How I Chose Movement over Mega | The Story of Sheffield
I didn’t grow up in a Christian house, my parents weren’t believers and I became a Christian when, at 16, I picked up a Bible one day and read it. Whole thing.
And that was it. God stirred my heart and I knew I wanted to follow his Son, Jesus. I knew God wanted to offer forgiveness to me and he wanted me to offer it to others. So I went off to school, off to seminary and then into parish work (Anglican Church).
So from the very beginning, I had this great love of the scriptures. It’s how I became a Christian. And I kept reading the book of Acts and looking at the church, then reading the Gospels and looking again at the church, Paul’s epistles and back at the church…and I couldn’t shake that there was something amiss.
The life and mission of the church and the disciples seen in the Bible was almost completely missing in the communities I was a part of. I had some pretty momentous experiences with God over the first 10-15 years of ministry and tinkered around with some different things with mission and discipleship, but it all came to head when I became the Lead Rector at St Thomas’ Sheffield in 1994. (This picture is of me, Sally and our youngest, Beccy, in the late 1980’s)
It was a church rich with a tradition of new missional expressions, a pioneering spirit, a church that had started what Eddie Gibbs, at Fuller Seminary, called the first alternative or “post-modern” (not in the theological sense) worship service. It was called The 9:00 Service.
And to be honest, The 9:00 Service was a truly amazing environment.
During the 1980’s it really became quite the magnet for new missional approaches as some of the best leaders in Europe in North America were coming to see what they were doing and how they could learn. Unfortunately, as often times happens with wildly successful churches, the leader turned quite inward and became almost sociopathic, and if that wasn’t enough, deeply immoral. We don’t need to get into all the gory details, but it was ugly.
This congregation, which had by that time planted off of St. Thomas as its’ own church, was closed by the Church of England because of those reasons.
I was called there as the senior pastor, they call it the ‘Team Rector,’ in 1994, a year after that congregation had left and a year before it was closed. And because of that, we were caught right in the middle of it. In fact, to this day, it is the largest and longest running church scandal in British history.
This is what I walked into.
It ran forever and ever and ever.
We were on television every day and on the front page of the newspaper all the time because the only physical building that could be associated with this congregation was our building, even though we were no longer together. We got every ounce of bad press.
So clearly as part of that process, learning to cultivate a culture of accountability and discipleship was huge.
There were several things I did there when I arrived, particularly as I was functioning within a tight and somewhat constraining hierarchical system (I have a Bishop, I’m the Priest, I serve the Congregation). You know how it is.
Creating a discipleship culture was incredibly important, so we needed to model everything we did after Jesus. I wanted to create a culture that had three dimensions to it just as Jesus lived out three dimensions in his life, UP/IN/OUT.
UP: deep and connected relationship to his Father and attentiveness to the
leading of the Holy Spirit
IN: constant investment into the relationships with those around Him (His
OUT: entering the brokenness of the world, looking for a response both
individually (people coming into relationship with Jesus) and systemically (systems of injustice being transformed)…God’s Kingdom advancing.
We began to use this as our language.
So very quickly questions like this started to happen: “Is your Small Group doing any OUT?”
And simply by giving a lens to people, helping them understand that their lives and communities needed to have all three dimensions of Jesus’ life, we started to develop a missional culture. We started to experiment more and more with Small Groups working together (maybe 3-4 Small Groups for a total of 40-50 people) on a common mission and some things began to emerge out of that. At the time we called them Clusters, but over time these mid-sized missional groups started to be called Missional Communities. For us, this is where MCs were born.
It started like this: We told some of our Small Groups, “Ok, this is what your monthly rhythm could be. First week do UP, second week do IN, third week do OUT, and the fourth week, why don’t you get together with those other 2 or 3 small groups and do something together.”
Eventually the people came back and said, “You know, it’s interesting, we like the Small Groups, but we really like that bigger, mid-sized group. We love that time together. We’ve even given it a name. Is that ok? And is it ok if we spend more time in the bigger group and do mission together?”
Ummm…yes. It was ok.
They were starting to identify more and more with a group about the size of an extended family, do mission together and the small groups became a place of support and accountability. Over time, we started putting more emphasis on starting these mid-sized groups and letting the small groups emerge within them rather than just clustering them together.
Some of them were sterile and weren’t able to give birth to new mid-sized groups, but a few of them became incredibly productive and multiplied several times over. So we were seeing these MCs start to develop (again, this is the very earliest stage of their history), the church was growing rapidly and alongside of that we imported a very simple accountability maxim that we pulled from Matthew 18:15, and it was this: Don’t go and speak to any pastor about an issue that you have with another member of the congregation unless you have first spoken to them at least twice. And if you do, all we will do is turn you around and send you straight to them.
We had the same rule for the staff because it was the same rule for everybody.
That Matthew 18:15 culture was hugely significant in the life of the church. It later became engrained in the discipleship vehicle we developed called Huddles, which would prove critical a year or two down the road. And I think it was the chief reason why, after marrying more couples than I can count, there was not a single divorce in the 10 years that I was there.
And to this day, some year later, I can really only think of 3.
You see, the environment that a Huddle creates is one where people are both invited into relationship and challenged to be who God has called them to be so it creates this beautiful culture of accountability. Maybe you treat your spouse badly, but you’re not going to go long before that relationship has to be mended because people are holding you accountable. We developed a whole language for discipleship because we knew that language creates culture. (if you’re interested in this language, you can read about it here)
So that culture continued to roll on and the building simply wasn’t big enough. At this point in time we had 4 services, two in the morning, two in the evening and it was standing room only. And it was during this time we had this very real sense that God was giving us a specific mission: Call the city back to God.
Not just the suburbs where we were located, on the rim of the city. The whole of the city. And if that was to happen, we’d need to have a presence in the city and the suburbs.
I went to the Bishop and asked if he could give us a few other buildings in the city that were no longer being used. There was a precedent for this as another church, Holy Trinity Brompton in London, had been given additional buildings. And he said this: “Never. Watch my lips so we are very clear. Never.”
“Well here’s the thing, Bishop, I have no room left in the church. What am I supposed to do with all of these people?”
“Why do you want to grow anymore?”
“Because it’s the Gospel imperative and it’s what Jesus wants us to do. “Go and make disciples and such.”
And I kid you not, he said, “Yeah, I don’t think that’s right. You’re putting too much pressure on the other clergy so I need you to stop growing.”
“But I’m not really even doing anything. It really is God!”
“That’s great, but I need you to stop it.”
Needless to say, there was a certain separating of paths at that point.
So I went back to my team, spent some time with them, and I came back to them with a plan. I would take somewhere between 2/3 to 3/4 of the church and re-plant it into the center of the city that had been devoid of a real Christian presence for at least 50 years. It wasn’t just the normal white flight of the Christian church that we see in Western churches, but also the dismembering and dismantling of the church that we see happening all across Europe over the last couple of generations. It meant that the cities themselves, at best, had a few tiny congregations and the enormous, ornate buildings were simply edifices of an era gone by with no one in them. There weren’t people in the buildings.
Statistically, Sheffield has just under 2% of the population in a church each Sunday. A good sized church has about 39 people (seriously).
So that’s what we’re talking about here. When we say it’s a post-Christian context, we really mean it.
I turned up at the meeting that was set up to discuss this further and the Bishop was waiting there with the assistant Bishop, both Archdeacons and the Dean of the Cathedral. The Dean was there because I was planning on moving into his parish (the parish being a geographical area that a church was specifically responsible for). In other words, I was literally encroaching on his territory. I said to them, “Here’s what we’d like to do. We’d like to take the majority of our congregation and go downtown where there really isn’t anyone and go worship in the huge gym by the Cathedral.” To say that he wasn’t exactly pleased would be a bit of an understatement.
Somehow, miraculously, I got them to agree to an “experimental” period where we’d try this out (of course “experimental,” in my mind, is something like 50-100 years!)
So we moved down into the heart of the city. We met in this gym, I guess more of a large sports facility, really, and it was absolutely awful. It had all of the echoes of a huge bucket and people were constantly walking in and out on their way to play football or work out. It was a terrible place to meet but there was nowhere else to go. On top of that, at the end of the first year we needed to increase our budget by 50%, overnight, to stay there because the cost of leasing was so exorbitant. I told the congregation this, and on a single Sunday, the whole community covenanted to give the 50% increase that was needed. And they did.
Then, literally the next day, the largest night club in the north of England goes bankrupt and was offered to us. It’s called The Roxy and was where the Rolling Stones would play before they got really big and it was just a massive space and an absolute pagan temple and we got it. And along the lines of the Celts of old, we just painted it and moved in. It’s not like our enemy is going to hang around. If you want to get rid of the darkness just turn the light on. So we did.
We put new carpet in.
We attempted to clean the toilets.
The toilets were probably the largest in the whole of Europe, I’ve never seen anything like it. You could probably get 10,000 people using it at the same time if you really wanted to.
The carpet that we laid (and this is part of the St. Thomas folklore now)…we didn’t even have to stick it down, it just laid right on top of the carpet that was already there. Because when you stepped on the original carpet it made this almost popping or sucking sound when you tried to pull your foot away as it was so sticky from all of the old beer, gum and other junk on it. It was just gross.
We put the carpet on it.
And started worshiping.
The local TV came out and they just started interviewing people. All they would do was put a microphone in front of people and ask, “Why are you here?”
“Well, I was in prison, I was a drug addict, and one of these people visited me and I became a Christian.”
“Why are you here?”
“I used to be a prostitute and they met me on the streets and I came to know Jesus.”
“Why are you here?”
It was the best advertising anyone could ever have. Every night, in prime time, we were covered on TV. We didn’t have a marketing budget, all we had was our lives. The church grew by 500 people in a few short weeks simply because they saw us on TV. They just came, looking for transformation.
So now we had thousands in our church in a place where 2% of people go to church and the average church size is 25.
It’s just a giant.
A ways into this, I can remember the day so clearly. God asked me, “Do you want to be a mega-church pastor or do you want to be the other thing?”
Other thing? What other thing?
“God, what other thing?”
And he gave me this vision of, it’s just hard to describe, but this network of communities that just keeps extending and going and going and multiplying and are led by the people, not the pastors. It was a picture of a movement. No longer growth by addition, but growth by multiplication. Rather than the staff leading out on everything, the power would be put back into the hands of the people. I thought, “Is there a name for that?”
I didn’t hear anything. I guess we got to name it.
And God said, “So you can have the standard mega-church thing, or you can have that other thing.”
“Well God, I kind of like that movement thing. Let’s go with that one!”
A little while later God said to me, “How would you feel if I took the building away?” (God often speaks to me in questions or riddles)
I literally sat up and said, “You’re kidding right?”
So that same morning, I came to the building and met with our staff and said, “Ummm…yeah…the Lord asked me a question this morning and I think we need to prepare for the possibility that we’re going to lose our building.”
Everyone is just staring blankly at me, with that deer in the headlights look.
“What we’ve got to do is really start to focus on these mid-sized Missional Communities, because if the building goes, it’s the only thing that’s going to be floating. There’s no where else to go.” So we focused on that and put tons of energy into it and a year later, almost to the day, one of our tech guys was just checking with the local Fire Chief about some heaters and the Fire Chief says, “Hey, who said you could meet in here?”
“Ahhh, I don’t remember if anyone said we could, but no one said we couldn’t. We did the paperwork. They know we’re here. It’s all legal.”
“You can’t be here. It’s illegal.”
“What do you mean it’s illegal?”
“The whole building is live. Electricity is shooting through the frame of the building. If anyone drilled through one of these walls they’d die.”
“Well how could we fix it?”
“Honestly? Knock it down.”
“Knock it down?”
“Yep. Knock it down and rebuild it.”
Sure, we could have fixed it, but we knew what God was asking of us. So one weekend, shortly thereafter, the entire church planted out across the city into loads of these mid-sized Missional Communities. They’d meet in garages, bowling allies, pubs, parks, houses, coffee shops, restaurants, everywhere you could think of.
We nicknamed Sunday mornings “The Pony Express” as the staff would gather early at the old Parish Church and we’d take out tubs of children’s supplies, Holy Communion, announcement sheets, offering bags. Let’s just say this wasn’t the most systematized thing quite yet! It would become far more efficient and streamlined in the years to come, but right now we were just trying to make it work. These MCs, groups of 20-50 people who all had one, focused mission together, were led by regular, ordinary members of the church. Our job as the staff became equipping them. To resource them. To let them lead and live into their calling. At the time, it was impossible to rent a space big enough to hold all of us each week, so we were only able to get all of our MC’s together about every 6 weeks. It was invigorating and terrifying at the same time.
Finally the Lord gave us a large, industrial campus called Philadelphia and we turned those warehouses into a worship space and training centers, but the campus is built completely around equipping and resourcing disciples on mission. With this campus we were able to start meeting weekly again for people who wanted to worship as a whole community each week. Some MCs would come every week, some would only come once a month or every-other-week and worship in their Missional Community the other three weekends.
We had been homeless for more than a year, and a year later, the number of mid-sized Missional Communities had doubled, with each MC trying to reach into and incarnate themselves into a specific kind of network or neighborhood.
MCs for creative professionals.
MCs for the homeless.
MCs for parents with new babies.
MCs for Iranian Muslims.
MCs for artists.
MCs for people who all work at the same place or live in the same neighborhood.
MCs for gang members who were becoming Christians.
MCs for foreign students at the university.
We were reaching every kind of person you could imagine, seeing more people come to Christ than we could count. And then this incredibly diverse group of people would all gather and worship together once a month at a place big enough to hold us. As Newbigin says, it was both a “Sign” and a “Foretaste” of the coming, fulfilled Kingdom. But we were experiencing it here and now.
Previously, our missional engagement was more about discipling people well so they were released as missionaries in their every day comings and goings (which we always need). But now, we had focused communities of mission where there disciples were working in concert with each other. In other words, the missional force was so much stronger when it had the gravitational pull of an extended family size (20-50 people).
Shortly thereafter, somewhere in the beginning of the year in 2000, Christian Research (formerly Marc Europe), led by a brilliant statistician named Peter Brierley, released a report stating we had the largest attendance of any church in England, and probably, the largest in Europe.
Now I’m not giving you that to brag, I give it to you to make an important point. If you were to go to Sheffield today, which is now the epicenter of a worldwide missional and discipling movement, they would not tell you how many people attend the church. I doubt most of the people would even realize how big the church is because it doesn’t look or function like a really sizeable church.
If you asked how big the church is, they would simply tell you how many disciples they have in Huddles because that is what they count. They count how many people are engaged in active, accountable, discipling relationships. Their whole structure for church is built around making disciples and releasing them, and because of that, that’s what they count. For them, that’s the metric that matters. That’s the Great Commission imperative.
How many disciples do we have?
St Thomas Sheffield isn’t a massive church and the center of a movement because it’s got the best worship service. Or the best digital experience. Or the best preachers/teachers in the world. It’s because everything they do is about making disciples. They honestly believe if you make disciples and release them to lead, release them into their destiny, release them to be Agents of the Kingdom, everything will change. If we are great at making the disciples, church growth will never be a problem because to be a disciple means you’re a missionary. It was never OK for us to be a large church and have very few missionary disciples. So we built something where that couldn’t happen.
Making disciples was in the DNA from the very beginning and it has just carried through.
Once we got into the new building, not long after, God made it quite clear that he wanted me to hand over the church to the young guys I was discipling. The church wasn’t mine to hold onto. God was absolutely clear this needed to happen.
The Lord told me I was supposed to leave.
“Where do you want me to go?”
“Honestly. Where you do you want me?”
“Mike, I mean we’ll wait and see.”
And that was the truth. Honestly. It was like a real Abrahamic call and one many of my pastor friends didn’t understand at the time: “Why would you give up the church we all would want to pastor?”
All I knew was I supposed to go to America and I would be shown what to do. The years that followed I was a coach, a consultant, a writer, a practitioner, a speaker. I’ve worked with mega-churches and church plants and everything in between. There have been many times where it has felt like walking in the desert (a time which may have lasted 7 years). To be honest, there were mornings where it was difficult to get up. I felt so unbelievably lost at times, not knowing exactly where to go or what would come next until finally, God said, “This is it. This is what the rest of your life is going to be about.” So we formed what we call 3DM; which, simply, is a movement of churches and missional leaders helping other churches and leaders who, like St. Thomas Sheffield, are learning to put discipleship and mission at the center of everything.
You see for us, it’s not just theory.
If you make disciples, you really do get the rest.
If you make disciples and release them, you will get a growing church.
If you make disciples, you get the missional thing.
If you make disciples, the places where society is torn in two and frayed at the edges start to be mended.
Sometimes people talk about the book of Acts as if it’s something that could never happen again. And in part, they are right. But I think Jesus was quite serious when he said we would do greater things than he did, which we see in Acts. But I also believe we will see greater things than we read about in the book of Acts. I believe it because I’ve seen it. And I believe that’s the story Jesus is inviting all of us into.