"The cluster concept is fairly new and is being implemented in a small number of communities in South Africa. A cluster is simply a group of ward members that holds Sunday meetings in a location within walking distance of their homes. In this case, the meeting place is a small building that is used primarily for a pre-school. The meetinghouse for their ward is far enough from their homes that frequent travel to it is cost-prohibitive. The cluster members will still participate in ward activities. The bishopric of the parent ward will alternately attend and preside at the cluster meetings and is responsible for the cluster membership as it is for the rest of the ward. We think the concept is excellent – it takes the Church to the people when such a need exists."
Apparently, Elders Holland, Oaks, and Bednar are behind the idea.
The blogger asks the question, with reports of 40 or 50 members attending these "cluster" meetings, why aren't they a branch? As he notes, there are many branches with less members than that.
A little late history provides answers to his questions.
Have you ever heard of the centers of strength policy? It's nothing new or secret, but hardly anyone knows about it. Do a Google search, but start here:
In a nutshell, the church avoids proselyting in rural and poor areas (read: sub-saharan Africa), even when self-organized groups of thousands of people petition for baptism. Why? The current church doctrine necessitates a living, breathing, judging link between a member and the brethren. They hold the keys of eternal life, and they push down policies that control how close or far a member is from that objective. It requires a bishop or branch president, dictated by them, who knows by personal interaction the degree to which an individual submits to those policies. It requires temples and chapels.
People in poor areas will never pay enough tithing to justify a chapel (even at 3rd world chapel standards far behind the 2.5 million price tag of a US chapel), and poor folks in rural areas will never have enough money to make it to the chapel. It's that simple. As a former Area President in South Africa said, "Africa is the black hole that would sink the church." If current church models are followed, that is true. That is the reason there aren't more members in Africa than Mexico or even the United States: poor people can't pay tithing, and need far more fast offerings than they would ever contribute.
For some time, online reports of Elder Bednar's stake/regional conference appearances in the US have hinted at the cessation of building more chapels:
1) The stock market is not what it was when N. Eldon Tanner used it to bring the church out of debt in the 70s. It is highly volatile, and very likely the church took a bath along with every other corporation in 2008.
2) Secondary investments like real estate can shore up reductions in tithing, but they can't sustain the old model of temples + chapels.
3) Tithing only works as the way to finance the many church buildings, many church employees, and other financial obligations when there are many tithe-paying north Americans. The vast majority of tithing comes from North America. Yet, North American members are leaving faster than they are joining, and have been ever since Google was invented.
So how can net tithing profit (income - cost to build and maintain chapels, church universities, and church employee salaries) be increased? There are two ways:
1) Stop building chapels. This is the cluster policy.
2) Increase tithing. Elder Bednar touched on the idea, but came short of suggesting it was an eventuality. We shall see!
Of course, there is also a third way, and that is to return to the original use for tithing, caring for the poor, and get out of the building and selective education business altogether...