Earlier this week I attended the first session of a new Filling Station initiative, in the east of County Durham. Filling Stations have been springing up all over the country, mostly in rural areas, since the first one over ten years ago. They offer a monthly service in a simple structure of worship, teaching, and prayer, in the charismatic style. The intention is that they exist to equip and encourage Christians in rural areas, often places where charismatic worship is not found in the local churches. However, the effect in many places is often to bring new people to faith in Christ. They are then encouraged to join a local church as well as be equipped through Filling Station worship.
East Durham is such a place. Made up of former mining communities, despite a recent initiative amongst the Anglican churches which has seen a re-engagement with the communities they serve (and which has led to the initiation of some Messy Church and Café Churches), prior to that church attendance had been declining for many years. In some churches, a dormant missional energy has been reawakened. Because the core group of worshippers in each church remains small, the idea came to have a time gathered time across the area where those that are energised by charismatic worship could hear from God, worship, practice spiritual gifts, and receive from his Spirit.
The first event was very encouraging, with a worship band borrowed from a Durham city church, and with one of the founders of Filling Station invited to speak. About 50 people turned out on a cold icy night, and looking at some, I could tell that they had been longing for this type of thing for some time. Two more events are planned after which there will be a review before committing to more in the future.
This week I came across an article by some South African academics Ian Nell and Susan Mellow, who argue for the consideration of the Filling Station as a fresh expression of church and analyse its distinctive features which contribute to the emerging ecclesial landscape (Article can be found here). In one sense, the question doesn’t really matter. If God is working through a new initiative, who cares what it is called. But it is worth asking the question to help us understand what the Filling Station is, what fresh expression are trying to do, and what they are both achieving.
In particular, they analyse questions of consumerism stating that Filling Stations both embrace the benefits of consumerism as ‘a feature of modern life’ (p. 4) in recognising the need for a well branded and publicised event, but also react against it by encouraging lay leadership (and actively discouraging clergy involvement) thus having the effect of increasing participation and removing a professionalism mindset. Percy (in Shaping the Church, p. 72) criticises Fresh Expressions in regard to discipleship as appealing to the human need for purpose without stressing the demands of day and service. Fresh Expressions writers recognise that discipleship is often an issue new fresh fresh expressions and have suggested many ays win which discipleship can be more central in different forms of fresh expressions. Nell and Mellows note that ‘it is not possible for The Filling Station to focus heavily on discipleship [regarding development of spiritual disciplines]… owing to the infrequency of meetings only once a month. The Filling Station nevertheless recognises the crucial aspect of discipleship in Christian life’ (p. 5–6). They remark that the Filling Station leadership usually encourages people to be a member of another church and home group.
Whilst I commend the work of The Filling Station across the country, I take issue with Nell and Mellows’ starting-point in suggesting that the Filling Station is a type of Fresh Expression of Church. They rightly point out that The Filling Station shares some incarnational traits with Fresh Expressions principles, such as they are not tied to worship on Sundays, they are careful not to appear to churchy, and almost always meet in neutral, non-church venues (p. 6). But they miss crucial differences.
First, The Filling Station is a monthly celebration gathering for worship, teaching and prayer in the charismatic style which aims at being both an accessible entry-point for those outside the Christian faith and at spiritually encouraging and equipping local Christians for service in their own context. They are not trying to be a church in their own right. They state on their website ‘Meetings are designed to help bring renewal to the existing Christian church’ (see http://thefillingstation.org.uk/renewal-and-evangelism/). As such, despite the traits that the Filling Station shares with fresh expressions of church, I do not believe that the Filling Station can be categorised as such. Crucially, if the filling station was trying to be church in its own right, I believe they would lose the support of the local churches in the area, and would therefore struggle to have as wide an impact in equipping and encouraging local Christians. Other churches may become suspicious, especially if their worshippers were forced to choose between one or the other. The current format enables local churches to be revitalised and to thrive through the encouragement that their members receive at the filling station. Many local ministers have also been blessed by being able to turn up, worship and be prayed for without any expectation of having to run the show.
Second, The Filling Station is all about worship, teaching, and equipping. This is the starting-point. Fresh Expressions promotes a period of careful listening to the context, developing into acts of loving service as relationships are built, out of church discipleship grows and appropriate forms of worship are developed (see for example, the ‘serving-first journey’ in Moynagh, Church for Every Context, p. 208–20). Fresh Expressions seek to develop ‘mature expressions of church’ fit for their context and aim to be ‘church’ for their members. This is a key difference with the Filling Station philosophy. Fresh expressions grow out of the context. Filling stations equip Christians (new and established) to serve within the context. Both are needed.
Having said that, I am completely supportive of what Filling Station is trying to do and am very encouraged as to what this sort of worship can do for East Durham. However, a better lens through which to understand their work may be in Michael Moynagh’s definition of ‘new ecclesial communities’ (Church in Life, p. 3–5), which circumvents the discussion of whether such communities are legitimate church, instead focusing on relationships (which Moynagh predominantly does through the multidirectional lens of ‘up’, ‘in’, ‘out’ and ‘of). Using this, it becomes unimportant as to whether Filling Station is a church in its own right, instead one can begin to describe the events that Filling Station has in deepening people’s relationship with God (up), in creating a supportive worshiping community (in), in reaching out in mission and evangelism (out), and in equipping the wider church (of).