In the recent Leadership Gathering of the BSCD the members were encouraged towards clustering in one form or another. This was one of three themes of Leadership, the other two being an increase in vocations and the need to pass on the experience of the Holy Spirit. But clustering might seem to be the first and easiest to deal with.
In a sense clustering has been part of the church from the beginning. Acts pictures the church in Jerusalem as located within a small area, perhaps with a range as far as Bethlehem and Emmaus, or a couple of hours walk in various directions. The central location was in the city, even if the celebrated Eucharist (broke bread) in a number of houses. That is no surprise, since a room in a large house would not hold more than 30 individuals, even if they were jammed together. A double meal table setup would accommodate 18 unless it was crowded. Thus we could talk about a cluster of house communities that cared for one another, selling investments to support one another, as needed.
Once the church scattered from Jerusalem we find groups of house communities considered a single church. In Rome we can identify 7 or 8 such communities in Romans 15. In Corinth the one church seems to have included groups in the two port cities as well as in Corinth itself. Naturally, it was geography that made the groups, for it would have been difficult to walk from Corinth to either of the ports at night, which is when meetings tended to be held, and each of the ports and Corinth itself were centers of population, such as there were in those days.
Finally, one should note that Paul normally traveled in a team, sometimes larger, sometimes smaller, but he always preferred to travel in a team, and there seem to have been clusters of people gathered around other leaders as well. The lone-ranger type of Christian was not one modeled by Jesus or by his followers after his death and resurrection.
But clustering is demanding. As envisioned in the Brothers and Sisters of Charity, it would be domestic members living in their own homes, whether owned or rented, within a short distance of other members who lived in their own homes, and meeting together in a single cell group. There might also be members who lived in the homes of other members, which would be especially true of singles, but might be true of a small family if another member family had enough room in their home. Ideally this would be in the context of a single parish, so that parish life would reinforce the cluster, and the cluster would reinforce the parish.
Now this is not all that was envisioned, for it is realized that not all members are in a situation in which they can be part of a cluster. Ideally clustering is the end of a continuum with the individual isolated member being at the other end, separated members meeting in virtual cell groups being the next step, physical cell groups (some of which might meet only once or twice per month given the distance members live apart, while others might meet weekly) coming next, and clustering with a much more intense community being the final step. The idea is that, as they are able, members move along the continuum ever closer. In fact, some might feel a call to full monastic community, but that is a separate step.
Such clustering has been part of church history, sometimes with a focus on full communalism, sometimes with more of a focus of living together in the same area. Without noting the cenobitic monastic communities, one should note that villages and even cities were smaller in pre-modern times, so if everyone was a member of the parish church, there would be something of the contact that is being talked about in the cluster. Anabaptist communities took the monastic ideal and made it part of the whole people of God, so often these communities would travel together as they were forced to migrate from one area to another due to prosecution in various forms. And then there are the communities of the revival of the 1970’s that were written about in Dave and Netta Jackson’s book, Living Together in a World Falling Apart. Some of these still exist, some do not. In other words, the clustering idea is not new, nor is it limited to monastic or Catholic groups.
Our own journey with this concept started in 1975, in our year of renewal, for we had been very interested in Christian community and it was because of a discussion about it with a visitor to Bibelschule Wiednest that we discovered the Church of the Redeemer (Episcopal) in Houston, Texas, and their communities. We visited that community, as well as the Sojourners community, the Bruderhof, and the like over the next few years. We were part of a different type of clustering in Langley British Columbia a decade and a half later, for there a group of us formed an association and built 19 townhomes so that we could live in proximity. There were 15 families, and the association purposely retained 4 townhomes to rent at reduced rates to families in need of housing or at a normal rate to families that needed to live in a supportive community but were fine financially.
So one sees that clustering is part of the history of the church and that it fulfills basic human needs for support and fellowship. But it also makes demands. Most of the clusters that I know about grew out of a type of revival. There was an intense encounter with the Holy Spirit that led to deeper commitment to Jesus resulting in a loosening of attachment to property, finances, and goods. This made the sharing involved in clustering possible, for without such Spirit-inspired shared the community will be short-lived. That also means the facilitating or praying for such life-changing revival come first and clustering is an after-effect.
A second demand is that the cluster must have mature and stable leadership. On the one hand, it would be best if it were seen as a ministry or arm of the local parish, for that would give mature oversight from the church hierarchy, if they shared the vision. On the other hand, mature leadership, well-formed leadership, and spiritually and psychologically aware leadership is needed to lead the cluster. This is usually hierarchal, and even a group of thinking-alike elders can act as hierarchal, for one-person-one-vote type of structures tend to break down more quickly. Yet such a group can turn into a TACO (totalist aberrant Christian organization) if there is not outside guidance and oversight. There is a significant literature on this as well.
Finally, the cluster needs to be in a place that is physically and financially viable. Are there enough jobs available to support the group, jobs of the right type? If the group is older, are there hospitals and medical specialists available in the area? If the group is younger, are there solid schools available? Sharing can go so far, and certainly one must encourage it – support the widow and the orphan, take in the immigrant (whatever the government says or does not say), care for the sick, for all of these are deeply biblical values. But for sharing to happen, there must be something to share, so someone must have income, enough someones, so to speak. And in some areas that would be difficult. Or the jobs available might not fit the skills or physical abilities of the potential members of the cluster. Thus clusters work best in urban areas unless, like the Hutterite communities, the members are involved in farming.
These are some of what comes to mind when one thinks about clustering in any of its various forms. More reflections will come later.