How does the shape of theology affect the shape of church?

I have recently written a blog which has been published on the SCM Press blog site, based on my forthcoming book, Out of Nothing: A Cross-Shaped Approach to Fresh Expressions. This can be ordered from most online book retailers. You can pre-order direct from SCM Press for the special price of £15.99.


Out of Nothing fc1I consider myself a pioneer. I was not ordained as a pioneer — that designation hadn’t quite come into use at the time of my selection by the Church of England, and in any case at that point in my life I was still getting my head around calling to ordination, never mind anything else. Over the course of my training and curacy I became more and more inspired hearing stories of Christians doing innovative things in order to reach out to those beyond the fringes of Church. The Fresh Expressions movement was just beginning. After training, I was a curate in Plymouth, and the nearby TubeStation, the surf-church formed next to the beach of Polzeath, Cornwall, was just starting to make waves (if you will excuse my expression).

At the same time in Plymouth I was a part of a very successful ministry to parents and toddlers set up by the previous curate. A popular mothers and toddlers group had been running for some years on Friday mornings, yet beyond using the church hall and interacting with the volunteers, there was little flow into church life. The previous curate saw the missional potential of that popular group and brought in three simple changes. First, they were to offer holistic hospitality. Volunteers began not only to welcome people, and serve the tea and cakes, but to actively take an interest in the lives of those who came. In fact, each week people would be on the rota simply to ‘be’, not to ‘do’. Second, they became unashamedly Christian. This didn’t mean forcing anyone to worship, but a simple change of focus during the closing group story and song time gently introduced Bible stories and Christian children’s songs. These two changes, in particular the trusting friendships that formed between church members and parents, paved the way for the third. A Christian basics course (in this case, Christianity Explored) would be offered at the same time for anyone who wished to take part. The parents were already used to coming to the building at that time, and because they knew and trusted the volunteers, they were happy to leave their children in their care for and hour. These changes resulted in a fair number taking the course and making professions of faith. Some also joined the Sunday morning family worship congregation and midweek house groups.

However, out of those who professed faith, only relatively few made the jump to Sunday morning. What was happening? I came to think it was two things. First, although the Sunday morning service was lively and friendly and full of families, there was still a significant culture gap. The parents had come to faith by watching short punchy videos, having engaging discussions, and praying together. Sunday mornings required them to sing corporately and sit and listen to a 25 minute teaching slot. There was no time for discussion. Bible teaching was important to me, and important to the church I was a part of and this shaped the form of church that occurred. Even though these Sunday morning Bible expositions were usually engaging, they were a far cry from the interactive participative mode of discovery that the new Christians had experienced in coming to faith. Second, these new Christians, from unchurched backgrounds, simply did not prioritize Sunday mornings. There were many other competing demands on their time. What I came to realize in hindsight (but unfortunately only after I’d left Plymouth!), was that a better approach may have been to make Friday mornings their ‘church’.

Like many pioneers and church planters I became concerned that the way we were doing church was not making it easy for those new to the faith to fully engage and I started investigating fresh expressions of church. I was appointed to a pioneer role on a new-build development on the edge of Northampton and began to try to put these principles into practice. I wanted to make disciples, and I thought the best way to do that in a new development where there was no pre-existing community would be by creating community — something most residents were hungry for. After five years we ended up with a network of neighbourhood activities which aimed to bring people together. Alongside these were various groups that enabled people to explore aspects of faith. The story of what we did is told in Out of Nothing: A Cross-Shaped Approach to Fresh Expressions.

In my case, as in the case of the traditional church I where served my curacy, theology shaped the church. My approach was based on a desire to see people come to faith which arose from my understanding of mission. This then drove me to create close community (koinonia), and from there to make disciples and form church. Theology shaped my missiology which shaped my ecclesiology. In other words, what I believed about God – who he is and how he interacts with the world – affected my understanding of mission which then shaped how I formed the new church. This is an important realization, and it is worth reflecting on the theology we bring into a new venture, as this will inevitably affect the shape of church that emerges.

This is one of the central arguments of systematic theologian Peter Schmiechen, who, first in Saving Power: Theories of Atonement and Forms of the Church, and then in Defining the Church for our time, argues that Christology and ecclesiology are inextricably linked. For example, he claims that a concentration on Christ’s incarnation leads to a sacramental understanding of church. A theology which emphasizes scripture and a personal response to faith (most often communicated alongside a justification or penal substitution theory of atonement) can result in a church that is heavily intellectual and teaching-based. Different atonement theories can affect the practical outworking of church with regard to how the sacraments are understood and practiced and how Christians are encouraged to respond to Christ, what the role of the Holy Spirit should be, how one participates in community, how the church engages in service to others or shows solidarity with the suffering.[1] Later Schmiechen focuses on a different element of Christology, indicating that the promise of Christ’s return offers hope for the present, thus shaping the church into becoming ‘communities of hope’, which ‘see, celebrate, and pray for the coming of the Kingdom.’[2] This approach could then reveal itself ecclesiologically in churches which aim to bless the community through practical service and social action.

Taking this idea that theology shapes missiology which shapes ecclesiology, in my book Out of Nothing, alongside telling the story of my experience of birthing a new form of church, I have tried to assess different approaches to theology and their value in forming missional church. As I looked back and saw what God was doing, I wondered whether a theology that began from a place of encounter (based on Christ’s once-and-for-all and ongoing work of atonement) may be a better place to start. In the big picture, God’s action comes about entirely through Christ’s work in his incarnation, death, resurrection and ascension. Within the atonement we find reconciliation, salvation, sacrifice, forgiveness, victory, justification, sanctification and so on. I certainly saw God in action in these ways in the lives of those we lived amongst on our new-build development in Northampton. What would a church look like if its primary work was understood as creating space for God to be known and experienced? It would be a place where people could come to experience justification, reconciliation, sanctification, and the whole breadth of Christ’s atoning work in their lives and in their communities.

[1] Peter Schmiechen, Saving Power: Theories of Atonement and Forms of the Church, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2005), pp. 353–7.

[2] Peter Schmiechen, Defining the Church for Our Time: Origin and Structure, Varied and Viability, (Eugene OR: Cascade, 2012), pp. 112–3.


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Mission or accompaniment – do we have to choose?

In my book, Out of NothingI have critiqued the usefulness of missio Dei as a theological foundation for birthing new churches. Roger Walton, for example, critiques fresh expressions of church as being too church-shaped in their mission (‘Have we got the Missio Dei right?’, Epworth Review, 35:3 (2008), pp. 42-43.), whilst Michael Moynagh leads us through a discussion about how missio Dei as a characteristic of God can translate to our practice. However, I have recently come across an old journal article which proposes an alternative starting point, and is worthy of critique.

Church-Shaped or Mission-Shaped

In a journal article in the Anglican Theological Review (From Church-Shaped Mission to Mission-Shaped Church, ATR 92:1, 2010), Asian theologian (writing from an American Episcopal context) Christopher Duraisingh proposes an alternate framework. He is talking about the mode of transforming churches into becoming mission-shaped, rather than bringing new forms of church to birth. Central to this article are insights from Asian theology. Asia, which for so many years was the recipient of Western missional endeavour, can offer crucial insights into missionary engagement, and must not continue to be simply the recipient of Western theology. In doing this is quite rightly counters the idea of the church as colonialist and of spiritual insight being in one direction.

He brings out five points from Asian theologians. First, start with the world not the church. In this he agrees with the statement from the Mission-Shaped Church report that ‘start with the church and the mission will probably be lost. Start with mission and it is likely that the church will be found.’ (p.124).

Second, there is the conviction that God has always been active in Asia, long before the western missionaries arrived. Duraisingh cites Hyun Younghak, ‘I do not believe in an invalid God who was carried piggy-back to Korea by some missionary. God was already active in history long before the missionaries came’ (quoted in Niles, From East and West, p. 53, cited by Duraisingh, p.17). He advocates looking for the Spirit of God in historical and contemporary events. It is hard to disagree with this concept of God being present.

Third (and related), Asian theologians identify God’s saving presence beyond Israel and the church. Duraisingh writes “God mission therefore cannot be exhausted by the Christian story. They view the histories and cultures of all peoples as intrinsically related to God’s creative purpose and act” (p. 17) As a result, (fourth), the starting point for thinking about mission is not the church, but creation. He warns against separating the doctrine of salvation from the doctrine of creation. Duraisingh quotes Sri Lankan theologian Wesley Ariarajah: “an undeveloped theology of creation lies at the heart of the Protestant inability to deal with plurality.” 

However, he notes that this leads to a diminishing of the role of Israel as God’s chosen people in the Old Testament. Israel is seen as a symbol, not a mediator, of how God is redemptively at work different nations rather than as the nation through which God brings his salvation. I see this as problematic.

Fifth, He highlights Asian theologians who identify Christ as a ‘decisive presence’ of God, and bringing in a ‘new order’ in creation. This new order is life in the Kingdom of God. Much human theology, he adds, has gone on to reduce this to be synonymous with the church. There is a question here of whether this is this Christ being active without being named.

Duraisingh then moves on to his alternate framework, concursus Dei — divine accompaniment, rather than missio Dei. (p.20ff). He sees this a form of ‘everlasting creative-redemptive activity’. This is the form of God’s redemptive movement towards creation. In the incarnation, the ultimate expression of concursus Dei is expressed in Christ as Emmanuel, God with Us. ‘In this view, the incarnation is not an intrusion but the concretion into “human flesh” of the divine concursus’ (p. 21). God activity in Christ, in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, are demonstrations of the pattern of God’s accompaniment towards new creation to new possibilities. God walks alongside us as Christians and in the church in bringing new creation to life amongst the old.

This, he claims, affects how we approach those from other cultures of faiths 

“Mission in such a contest is not to make a person who belongs to another faith an object  of our converting, but to walk with (concursus) him/her as a fellow pilgrim. As fellow pilgrims, our story of God’s movement in Christ is shared and the invitation to experience its reality and power is given, yet with a readiness to hear the other’s story of God-movement and to be deepened by it” (p.23)

He calls on Christians to walk alongside those from other faiths and other cultures. It is not clear whether this is a denial of the uniqueness of Christ for salvation, or simply the approach that some can be worshipping Christ without knowing it within other faiths (most clearly depicted by C.S. Lewis in the final novel of the Narnia series, The Last Battle)? He is right to highlight the God’s action in cultures where Christ is not known — I have no doubt that God is active — however, I’m not convinced that this approach which diminishes the role of Christ is the best way to understand it

I think the core of what he is trying to say is sound – concursus as a concept of God walking alongside, even going ahead, and renewing people, cultures and creation. The danger is the place of Christ. He sees the church walking alongside the cultures. As such baptism becomes a missional act of ‘stepping out with Christ for a life for others’ (p. 24). Yes, but it is more than that. It is also personal salvation. Eucharist becomes an awareness of the ‘accompaniment of the Divine’ in all of nation and a proclamation of the costliness of God’s walking with creation in love’ (p.24). To this I partially agree; Eucharist must be seen as more than that — a remembrance of the one-time atoning act of God in Christ — reconciling, redeeming, and justifying. From the corporate place of remembrance (i.e, the act of being church) we are sent out into the world. As the anglican liturgy concludes “Send us out in the power of your Spirit, to live and work to your praise and glory.”

However, I have major concerns about the uniqueness of Christ that this approach indiactes, and Christ’s necessity for salvation. These are core Christian doctrines. Concursus has much to offer to the way we engage in the world. Walking alongside is a good thing, but Christ did not come just to walk alongside. He came to save, redeem, restore. He appointed disciples to go out and “proclaim the good news”, and he appointed one of his disciples as ‘the rock on which I will build my church’. There is surely much that God is doing in encountering people within cultures and societies outside the church. In that, the church can accompany people, walk alongside them as they experience God in whatever way. But the focus much be Christ-centred.

Prophetic Communities

At the same time I have been reading Barbara Glasson’s, Exuberant Church. She is the Methodist minister who oversaw the founding of Somewhere Else, the ‘bread church’ in Liverpool, and she now coordinates a listening community in Bradford. She also sees the role of the church, of Christians, as a being alongside others through a process of transformation. She compares this process to the equivalent of ‘coming out’ that gay people experience. 

The church itself, in some way, is to come out of itself, to come away from the positions of power and the structures that the institution holds in order to be a prophetic witnessing community able to walk alongside. They are to inhabit the liminal space of transformation hat so many occupy.   

This coming out process for the church enables the church to be alongside those who are experiencing a coming out process of their own. Those who are in liminal places (she dislikes the language of ‘edge’ or ‘margins’) and, for whatever reason (disability, mental health, sexual orientation, ethnicity, homelessness) are unable to embrace the dominant narrative of contemporary society.

Glasson talks about this position as a prophetic voice of the church. For her, prophetic means deep listening and dialogue, alongside a willingness to change.

“I have noted that a prophetic community recognises and honour people’s stories, and endeavours to motivate the transformative journey. There is an edginess about them that both calls people to account and releases a creative energy. This communities embody what they proclaim, active as catalysts in the emergence out of a struggle, being prepared to go to the margins of what is expected by dominant societal mores and to risk embarking on a journey where there is the potential for transformation, of all involved, not just ‘clients’” (p. 88)

It is not clear where the prophetic role of speaking might fit into this position. Prophets speak into and challenge the culture. In fact later, Glasson writes “What I want to say to the church is, ‘Shut up, keep still and listen!’” (p.115). That prophetic communities might challenge the constructs of the church and society is clear. What is unclear is how that prophetic community might be  challenging the culture of its own participants as they partake of their transformation or coming out. I would imagine that some of this would emerge from the discussion in creative ways as the Gospel transforms all involved in the dialogue.

The key idea in the forming prophetic communities is this:

“The ethics of the church, therefore, must encourage people to be released into life in all its fullness, while at the same time holding fast to that which is good and providing stability for people who are vulnerable” (p. 104)

The concept that joins them is the idea of walking alongside — of listening. The key difference is that Glasson does not propose that this walking alongside alters the gospel message. It alters the church, but not the gospel.  There is no hint of pluralism, unlike Duraisingh, and there is no suggestion Christ is not fully active within the transformation. Christ is present in the liminal place, in the transformation. Whilst Glasson’s ideas can surely be critiqued, particularly in the place of proclamation, her approach to the church walking alongside in prophetic dialogue is more suited to culture, the uniqueness of the Christian message, and God’s willingness to transform.

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Christianity Rediscovered (Vincent Donovan)

Christianity RediscoveredI recently had a post published on the SCM Press website about the effect of Catholic Missionary Vincent Donovan’s work with the Masai of Tanzania has had on fresh expressions thinking, 21st century mission, and on my practice. Follow the link to read it!

SCM are doing a special offer price for this book to celebrate the fortieth anniversary of its publication.

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Review: If Entrepreneurs Ran the Church

Peter Kerridge, If Entrepreneurs Ran the Church: New Visions for Old Church, (London: SPCK, 2017). 180 pages.

kerridgeEntrepreneurship is a word that is beginning to move beyond the 1980s stereotypes of money, profit, and capitalism to be applied to a variety of different contexts, not least to the church. There has been some writing on the value of entrepreneurial principles for social good and in church leaders (such as Michael Volland’s The Minister As Entrepreneur), rather than for material gain. In If Entrepreneurs Ran the Church, Peter Kerridge returns to the more traditional bastion of entrepreneurship — business — to gain wisdom for the church from the practices and advice of successful entrepreneurs who are also Christian. The book is structured in eight chapters, each one an interview with an entrepreneur, bookended by an introduction and overview from Kerridge himself.

Being practicing Christians, almost all of those interviewed specified a desire for a church leader who is prayerful, steeped in scripture, and who is spiritually trained. Their advice that teams should be built reflecting a range of strengths is obvious, but speaks against a still pervading assumption that the lead minister can run a one-man or one-woman show. Similarly, many spoke of using digital technologies well to increase the profile of the church, with the recognition that this will only be effective if the ‘core product’ is attractive. Another point of agreement is the problem of the increasing number of multi-parish amalgamations and fewer clergy. Ray George of DMS Stationary sums it up:

‘I don’t agree with clergy having five churches to look after; how on earth can they do that? It’s impossible. And those churches won’t grow… So if you’ve got five churches, perhaps you should pick the strongest one, shut the other four and minister to that one.’

This point is in broad agreement with the outcomes of the 2014 research-based Church of England report, From Anecdote to Evidence, which stated that churches are more likely to grow when there is one minister to one community (p. 25).

The most helpful advice comes in the area of resourcing. Oliver Pawle, chairman of a executive consultancy organisation, notes that currently only a tiny minority of church members supply around 80% of the income and volunteer hours in the Church. Upping this minority from 7% to a fairly modest 10% might dramatically affect the impact of a church. Grant Masom, IT entrepreneur, agrees that,

‘in God’s economy we have the resources that we need in order to fulfil God’s purposes’ (p. 98).

But where Pawle focuses on upping the numbers, Masom suggests starting by working with the level of resources you have and setting manageable goals from there — goals that are large enough to stretch out in faith, but that do not seem unachievable. If goals are not stretching enough all we will end up doing is managing decline.

I am of the opinion that the Church can always learn from those who have excelled in other fields. This book is a contribution to the debate on church leadership and management from successful entrepreneurs, and is to be welcomed. It is an interesting and helpful but ultimately not groundbreaking book for those in church leadership and on PCCs. What they are right about is that change is necessary.


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The Church as a Watering Hole? Or Desert Place?

A few weeks ago I tweeted a quote from Barbara Glasson’s book, Mixed-Up Blessing. Barbara was the Methodist minister assigned to pioneer new things in the city centre of Liverpool. Out of her work came what has become known as the ‘bread church’, a group that meets together to bake bread, then east together and distributes what they have made to local groups. The book is an account of her work and the learning-points that have emerged.

One passage that stood out was her description of the church as a watering hole.

“The image we engage with is less of a ‘sheepfold’ — where all may be ‘safely gathered in’ — but a ‘watering hole’ that people may visit and leave refreshed. If it is the case that we are a place where people can enter an leave as they need then there is a built-in instability in the community. This can challenge our sense of safety. Our church instinct tends to want to gather people in and keep them. Postmodern society tends to configure gathering in a different way. People are wary of being trapped. They need to see their exits. If people are free to leave it seems they are more likely to stay” (Glasson, p. 45)

This quote struck a chord with ministers when I posted it on twitter. As a pioneer, I have always sought to build community. There is a sense of gathering people together, and working hard to hold people together. In her work Glasson found that the gathering was made more effective by making sure people could ‘see their exits’. Of course, there were a whole lot of other things going on in her group — a sense of acceptance, participation, ownership etc — all of which enable people to feel at home and hence they want to stay.

I’ve also recently been reading through Gray-Reeves and Pernham’s book on worship in emergent churches, The Hospitality of God. In it they use their case study visits to fourteen churches in the US and UK who would describe themselves as either emergent, or fresh expressions, all of which are Anglican.  I would place all of these churches in the alternative worship category of fresh expressions which means they have mostly started with worship rather than service or engagement with a context, so the book cannot speak for the whole fresh-expression movement. (Fourteen categories of fresh expressions were outlined in the Mission-Shaped Church report and in subsequent fresh expressions writing.) They also mostly prefer a liturgical style of worship, which is a distinctive characteristic of Anglicanism and, in particular, the Episcopal church in the US.

In their chapter on how belonging interacts with belief and transformation of behaviour, they quote Pete Rollins from, How (Not) To Speak of God (quoted on p 72. I have Rollins’ book but haven’t read it yet):

“For too long the Church has been seen as an oasis in the desert — offering water to those who are thirsty. In contrast, the emerging community appears more as a desert in the oasis of life, offering silence, space and desolation mist the sickly nourishment of Western capitalism. It is in the desert, as we wander together as nomads, that God is to be found. For it is here that we are nourished by our hunger.”

Rollins appears to want to distance himself from a watering hole analogy, instead wanting people find ‘silence, space and desolation’ which can create the space for God to be heard. His is a desert place.

There is clearly value in both analogies, however, I would contend that being in a desert is not where we are wanting to leave people. Yes, a desert is a place of silence and desolation, but it is also a place of loneliness, desperation, hunger and thirst. A space where these longings can be identified is important. But ultimately God brings nourishment and connection. If the watering hole and desert analogy can come together, we can create communities that recognise, name and articulate the places of desolation (or nothingness?) that exists. But with the watering hole of God’s presence, we are not cast out, lost, without nourishment (as we might be in a desert), but we are invited to connect with God. Elsewhere, I have written on how God encounters humanity at these points – places of nothingness –  and how we can create church communities from this point of God’s encounter. Yes, people are free to come and go, but with life and nourishment on offer, they may be very likely to stay.

So, watering hole or desert place? Whilst our ecclesiology must be big enough to cope with both, my instinct is that the desert place is not something to strive towards, but to work from.

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The Filling Station: A fresh expression of church?

tfs-logo-homepageEarlier 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 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).

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The challenge of mission…

The challenge of mission is to go on an adventure of the imagination that enables mission to be done from the inside of the primal worldview and cultures. This leads to an articulation of the gospel that is local and indigenous rather than foreign and imposed.

from Jonny Baker ‘Prophetic Dialogue and Contemporary Culture’ in Mission on the Road to Emmaus, by Bevans and Ross.

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 Pints of View

Thinking of staring a pub-based fresh expression, I came across a Grove book, written in 2005 which outlines a church’s  efforts to connect to the local pub community (Peter Howell-Jones & Nick Willis,  Pints of View: Encounters down the Pub, Grove, 2005). Whilst this ministry doesn’t claim to be church, and began before fresh expressions language was around, it reflects the church’s desire to connect with people outside the church building, where people gather, and to be relevant to issues of everyday life.

The fomat for this monthly group arose from three stand-alone sessions. Essentially, a quiet area of a pub is comandered, and members of the public then proceed to ask questions of a panel, comprised of the Vicar, other Christians, and sometimes outside experts. The sessions last 90 minutes and are usually followed by informal chat. It seems that there is a general theme each time, but essentially any questions are up for discussion.

The writers see the advantages of of this ministry, which in their context has born some fruit in encouraging some to join the church. They see it as a stepping stone, but crucially a place to theology to be discussed in the public sphere and a place to develop relationship with those who wouldn’t naturally go into a church building to ask their questions. It also helps the public to see the church outside the building in the community, and to understand that Christianity has something relevant and useful to say to everyday life. The final chapters offer a process for other churches to begin to investigate this type of ministry, recognising that in each context it will look different.

It is certainly  a useful read, and offers good insights on branding, professionalism, and good engagement with alternative viewpoints. It also allows plenty of space for discussion. Could it have developed into a fresh expression? Perhaps, but that wasn’t in the vision of the organisers, and in doing so it would lose its evangelistic edge and would change the nature of the event entirely . It is difficult to see how one might disciple someone, or worship in this context whilst also giving open space to the questioner to air and explore difficult themes. It may also be appear more exclusive to those who happen to be in the pub. But the principles of the church getting outside the church building to engage with poeple where they gather is a good one. The authors even make a case for the pub being the contemporary Areopagus.

A pub-based fresh expression may begin in the same place though – with thoughtful visiting to the context with an effort to understand it, and with building relationships. The initial sessions might also take a question and answer style. But at some point the engagement will have to move beyond initial apologetics to address the individual aspects of people’s lives. It would need to draw them into being a communtiy, on in discipleship, up in worship and ultimately, out in mission themselves.

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Some fresh expressions thinking from 1957

This is from The Unfinished Task, by Anglican Bishop in Southern India in the 1950s, Stephen Neill.

Speaking Southern Indian villages where traditional forms of the church have failed to make headway and proved to be inadequate, and seeking of the larger cities where the church is on the fringes of the society:

“It has become increasingly recognised that it is useless to talk about bringing these people back to the Church. They have moved away form the Church, or perhaps have never been seriously conscious of its existence. It is for the Church to follow them, and to make their acquaintance in the places where they live and work” (p65)

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Pioneer Ministry in New Housing Areas: Grove Booklet

Pioneer Ministry Grove coverThis succinct new Grove booklet offers a helpful introduction to pioneering on new build developments for practitioners and permission-givers. Penny Marsh and Alison Boulton look at how this has become a contemporary issue, give practical suggestions for pioneers and for those who conceive the posts, and offer some helpful principles along the way. Both authors  are experienced pioneers who have established community activities and worshipping communities in Royal Docks, London, Kent, and Swindon, whilst Boulton has also had a role as a pioneer-mission enabler across the South West of England with the Baptist Church.

New housing developments (and particularly affordable housing) is at the centre of the government’s economic plan. Official figures show that house building is now at it’s highest level since 2009. Their booklet begins with the assertion that for this work there is no map (although there are an increasing number of practitioners with valuable wisdom to impart). Each housing development is different and the task of the pioneer is about creative, entrepreneurial community building in areas which had no previously existing community.

They quote some very positive findings from some research conducted on Boulton’s work by Angela Parfitt as part of her MA degree. This research concluded that in this instance, the church and the church leader were instrumental in creating community, enabling a feeling of security (the idea that people look out for each other), and in increasing neighbourhood trust. Half of the people involved in the church-led community activities knew many of their neighbours, compares to just 12% of those who didn’t. Three quarters of those who visit have been involved in other community initiatives or problem solving, compared to just over a quarter of those who are not involved with the project. From this we can conclude that in this case, the Christian-led community project made a tangible difference in creating community and in creating social capital within that community. This cannot be generalised without further research of other examples, however it is an encouraging statistic for those seeking to pioneer community and church in new communities. She (Angela) goes on to conclude that the role of the leader and project has been most influential in increasing social capital in the development, which helps reduce isolation and enables residents to access wider society.

All outreach into new developments must be underpinned with missional principles. Marsh and Boulton rightly choose the biblical principles of blessing and incarnation. Incarnation allows the pioneer to engage with the people as one of them, a resident, whilst blessing is an easy concept for Christians and non-Christians to see the value of. They adds to these the fresh-expressions principle of listening, acknowledging that the pioneer is involved in community formation, not transformation, as there was no community there to begin with. How the community develops is an excise in listening to the people and to God. Boulton describes how her theological thoughts of Jesus washing disciples feet on Maundy Thursday culminated in the establishment of monthly pamper evenings for the community.

Another key principle is that of whether to have an agenda. This is one of my five tips for pioneers starting out. It is important to have vision, but development of any pioneering venture is inevitable slower and more chaotic than expected. Have a vision but not having a concrete plan means that the pioneering will be open to the call of God and have the time to follow it through.

Practical suggestions

Their section on practical suggestions has an emphasis on welcome. A non-threatening church welcome as new residents move in is a tried and tested way of gently giving trust and establishing connections. In some ways, this is akin to the traditional clergy practice of parish visiting. Although most of the development I was working on was completed by the time I moved onto it in 2010, we did partner with local churches and businesses to welcome residents on a new section of the development from the end of 2013. The response, as someone not selling and not pushing anything, but simply as a way of saying ‘welcome’, was generally positive and it gave opportunities for publicise some of our activities and to begin to build relationships. Marsh and Boulton also highlight the benefits of organising community social events to enable people to get to know one another, and of hosting a Facebook page or Twitter stream for the whole community.

Overall this is a useful starter. Much of what Marsh and Boulton suggest is common sense to the thinking pioneer, although there are insights and suggestions that will be new to some. Particularly the section which is a guide for regional ministers who may be conceiving of a pioneer post would be particularly useful to someone coming to think about new housing developments for the first time. As with all Grove booklets, this does not offer a complete coverage of the subject, but is a valuable place to start.

Penny Marsh and Alison Boulton, Pioneer Ministry in New Housing Areas: Personal Reflections and a Practical Care, (Cambridge: Grove, 2016). Available from £3.95.


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