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I think there IS a fear of being big among some Emerging Churches, perhaps especially in the UK.

There are clearly differences between 'big' and 'small' and both have genuine strengths and genuine weaknesses.

I find real value in a model of church that is expressed in small community that is part of a bigger community that is part of an even bigger community. And I see that concentric structure in the way people have historically organised themselves, both socially and specifically in terms of church (family, clan, tribe; 12, 72, 120; home, parish church, cathedral). Perhaps part of the reason why some Emerging Churches think small is best has more to do with uncritically accepting the values of our nuclear and sub-nuclear family society, than to do with Jesus' 'small' images (which tend to be: kingdom growth starts small and grows aggressively)?

I think there is a problem where (usually traditional) small churches try to do what is best done in the big setting, rather than focus on what is best done in the small setting (such as, eating meals together). For example, my parents-in-law are part of a village church that honestly has a fully-robed choir composed of two women, one who sings sharp and the other who sings flat...

I think there is a problem where small churches are not closely relationally part of something bigger: they tend to sink or swim, lacking a wider pool of support or coaching or accountability.

I think it is as easy for a small church to be proud as it is for a big church - especially if the small church believes small is right, and big is wrong. And also that there are big churches that are genuinely humble, but regularly accused of being proud by small churches, just because they are big...

I think small churches that believe small is good and big is bad will face real, but unneccesary, problems when they experience significant growth.

I think it is better to reflect on the strengths and weaknesses of the different sizes, and work out ways in which they can relate in practice, than to suggest that big is intrinsically wrong and small intrinsically right - or vice versa.

The Emerging Church has had a significant impact in rediscovering missional small church...it would be great to see the Emerging Church be as experimental in rediscovering missional big church too!

I agree. I think there is intrinsic advantage in being small, big Churches need big leaders. I did agree with what Simon Hall said about spiritual anarchy (Do you really want a king?) I think we rely to much on our ability to organise.

Sorry to have missed you. By the time I had worked out who you were you were heavily involved with your Powerbook sorting out Karen's presentation. I was disappointed by the day, but won't sully your blog with my negativity!

David - "big churches need big leaders"

I'm not sure I'd agree if by that you mean leaders with a highly charismatic attractional personality. I think it is possible to grow a big church of networked small churches, if you are the kind of leader that can release other people as leaders, and be a leader of leaders rather than a preacher to crowds...

But, I also think that there is a place for big leaders in the sense of, people with the gifts and anointing to lead large numbers. I think of Jethro's advice to Moses: identify the people who are capable of leading 10s, and those who are capable of leading 50s, and those who are capable of leading 100s, and only concern yourself with the issues that require the attention of the leader anointed to lead the whole people...

It makes sense that there might be many many more people capable of leading 10s than 1000s, but, that doesn't mean 'big leaders' are bad, or an intrinsic disadvantage. Indeed, I'd go as far as to say without them, we're in trouble. Its not that a big leader is more important than a small leader, or vice versa; but that we need different sized leaders for different sized contexts...

I don't want a 'king', but I do want to see those God has called to be leaders within the church invested in to acheive their calling - to whatever scale that may be - fulfilled as fully as possible.


Maybe we can come to an understanding! I think we are just naturally mistrusting of 'big' leaders because of the type that gets the press and maybe by definition the good ones don't (though I cant think of any). I like the idea of releasing leaders also, but I am suspicious that leadership equates with control and I don't like that. I do like the idea that although small we are a part of something really big. Like yeast in bread!


David - I'm not at all hostile, and I really appreciate where you guys are coming from; but, I just want to challenge some of the preconceptions. We all need our positions questioned by friends who will ask hard questions of us.

Leadership certainly *can* equal control. But this can be as true in the small church as in the big church. (And as true where leadership is not openly named - i.e. the group decides, but some voices are more strident than others - as where leadership is invested in an individual.)

But leadership can also equate permission-giving - allowing others to 'have a go', and - essentially - giving people permission to 'get it wrong' as well as 'get it right' and then helping them to learn from their experience.

One of the things we've worked hard at in Sheffield is to model "low control, high accountability". St Thomas' is a large church made up of lots of missional communities. Those communities are led by lay people, who have a vision to engage in mission in a particular context. In equipping people to be missional, the church staff don't tell them what to do, but ask that the person with the vision processes their experience with their church leader. That is a context for coaching/ongoing investment, and a safeguard against a leader/group going wrong (as happened over a decade ago with the Nine O'Cock Service).

Sorry. Nine O'Clock Service. No pun intended. It's late...

Woah... steady on guys! I couldn't connect this evening so have to read back through the comments... I'd edited the post a bit too, but couldn't get online to update it... cheers for the comments... will try to enter into the discussion tomorrow.

My recent experience of IC has been one of high control, then you don't need accountability! There were folk from St Thomas's there yesterday, it would have been nice to engage.

I love hard questions. Here's one for you. How much control over the theology/doctrine does St T's take. If someone started teaching Process Theology would they be cut off?

Hi David. Does IC stand for Inherited Church (as opposed to Emerging Church)? If so, I'd say the overwhelming pattern is "high control, low accountability" and St Tom's is intentionally counter-cultural to that. At best, "high control, low accountability" stiffles growth; at worst, it results in scandals, or even attempts to cover up scandals.

That said, it is worth noting that "low control" is not the same as "no control"...

I think I'd have to approach answering your question indirectly. In order for community to exist, there needs to be certain things held in common. St Tom's has vision, values, structures, and a shared language of discipleship held in common. You don't have to share those things to be member of the church, but, you would need to in order to be a leader within the church. That's not control. If someone can't share those things, its probably not the community God is calling them to lead others within. Likewise, there are senior leaders, and you'd need to be prepared to submit to their authority.

I'd suggest these things are the same issues facing Mark's community in Telford, for example, as they work out their missional DNA, and what it means for Mark to be the abbot of a neo-monastic community. The same issues you face in your context, too.

In my experience at St Tom's, it is rarely about excluding people; more often about helping them find the right place for them to be in community.

That might not be a quantifiable answer to the question "how much control...?" but, it is perhaps the best answer I can offer. Will it do? :-)


IC was meant as Institutional Church, but maybe Inherited Church is better!

It's a pretty good answer but I have a couple of thoughts.

First is, that I think a person's theology may be stronger if it has been tested, thought about and probably struggled with. I think that many people accept the theology of the community without owning it for themselves. If this theology is strong to begin with, this may not be a problem, if it can't answer questions like the Problem of Evil or more likely, 'why didn't I get healed?' then faith may struggle and eventually be discarded. (Admittedly, the strength/love of the community would be a factor as strong as the theology probably.) I have experienced a 'journey' of theology and over my life my beliefs have changed as I have learnt more and found better models. So should we be teaching people to question and think not just accept (in a constructive rather than destructive way of course)? Getting them to do this is not easy though!

Secondly, (and it would depend on the humility of the leaders) but I wonder if there are times that the community beliefs need to shift. I'm am not talking about core beliefs, but something like say, the issue of predestination, which can get many people hung up.

Blimey, that's a really pedantic answer - sorry!

Just for the record I am not a fan of Process Theology, I just used it as an extreme example.

Hey guys, I'm a friend of Mark. I am really enjoying the conversation here. I know this wasn't the core of your discussion, but if you don't mind could you give me a short version of what process theology is? I've never heard of it.

Rodney - I'm not familiar with process theology either - which is partly why I avoided addressing the particular example David cited and answered at a more general/principle level!

I think what David was doing was citing an example of a "theology" which would be deemed to be outside what most traditional Christian Churches consider orthodox... in order to ask the question about theological boundaries and control i.e. do we teach "acceptable and unnacceptable" theology or 'teach' the tools for theological reflection. For more on theology wikipedia has an article here... http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Process_Theology


I am only an amateur theologian! There is a pretty good summary on wikipedia at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Process_theology. Andrew is right in that was why I chose Process Theology. Though St Brian is quoted as saying that it has valuable things to offer.


Forgive me, I didn't read your post properly. Also, I hope you don't mind this discussion on your blog?

Incidentally, I have a booklet from the Northumbria Community, which I have not properly read yet, called the Heretical Imperative. I believe this talks about what Mark referred to in that the community teach the tools rather than the theology. And in fact teach people to question every teaching.

No problem... either with misreading the comment or the conversation, I am more than happy to have this discussion happening here! I don't know the particular booklet (unless it is the 'Encounters on the edge' one from the Church Army... but I have come across the idea of the 'Heretical imperative' (Pete Rollins uses the same phrase also) and it is one I would instinctively go with... where the 'leaders' role is to enable a safe place for reflection and exploration rather than setting the boundaries... and perhaps acting as a critical friend in terms of stimulating reflection and question, the gift of the leader in this case is to know how to help the group reflect and to feel safe to do so (both in terms of the group and the individual)... I guess this comes back to the question of size... there is surely a limited number of relationships one can hold at that level of understanding and intimacy. And there seems to be a point when administration and production (Discipleship models, gatherings, events, etc.) become the most significant role of the community... TBH I am yet to be convinced of the Cell/Cluster/Celebration model in practice... I have a spoken to a number of St. Toms folk who say that in practice there are many struggles... in particular that the "senior" leaders can find it incredibly difficult to let go of the Cells (theologically and structurally) and many of the Cell members feel no connection with the Celebration and visa versa... this is not to criticise St. Toms, I get the same picture from places like 'Revs'... I have great respect for these communities, I'm just not convinced that the model can really work for the whole community and the leadership in practise in the way it is hoped/suggested.

Going back to Andrew's thoughts about leadership... yes there is a certain something that we hold in common that has to do with values... it is (something like) a determination to wrestle with the three-fold dna - being community (honesty, vulnerability, etc.), pilgrimage (seeing spiritual formation as a vital part of an ongoing relationship and part of walking with God in God's world) and Missional living (seeing the call to be agents of Shalom as intrinsic to a relationship with a missional God - joing God in mission)... so yes there are criteria, to being part of the 'monastic' core, but in these there is a huge amount of space... and I don't see the question of 'orthodoxy' as an issue... and as for acountability, we hope that being small and intimate makes it possible for mutual and community acountability and support.

Of course the language gets confusing when we talk about 'networks' of churches... yes we need to be connected, but that isn't necessarily the same thing as a 'network' that is really a pyramidal heirarchy however loose. We would hope to be part of the Church, global and local... connected through relationship... the flip side of this is there is the danger that we only network with those who we agree with... that we don't foster critical friends amd don't learn from diversity!


It was your comment I misread - I thought you were Andrew (confused by the name at the bottom not the top) and I posted the same link whilst it was staring me in the face! Still I have had a little sleep since then.

I think I agree with you and have more struggles with Andrew's (St T's) approach. I think there is a need to understand that we are not alone, that the five people meeting in our lounge aren't the only five people in the world doing this and that sometimes there may be a need to come together to understand this. (I am reminded of the annual trip to Jerusalem.) I think it is human nature to try to take control and to hang on to the control that we have and the small (tiny) is less at risk of this because the status of being a leader of five people in our front room is not much to hang on to. I also like the idea of sharing or cycling leadership activities if possible. Interestingly, (and I posted about this a couple of weeks ago) the some of the Celtic Church leaders banged themselves up in a cell on being made bishop - we don't see a lot of this behaviour by leaders now!

I think you have expressed well what I was trying to find in the theology debate. The Northumbria Community booklet is at http://www.northumbriacommunity.org/WhoWeAre/whoweareHereticalimperative.htm
It's under the bed gathering dust in favour of Michael Frost at the moment. I think in any model there needs to be the allowance for the theology of the community to be challenged. It's arrogant to think that we have all the answers - even if we happen to be the leader and communities can get entrenched in beliefs that are not productive. This openness to change must surely be a communal vulnerability. One of the things that worries me about the EC in the UK is that it seems to be largely sponsored by and therefore accountable to the IC. (This was true also of Karen's experience at Seattle with the Episcopal Church in the US which she shared at ReSource.)

Hi Mark

I wouldn't want to advocate St Thomas' as a perfect model, or practice! Having been part of the church since '91, and a cell leader, cluster leader and (when I was on the staff team for 5.5 yrs) celebration leader, I am very aware of all sorts of shortcomings and all sorts of struggles! (Obviously, commitment to something involves blindspots, so I don't see everything; but, any commitment with integrity involves self-awareness too.)

I guess where I'm coming from is a belief that the emerging church would benefit from having the view that big is fundamentally bad and small is inherently good challenged. There are pros and cons to *any* model, and struggles in *any* practice of community. You might not like the things that were said at ReSource, but, don't dismiss them either! Be a little less one-sided in your analysis.

I agree with you about the role of leaders and the limit on the number of people you can have that kind of relationship with. (Indeed, I agree with you on a lot.) When my wife and I 'led' 300 people, we spent most of our time investing in relationships with about a dozen or so, who, in turn did likewise. We are still intentional about our relationship with several of them, even though neither we nor they are leading anything within St Tom's now. It's a longterm commitment. You can see that as hierarchical, or you can see it as a commitment to be discipled by someone and in turn to disciple others.

I'd say just about everything being pioneered in the emerging church/fresh expressions/mission-shaped church in the UK right now has been pioneered at St Tom's over the past 20 years. That's not to say that St Tom's is the source of all the ideas/models (obviously), or that it is the best. Just that it is interesting to hear voices from small pioneering contexts (and I don't mean you; as you say, you have respect for St Tom's and other comparable churches) suggest that churches can't grow big and still be missional!

thanks... as you say there are pros and cons in all sizes, I wouldn't say that Big is inherently "bad", just perhaps not best suited to being a missional community (research into Church planting (by Bob and Mary) indicates that the smaller the plant is the bigger it's impact in the community outside of the Church!). Nor was I dismissing what was said, just that I don't agree with the comment that the reason EC tends to value small is down to a "fear of being big" rather I would say it was down to experience/reflection (I have been in leadership in 500+ membership churches)... I don't suggest that big Churches "can't" be missional just that I believe it is harder (because of need/questions of structure, management, provision etc.) In terms the 'accountability' structure you mention, and whether it is heiracrchical or not depends entirely on how it is managed, I can't tell how it worked with you... for example why did it have to operate that way, could it not have been more mutual? Was/is there some need to do things in a way designed by others not directly involved... a dictated "way"? I would suspect that the reason in needed to be pyramidal was down to size? TBH I think St Toms IS one of the few large Churches that really wrestles with being Missional and all that entails and your jounrey as a community is long and varied (I used to go to NOS by the way)

An observation often made is that when a Community reaches a certain size it needs to change it's operational principles to make it more manageable/possible to exist, the danger is that in doing so it's foundation story gets either left behind or changed (see Soul Survivor), my question would be what is more important; to be true to the foundation story or to grow in size? It is not a case of which size is "Best" but which is best suited to the vision/core values?

One last thought, I appreciate your comment about being 'balanced' TBH it isn't something I strive for, nor do I plan my posts, they are pretty 'stream of conciousness'... reflections rather than articles... fortunately folk add balance through the comments, leaving me to simply blog my thoughts, reflections and reactions.

I really value this discussion and I think that sometimes good things come from hot debate. Balanced articles often don't spark the debate!

One issue we haven't touched is... if the EC is embodied in the small/tiny/organic, how does is it speak at a national level, or should it? The Archbishops of York/Canturbury and other high profile leaders have a voice at a Governmental level. Whether or not we think that current leaders use this voice rightly, should the Church not be able to speak to the Government. If we don't have 'big' leaders how does the Church do this? Is there a need for leaders who speak for the emerging Church universal. There may come a time when the EC differs significantly in opinion from the IC leaders. If the EC sees part of it's role as speaking out against injustice, wouldn't this be useful? We don't have a culture where 'Nathan the Prophet' can turn up in the Commons! Thinking about the Jews in exile, the spokespeople were not necessarily leaders in the Jewish community, but rather the people in the best position with the empire. ie Daniel, Esther, Nehemiah etc...

Mark...thanks for your last comment - it really clarifies some things for me. I really don't think we're that far apart, and I'm sorry if I've come over too strong on anything!

I think we broadly agree; we're certainly engaged in the same adventure. But, I do think I've yet to see EC engage with the pattern of community that goes beyond essentially nuclear family (albeit one larger than 2.4 kids) and perhaps being friends with other nuclear church families; as opposed to reclaiming extended family, clan, etc. That would be truly counter-cultural in our ultra-fragmented society...and, I'd suggest, reflect something of God's pattern for family...

David - great questions! (and ones I'd have to reflect on further). Interstingly enough, the current developments at St Tom's are to move on from just equipping people to lead missional community, to helping people be released to a greater degree into the callings God has for them in their professional arena. The Wesley/Whitfield Revival significantly impacted society through men like Wilberforce/Shaftsbury/etc. in the following generation. We'll need to see something similar if we are to see God's kingdom transform our broken society...

So, I'm thinking about similar questions. No great imsights yet, though!

Andrew, I agree we are not that far apart... and I haven't found any of your comments too strong at all! I value the conversation.

I think there is beginning to be a more intentional search for 'extended family'... one which isn't defined by geographical boundaries and I very much like the picture you have painted! In fact we have begun to talk about something which St Toms have definately been one of the pioneers in, i.e. the whole'order' thing (Jonny B calls us the 'Order/community of St. Brendan' ;) )... multiple communities with shared vision, rhythm, rule etc. but self-sustaining and interdependent.

I am currently feeling somewhat uncomfortable with talk about 'THE' emerging church as a (semi)cohesive, bounded set... in some ways this seems to fly in the face of everything I understand as encapsulated by 'emergence'! In terms of the transformative dimension I like what Brother Samuel (SSF) says...

The renewal of both the Church and Society will come through the re-emergence of forms of Christian community that are homes of generous hospitality, places of challenging reconciliation and centres of attentiveness to the living God

Mark - you're *definitely* an embryonic Order. (I'd describe our The Order of Mission as being a full-term unborn baby; the pregnancy lasted over 3 years - who knows how long labour will take?!)

And I'm really positive about that. I see the current emergence of Missional Orders - arising independently but simultaneously - as comparable to the emergence of Missionary Societies in the mid-late C19th. It's a "God's moment for this idea" thing...

I'm sure you're part of this move of God, and really look forward to see how your story unfolds :-)

I understand what you say about 'THE' emerging church, I think I would agree, except that there are a whole load of people thinking broadly similar things, who are joined by (blogial) conversation but not by much else. I think your point accentuates my question. If among what emerges is lots of small missional communities (and strongly in favour) how does the Church then find a voice? Or will it find it is represented by the Inherited Churches with whom we work, but may have very different views. (Homosexuality, perhaps?) I don't really want an answer, it's just thinking aloud.

I have found this conversation fascinating. I will pin my colours to the mast early and say that I see little benefit for the BIG and much long term benefit in the small. This is principally founded on understandings of power, relationship and community. And also secondarily on finances, learning, and possibilities for new relationship development.

Many of the criticisms/concerns about the small seem to stem from not being part of or connected to something bigger (and connected to this is accountability) and/or around questions of growth.

The growth question is not one that should be feared or concerning. Indeed the simple 'solution' is that with growth comes an almost automatic separation of any group into two, four, six and so on. This is a relatively simple process that enables relationships and community rather than diminishing them. It also increases the potential for interaction between the 'small community' and the wider community, both religious and secular, of which this small community is a part.

David's point about having a voice relates to this. It is assumed that having a voice, especially politically, requires something BIG but how much more impact might 100 groups all commenting on any issue have than just 1 BIG group?

This single voice (and in my opinion an entirely unrepresentative voice) operates because our media age wants one statement rather than 100 because it is easier for this to be represented. This however is not necessarily the best method to relate to and impact on any issue.

The development of the BIG usually results in a relatively centralised structure, especially in relation to accountability. The small enables a much broader accountability where each individual and the community as a whole can be entirely accountable to each community participant. This form enables + encourages power + authority to lie within each person rather than a smaller selected group of individuals/leaders. Indeed in the small it is much easier to enable whole group leadership + permission giving than in individual leadership. This in turn relates to personal + relationship development, ownership of thoughts, feelings, principles + beliefs.

This BIG/small discussion is not necessarily one of right or wrong but I would certainly argue that BIG is much less beneficial and ultimately less sustainable than the small.

Good points, Phil.
I, too, am absolutely committed to the small, as having the most significant potential missionally. And I agree that as a group grows, it can become two, four, six. But I have also noted, on many occasions, resistance to this - even among those with genuinely missional intentions. The group gets to a certain size, beyond which it is too big to maintain significant relationships of this kind. So, inevitably, as a few join, a few leave. But the core value their relationships, and don't want to lose them through division; so the group becomes closed, inward looking. If the group can multiply, and the two (4, 6)groups still relate to each other, there isn't that same sense of continually losing friends. That is not the only possible way of addressing this challenge; but it is a way that perhaps helps us to rediscover what extended family looks like. It means that there is a wider pool of committed relationships to draw on, for example, when the group faces particularly hard circumstances such as a long-term or terminal illness.

I've been thinking about leadership through this discussion, too. When I look to Jesus - as my model - I see him operate in different leader styles at different stages. At first, he is directive: come follow me. But not controlling: there is freedom to follow or not. The disciples are enthusiastic (come and meet...), but haven't a clue...After the honeymoon period, things get tougher. The disciples worry. So Jesus invests much more time with them on their own, encouraging but also challenging. Beyond that stage, he involves them more, in doing and talking; sends them out ahead of him: with instructions, but with responsibility and freedom. They go out and learn through doing, and then come back and Jesus is there to process their experience with them. And in the end, he releases them into their own adventures, beyond Jesus' own earthly ministry.

What I see in the EC is a genuine commitment to that third-stage style of leadership, that might be defined by words such as 'consensus', 'enabling', or 'facilitating'. But I've also seen a lot of groups try to start up at this stage - usually as a reaction to a model/experience of leadership that will never bring people to that stage - and who have found that it is almost impossible to get established.

What I'd love to see emerge is a genuinely EC interpreation of the other approaches to leading, at the appropriate stages. Such as directive leadership that isn't controlling...

I recognise some of the resistance to keeping groups small in order to grow. I think that this can sometimes require a dissenting voice to the maintenance of the status quo. In following Jesus there is much that might stay the same but there is also much change and this requires willingness. With any group development there needs to be thought given to the inclusion of others. When new relationships are formed, the new participants must be enabled to input into the purpose and direction of the group. This necessitates an evaluation of what people are about and thus can regularly remind people that a major point (though not the only one) of all these things is movement, change, learning etc. This in no way means losing relationships through division but enables new relationships through inclusion. In some ways it is like a family that grows, and people move to new places + form other relationships. But this in no way diminishes the 1st relationship and the love therein. Rather it enables more people to be included, to know love, care etc., to participate in learning, worship, support and so on.

As you say Andrew, it is about releasing people into an adventure and this is not achieved most easily by remaining the same, looking inward to protect what you have got and ultimately potentially becoming exclusive without necessarily ever meaning to.

To take this a little further if I may, Andrew could you possibly say more about the last paragraphs that you wrote about the ‘third stage style of leadership’ and so on? I’m not entirely sure what you getting at. Thanks

I found the discussion in the comments exhausting (sorry guys, no offense intended) so I didn't really follow it past the first couple but I just wanted to throw in that I agree with what Fitch says about church size - basically that you CAN "do it well" with a large church but it's VERY HARD and you have to be super intentionally about keeping your soul intact.

I personally don't want to lead a large church (nor do I want to be paid through the church) but I'm open to the Spirit's leading. Right now, we have said that if our congregation gets to a certain size, we'll send out a group to plant another community and remain connected to one another and cooperate with eachother but be autonomous.

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