expanding cell-cluster-celebration network.
Lessons to replicate:
Spiritual formation in small groups creates a flexible, indigenous discipleship environment. A small group leader meeting with people of a similar culture and often in a nearby locale, can adapt the church’s lesson plans for the small group attendees. And, if the message is not getting across or if accountability is needed, a resident small group leader can more quickly and locally meet that need.
Clusters create an extended family community that so many young people miss because their family is far away. According to former Rector Mike Breen clusters “create an extended family feel, like the movie, My Big Fat Greek Wedding” (Breen 2004).
Lessons to avoid:
Don’t overlook the importance of culturally diverse sub-congregations. When the large Philadelphia warehouse became available, a need to fill the venue replaced a focus upon the cultural diversity of nine celebrations. The church contracted from nine celebrations into two.
Be careful when absorbing outside groups because they may possess a different DNA. The NOC community was embraced by Robert Warren in part because of its similar Charismatic expressions. But, because it was not developed from within, but grafted into St. Thomas it did not have the connectedness for permanence.
Mission in Dispersion
Though it was the diverse “celebrations” that connected the church’s message to varying cultures in Sheffield, it was in the extended family feel of the clusters where commitments to Christ most often took place. Yet, clusters were initially organized to give small groups enough person-power to undertake community service. Mike Breen recalled that when a small group tried to undertake community service, only a few of the dozen or more cell attendees would actually show up. But, when the church leaders clusters two to seven small groups, if only a few from each group showed up, you would still have enough people to get something done (Breen 2011).
Lessons to replicate:
A church with multiple cultural bridges can connect with a larger segment of a community. At St. Thomas the clusters and celebrations had culturally distinct behaviors and ideas. Diverse cultural options connected the church to more segments of the Sheffield population (Saxton 2011).
Clusters provide a suitable mixture of intimacy and anonymity to foster conversion. It came as a surprise to the leaders that many people came to Christ in the cluster environment (Hopkins and Breen 2007:36-37). The cluster’s mix of accountability and anonymity provided the right environment for the new Christian to focus on their commitment and their witness.
Lessons to avoid:
Fewer cross-cultural bridges can result in less connection with the community. In a desire to fill up the new Philadelphia Warehouse the church inadvertently undercut its support of the nine celebrations, eventually reducing them to just two.
Participation in the missio Dei requires diversity within unity. As St. Thomas went down the road toward a mega-church, the church mainly adopted church-wide, one-size-fits-all programs. As Johanna Saxton, an early leader, recalled, “The default position was to do something throughout the whole church. If we did an outreach, the whole church did an outreach. If we did Alpha small groups, the whole church did them and if we did nights of prayer, the whole church did it. But when we lost the Roxy we really had to disperse and this required us to culturally diversity to reach the city in an entirely new and more personal way” (Saxton 2011). Not surprisingly, the greatest periods of growth occurred in the dispersed church mode after The Roxy venue was lost and 17 clusters indigenized mission across the city (Mallon 2007:4).
Leadership in Dispersion
The loss of The Roxy created a dispersed church where “people had to really begin to sort things out for themselves. They couldn’t depend on the centre for everything. So leadership took on a much more of a dynamic, much more of a community (that) ‘we’re in this together’” (Woodhead 2007:1).
Lessons to replicate:
Small groups provide an incubator for emerging leadership. Because small groups are required of all members, at St. Thomas there was an upsurge in the number of small group leaders needed. This shortage not only resulted in greater emphasis upon leadership development but also easier routes into leadership.
A cell-cluster-celebration model creates manageable oversight. Because there are two to seven small groups in a cluster, the cluster leader does not have an unwieldy number of trainees to oversee. Celebration leaders enjoy similar ratios.
A cell-cluster-celebration model creates a leadership relationship based upon history, culture and proximity. Because an effective small group leader could be promoted to a cluster leader (while still remaining within the same cultural celebration), a leader did not need to leave their culture to move up the leadership ladder.
Breen’s Ephesus vision united the congregation through calamity and dispersion. Johanna Saxton recalls, “The story we shared had a huge role in what we did… so even if we were reaching outside of our culture, we had the shared story of being part of a church that was ‘calling a city back to God.’ The shared vocabulary helped too because we all used terms like clusters, celebrations, etc.” (Saxton 2011).
Lessons to avoid:
Leaders can make strategic decisions based on the leader’s needs and not the needs of congregants. When the leaders reduced the number of celebrations from nine to two, this was largely based upon organizational needs to fill the Philadelphia warehouse and not indigenous needs to connect with varying cultures.
Leadership at times can be overly bureaucratic and undermine a church’s health. The early leadership of Robert Warren created some strategic alliances. But, significant growth did not occur until Breen’s strategic, yet consensus-building style of leadership emerged. Breen’s forthright yet not too hasty Ephesus vision, gave the leaders a chance to absorb the significance of the vision, and God time to act on their behalf drawing them out of The Roxy.
The Rhythm of St. Tom’s
From the history and innovations, St. Thomas Church and its partner the Philadelphia Church have emerged as flexible congregations not afraid to be, in the words of Paddy Mallon, “a bit like The Acts of the Apostles: (embracing) the idea of expansion, contraction, consolidation and then you grow again” (Mallon 2007:6). It is unclear if these churches have grown recently (Saxton 2011), but the fact that they embrace an elastic model of church growth indicates they are not outcome-driven, put process-focused. It is their cultural flexibility, wed with a focus upon making disciples in a cell-cluster-celebration structure, that has allowed this unlikely Sheffield church to emerge as one of the United Kingdom’s most innovative congregations.
This story is both very cool and very alien and underlines, for better or worse, the importance of buildings.
I love the dynamics that apparently are possible at the same time — the dynamics of changing such a big church so many times in such a short time frame seems almost unbelievable. I think in the Dutch context this would require dominant and top-down leadership. It also feels like a big church machine, eating up all energy by doing church leaving little for holistic incarnational presence in the neighborhood.
There are some wise lessons and remarks on church services in dispersion or more centrally, very nice! Nico-Dirk Van Loo
COMMENT by Bob Whitesel
Nico-Dirk has tendered a fascinating summataion with the phrase “both very cool and very alien and underlines, for better or worse, the importance of buildingss.” The struggle of large churches to remain missional when facilities and organizational concerns steal energy and focus is probably under studied. The cyclical journey of St. Tom’s towards, at lesast in this author’s mind, a less missional pattern today begs the continuing study of whether mega and missional can be allies. I hope they can, though I am not yet convince of this. I leave it to the next generation of leaders to prove a positive connection. Bob Whitesel
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———. 2004. The Passionate Church. Colorado Springs, Colo.: Cook Publishing.
———. 2005. A Passionate Life. Colorado Springs, Colo.: Cook Publishing.
———. 2007. Personal Interview: June 7, 2007.
Calladine, Mal. 2007. Personal Interview: June 6, 2007.
Gibbs, Eddie. 2005. From Crossing Bridges to Building Pontoons: Regaining Lost Ground and Crossing Cultural Frontiers. Paper read at The Annual Meeting of the American Society of Church Growth, November 12, 2005, at Fuller Theological Seminary, Pasadena, Calif.
———. 2005. Leadership Next: Changing Leaders in a Changing Culture. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press.
Gibbs, Eddie, and Ryan K. Bolger. 2005. Emerging Churches: Creating Christian Community in Postmodern Cultures. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker.
Hiebert P. (1976) Cultural Anthropology. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker.
Hopkins, Bob, and Mike Breen. 2007. Clusters: Creative Mid-sized Missional Communities. Sheffield, England: 3D Ministries.
Hunter, George G. III. 1979. The Contagious Congregation: Frontiers in Evangelism and Church Growth. Abingdon Press.
Maconochie, Paul. 2007. Personal Interview: Sheffield, England, June 14, 2007.
Mallon, Paddy. 2003. Calling A City Back to God: A Sheffield Church, Over 2.000-strong, Most Below 40 Years Old. What Can We Learn? Eastbourne, England: Kingsway Communications Ltd.
———. 2007. Personal Interview: Phoenix, Arizona, June 8, 2007.
Saxton, Johanna. 2011. Personal Interview: Los Angeles, California, June 1, 2011.
Wagner, C. Peter. 1976. Your Church Can Grow: Seven Vital Signs of a Healthy Church. Glendale: Regal Books.
Warren, Robert. 1989. In the Crucible. Surrey, England: Highland Books.
Whitesel, Bob. 2005. The Perfect Cluster: For Young Adults, St. Tom’s, Sheffield Creates Extended Families, And Everyone Knows Where They Fit. Outreach Magazine, May/June 2005, 112-114.
———. 2006. Inside The Organic Church: Learning From 12 Emerging Congregations. Nashville: Abingdon Press.
———. 2007. Organic Change: 12 Emerging Communities of Missional Theologians. The Journal of the American Society for Church Growth 18:3-16.
Whitesel, Bob, and Kent R. Hunter. 2001. A House Divided: Bridging the Generation Gaps in Your Church. Nashville: Abingdon Press.
Woodhead, Mick. 2007. Personal Communication: Sheffield, England, June 14, 2007.
 This history was created from personal interviews (Whitesel 2005, 2006, 2009, 2011), personal visits (2006, 2009) as well as books written by leaders of St. Thomas’ (Breen 1997, 2004; Mallon 2003; Hopkins and Breen 2007).
 Communicating the venue change to a large congregation flowed through of the cell-cluster-celebration structure. “…The most effective way of communication was … through four phone calls” recalled Calladine (Calladine 2007:4). The Rector would (1) call the Celebration Leaders, who would (2) call the Cluster leaders, who would then call (3) the small group leaders, who would then call (4) the small group attendees
 For more on cultures as “integrated system of learned patterns of behavior, ideas and products characteristic of a society” see Paul Hiebert, Cultural Anthropology, 1976:25.
 Each year the church hosts a “Visitor’s Week” where attendees from around the world experience firsthand the principles of this innovative congregation.