For many years, Christians in the United Kingdom have been starting new initiatives. On the one hand, these initiatives are a response to the love of God; on the other hand, they are a response to the growing distance between society and church. It is no longer enough to sit in church and invite people to come and join us. We need to go where people are, to listen and serve and shape community in new ways. As Christians have done this, these new initiatives have led to new communities of Christians meeting on different days of the week, in different places, learning to be church together.
In 2004, the Church of England published the report “Mission-Shaped Church.” The report coined a new term to describe these communities: fresh expressions of church. The Church of England is now well on its way to becoming what the Archbishop of Canterbury has called a mixed economy church: traditional parishes alongside fresh expressions of church. The Church is not attempting to create new congregations at the expense of traditional congregations; it is hoping to create new congregations alongside them.
One of the most interesting parts of my job as a team leader in this effort is discovering these stories and sharing them with the rest of the Church. The most effective way to do this is through short DVD clips. So far, we have produced two (available from Church House Publishing).
DVD 1 tells fourteen stories of typical fresh expressions of church. For example,
- In Stoke on Trent, a group of Methodists have opened a café on High Street for church in the coffee culture.
- In Portsmouth, a church which has very few children attending Sunday service has begun a monthly, midweek, all-age gathering based around arts and crafts and a meal together. It rejoices in the title of “Messy Church” and has inspired a host of similar projects across the country.
- In Essex, a small urban church had the faith to partner with the local authority and raised money for a skate park. There is now a thriving youth congregation at its heart.
- In Liverpool, the Methodist church had withdrawn from the city centre. As the regeneration of the city began, the church sent Barbara Glasson. She walked the streets for one year, listening. Out of that listening emerged a new Christian community—Somewhere Else—based around baking bread together. She now leads seminars called “Baking a church.”
Many of these new initiatives are modest in terms of resources but high in terms passion and energy. A small number involve high investment in either buildings or staff. The Church of England employs about two hundred people full-time to plant or establish these new communities; this number is rising each month.
DVD 2 looks at four different sections of the movement.
- The first programme looks at fresh expressions of church in places of work or leisure. It includes: (1) cell groups in the police force on Merseyside, (2) an RAF chaplaincy which has developed a new midweek gathering called Re:Fresh and (3) Tubestation, an attempt to grow church for the surfing community in Cornwall.
- The second programme looks at fresh expressions of church in the sacramental and contemplative tradition. We are seeing a movement which spans tradition. This features a Goth Eucharist, one of a number of such initiatives around the country.
- The third programme looks at rural examples and tells the inspiring story of a rural hamlet with thirty houses where the church was facing closure and the congregation at the traditional services had dwindled to just four people. The minister and congregants decided to offer just a handful of services each year; however, these would connect with the entire village. Today, over seventy percent of the population attend church regularly and the church is back at the centre of the community.
- The final segment looks at fresh expressions of church among children and young people. My favourite example is the youth worker placed in a church secondary school and who is attempting to grow church there intentionally.
A Precise Definition of Fresh Expressions of Church
“Mission-Shaped Church” deliberately does not define the term fresh expressions of church but describes a range of twelve different types of activities. We have waited to attempt a definition because the overall picture is still very fluid. In consultation with people working in the field, we published this definition in May 2006:
“A fresh expression is a form of church for our changing culture established primarily for the benefit of people who are not yet members of any church. First, it will come into being through principles of listening, service, incarnational mission and making disciples. Second, it will have the potential to become a mature expression of church shaped by the gospel and the enduring marks of the church and for its cultural context.”
The key elements are (1) mission as the main motivation, (2) incarnational mission in terms of the way things are established and (3) a sense of journey, growth and development.
What Is Meant by Incarnational Mission?
Incarnational mission is mission after the pattern and in the style of Jesus. People beginning fresh expressions of church are not going with their hands full of what they have to offer. Nor do they have in mind a particular set pattern of what a fresh expression will look like. It is more like a journey that begins with listening to the context and the wider community. It continues with loving service. As people listen and serve, new communities where people come to faith are formed. Only later does worship begin.
How Much of This Is Going On?
After three years of research, we are still discovering new things. There are over six hundred examples (involving thirty thousand people) in our database. Anyone can search it by diocese, district, county or category. This is a small but visible proportion of the Church of England and the Methodist Church and it seems to be growing.
The Church of England published some new research a year ago that suggests around one-third of parishes are already involved in some way—and that more are planning their first fresh expression of church.
So is this kind of thing really that fresh? Since New Testament times, Christians have been called to see the gospel embedded in different cultures in appropriate ways. That is not a new development. Some of the examples of fresh expressions we have come across, however, are new and fresh for a particular parish or deanery. Our society is now changing at such a rate that this kind of fresh expression of church has moved from being highly desirable to vitally important if we are to connect with more of our culture.
Most dioceses and districts in the Church of England are now moving in this direction. Some are changing strategically and intentionally by planning to develop a mixed economy. Others are moving much more slowly but gradually beginning to own the vision. There are very few places where there is no movement at all.
For the Church of England as a whole there are two key developments:
- New guidelines for both lay people and ordained pastors on what has been called pioneer ministry. We need to nurture the gifts of those who have real strengths and potential in this area. You can find both sets of guidelines on our website.
- “New Dioceses, Mission and Ministry” measure approved by Synod in February 2007. This creates a new legal device, called a Bishop’s Mission Order, which enables the recognition of new non-geographical communities alongside parishes. This is a radical and brave step for an established denomination and a very strong sign of our intent to place God’s mission at the centre of our common life.
Problems and Difficult Questions
Everything is not yet neatly sorted; we are learning as we go. There are currently three big issues we face:
- We are attempting these new developments at a time of considerable anxiety. An emphasis on one thing (fresh expressions) can easily be “heard” as diminishing something else (traditional parish ministry). We need both to serve the whole of our changing society.
- We do not yet have a depth of wisdom and maturity in how to do this well. Everyone is learning as we go forward. The lessons being learned in one part of the country need to be captured and made available to everyone as quickly as possible. To best to do, we launched a new website, www.sharetheguide.org.
- We have not, in recent years, been very good at two key areas of theology—missiology and ecclesiology—that are vital to understanding fresh expressions of church. Although there are some good resources to help us think about mission (e.g. the Anglican Communion’s five marks of mission), we have far too few to answer the important questions of the church in our culture. How do we define the essence of church? How do we describe and understand the richness of the church? How do we decide what is and is not church? How do we chart a specific Anglican identity within these frameworks? How do we rightly order ministry and the administration of word and sacraments within fresh expressions of church? And how do we ensure unity, holiness, catholicity and faithfulness to the apostles’ teaching and mission? Last year we ran a series of lectures across the country by leading theologians to address these hard questions. The outcome of that is a new book of essays, Mission Shaped Questions, to be published this month.
To find out more about fresh expressions, go to: www.freshexpressions.org.uk. We would love to hear of similar developments in other parts of the world.