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Aidan on Pilgrimage

June 24, 2010

Mike: I think we’re going to switch it up a bit with this blog post. A few weeks ago you were in England, at St Thomas, visiting both Philadelphia and Crookes. These aren’t campuses, they are two distinct churches that are covenanted together and have the same DNA, but being worked out in very different ways. Once a year they open the doors of the church and hundreds come from across the world (though mostly Europe) to be immersed in what these two churches have created and they call it Pilgrimage. I was hoping you might share some of your experiences with as I was at the same event. It’d be good to have some different perspective.

Aidan: Sure! Where’s a good place to start?

Mike: How about we start with the highlight of the week. What part of it impacted you the most?

Aidan: I’d probably have to say the missional tour we took. Basically, on Thursday, about 40 of us hopped on a charter bus and spent three hours driving around the city of Sheffield, I think this guy named Rich Robinson was the tour guide? Easily one of the funniest people I’ve ever met.

So for three hours we drive through Sheffield and every minute or two they’d point where a Missional Community was meeting and what they were doing.

“This MC is reaching into the Slovakian gypsy population.” A minute or two later…

“This MC started reaching out to Somalian refugees and now there are three MC’s…” A minute or two later…

“This is where a lot of the university students come to go clubbing, so this MC meets at 3am on Saturday mornings…”

“This MC has hooked up with one of the most dangerous gangs in Sheffield, the ringleader went to prison for murder and we worked with him and he became a Christian and then his family became Christians, and slowly the people in the gang are becoming Christians.”

“This MC meets in the state park every Saturday morning and reaches out to people who love the parks.”

“This MC reaches out to parents with babies.”

“This MC has seen a lot of conversion of Iranian muslims.”

“This MC reaches out to teenagers and their parents.”

On and on and on. We probably looked at dozens and dozens of MC’s in that three-hour span. It was nothing short of extraordinary. It spanned the entire city and was about the most diverse group of people you can possibly imagine. People in the United States like to talk about ethnic diversity, but next to no churches ever succeed at this, and when they do, they are usually made up of the same socio-economic group of people; mostly poorer people. This had every race, color, age, religious upbringing and socio-economic status you can possibly imagine. I knew it was like that going into the experience…but being there…seeing it…it’s just mind-blowing.

Mike: What else struck you?

Aidan: I’ll just tick off a few random things that aren’t necessarily connected.

***Paul Machonacie, the pastor at Philadelphia, had a really great way of counting numbers that really impressed me. Basically, he went about it with a real sense of integrity. He said they counted the numbers in the service, but this was never used as a metric for success or failure. What they look at is how many people are in discipling relationships in their Missional Communities. And that number doesn’t include people who are coming into the MC but aren’t being discipled yet. It’s just people who are actively being discipled. The MC leaders submit those names, they cross off duplicates and when it was all added up, you’re looking at something like 2500 adults. It’s just jaw dropping. I think about megachurches of  20,000 in the United States, and if they have 250 people who can do the basic things that Jesus asked his disciples to do, I feel like they’re doing better than most at just over 1%. And that’s not a knock on megachurches, I think 1-2% might be normal in almost any church. Not people who are nice, attend, give, do Bible studies and small groups. People who are legitimate, radical, sold-out disciples of Jesus in the way that scripture describes them.

To get an accurate picture of what that means for Philadelphia, one MC had 36 people in discipling relationships, but had over 200 people who cycled through the MC at least once a  month.  They only counted the 36, even though they had a gigantic fringe of people. In the states, we’d count the fringe and include that as the size of our church. For Philadelphia, the church is disciples of Jesus, not how many people might swing by a thing they do every so often.

So they have 2500 disciples which would be the Center or Core, which probably represents somewhere around 10,000 people who regularly cycle into MC life. And this is in a place where less than 1% of people go to church!!!

***Mick Woodhead, the pastor of Crookes, said something that really stood out to me: “Growing a church is really easy. It really is. It’s making disciples that’s the hard part. If you can make disciples, the church will grow. It’s just the way it works.” That was really encouraging for me as we have sunk all of our eggs in the discipleship basket and our starting to see the firstfruits of that investment in the growing part.

***A lot of the statistics about “secularlized England” became quite real. I knew less than 6% of the country attends a church and this plunge really started around the first World War, but you start to see how it’s happened. We heard a story about a town near Sheffield where in 1918, there was not a single male older than 17 who survived the War. There were no men in the town! They had all been killed in a pretty pointless war. Whose cousin where was assassinated? Who is Franz Ferdinand?

Well that will profoundly shape the way you view God, faith and the church!

And it’s not that Gen Y (Millenials) aren’t going to church. Their parents never went to church and a lot of their grandparents never went either. That’s three generations of church-lessness.

***Which got me to thinking about the United States, because if you listen to someone like Eddie Gibbs at Fuller, he has some pretty compelling statistics about how the US is on the exact same trajectory, but its’ plunge started around the start of the Vietnam War and we’ve been tracking with the European decline, % wise, ever since then. 37% boomers in church. 17% Gen X. 4% Gen Y.

But there is one major difference: England has a state church which receives at least some funding from the state, probably stalling the decline a little (and maybe just a little). But in the states, we don’t have that, we’ve got the whole separation of Church and State. So in 20 years, when I’m 50 years old, if trends continue, not only will there be no one in church, but we will have an implosion like we haven’t seen in Europe because we are completely dependent on what people give to keep the buildings open. We’re looking at massive foreclosures and bankruptcy.

Yeah, I realize this is a wild tangent, but it’s something I’ve been thinking about quite a bit since getting back.

***Perhaps the biggest thing my friend and I took home for our community was the utter dependence on God we saw in these communities. These churches simply could not succeed like they have without God guiding them, walking in his Spirit. They desperately seek the voice of God and obey it in ways that I just have never seen. Each church have staff teams that gather each day; they pray, read scripture, worship, every single day. And the thing I took from observing was that they weren’t doing it because they thought it was something they were supposed to do. Their very survival depended on it. Attractional church basically doesn’t work at all in Sheffield, so if the Kingdom is going to advance, well…only God can do that. Our efforts mean nothing, there are simply too many hurdles and landmines.

We walked away humbled by some of our arrogance about “good ideas” and our ability to make things work in our own strength.

***The numbers are nothing short of astounding. Often in the states it seems we have “growing churches” and “deep churches” and they are mutually exclusive. What Philadelphia and Crookes have done is say, “Look, if we’re disciples, doing the things Jesus did, we’ll grow. And if we never grow, it probably has something to do with how we’re discipling people.”

And they are growing. Both churches are seeing sustained, long-term growth, but it goes through seasons. They’ll go through a season of explosive growth, then a season of nothing or even loss, then a season of explosive growth…you get the picture. It’s the exact picture that John paints in his 15th chapter, where Jesus talks about pruning and growing, pruning and growing. It was so cool to see it plotted out on a graph.

So Crookes has been at this current iteration of their church for 7 years, but lost 15% of their people in the first year and another 15% the second year. It took Mick Woodhead 2 years to get the DNA in place, discipling and developing his people. In the 5 years since then they’ve seen over 500% growth making this, by all accounts, the fastest growing church in Europe.

Philadelphia had two years of stagnation as well, which according to Paul, was when he was really wrestling through what it meant to lead in a way that was true to how God made him. He simply wasn’t Mike Breen.

Mike: Probably a good thing. We don’t exactly need two of me running around! 😉

Aidan: Probably not.

But Paul said in the three years since then, they’ve just exploded, seeing seasons of unbelievable growth, and then seasons of very little, seasons of unbelievable growth, seasons of very little. And right now they are probably one of the largest churches in Europe.

***One other very interesting thing was how differently the two churches functioned. They have the exact same DNA (they use LifeShapes as their agreed-upon discipling/leadership language), they both have Huddles, Missional Communities, worship services, etc., but they were each fleshed out quite differently. You wouldn’t think there would be such huge differences, but there definitely were. It really showed that this isn’t a “model” to do church, it was  a set of principles and vehicles put into practice and are completely contextual. Really cool to see the two churches, separated by only a few miles, looking so different.

Mike: So what is maybe the topline thing you are taking away from your trip to Pilgrimage?

Aidan: Probably that the things you read about in the book of Acts and dream for your community…we’re not crazy for feeling like it could be real! And it’s not something that is really only happening in China or Africa or South America. It’s happening in one of the most secularlized, Western countries the world has seen since the time of the Romans.

More specifically, if we learn to do the things that Jesus did, if we put all of ourselves and our churches efforts into discipling people and be responsive to the voice of God, Jesus was spot on: “You will do even greater things than me.” We need to be revitalized by engaging with the Holy Spirit. Sometimes it feels like we are Christian atheists, you know?

I think for us, it just built our faith, gave us more concrete reality to stand on. Yes, we are doing church pretty differently, but I just can’t go back. It feels like we’ve seen the future of the church, as well as its’ ancient past. It’s the story we want to be a part of.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. June 24, 2010 9:34 pm

    Mike and Aiden I have enjoyed learning from your conversations the last couple of weeks as I have been soaking it up like a sponge. I got introduced to 3DM at the Q conference in Chicago where Jo Saxton had 10 minutes and hit it out of the park…One of the highlights of the conference…
    Anyways My wife and I are moving to Denver in July and are going to be looking to be in a missional community based Church when we get there. We are aware of the A29 and CRM churches but we were wondering if you are working with any churches there or would recommend any churches that have this disciple shaped focus….I know it’s a shot in the dark but it’s worth taking. Keep up the great work!

  2. missionalandy permalink
    June 26, 2010 10:12 pm

    very interesting thoughts on the pilgrimage trip, my reflection on your writings here, almost suggests that churches should change their web address names to finish with .net as they become more networked as our culture becomes much more networked based, rather than .org which implies organisation which clearly isn’t the case for Church.

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