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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The Church’s priestly charge

Picking up some thoughts on priesthood (from Sunday’s lectionary’s Hebrews passage), Graham Tomlin speaks about the priestly charge of the church, and of all Christian people:

“Christ’s priestly blessing is enacted through the church…..

Unlike most human communities, the church’s life focuses not on itself, but on those who do not belong. It is a community defined by its mission to be a means of blessing. A church that gets wrapped up in its own internal ordering is a church that has last its way. It has forgotten its identity as priestly people called the less the world. Instead, a healthy church is one that is constantly looking forward to blessing community around it…… [and] at the same time, the arena in which people grow up into Christ”

From The Widening Circle, p103-105

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Letting Go

Pioneers are not often surrounded by like-minded people. It requires a large amount of trust to let go and let others grow into leadership. For us, having to move on after five yeras is extremely painful, but we have to trust that God is at the heart of what is growing here.

These words, from Michelle and David Legumi (in Pioneers for Life, ed Dave Male, p65), sum up how we are feeling about leaving here. We are very excited about our next post, however, we have to step back and trust that, as God has called us on, he has a plan for what we leave behind here too.

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