Just a community or a church?

Any fresh expression that is going to succeed needs clear support and aims. In chapter 3 of Pioneer Ministry and Fresh Expressions of Church, Angela Shier-Jones offers five key components which should be present. They don’t have to be executed sequentially.

  1. Gather Support
  2. Rehearse the Message
  3. Aspire to Greatness
  4. Communicate the Vision
  5. Expect Success

As she expands on these points, it becomes clear that you need to have a good idea of what you want to achieve (after the listening process) and, as God is in it, be willing to think on His terms.

The section called ‘Aspire to Greatness’ is about this, and again thinking outside the box and asking the question ‘what would church look like here?’ Here’s a couple of quotes. The first is about the ’37’ project based around relationships that happen on the number 37 bus in a town in south east England. They were transformed from being regular strangers on the same route every day to being a community which spots when someone is absent and is actively engaged in each other’s lives. Quoting the pioneer:

‘Their worship is their fellowship, their prayer is the “God Bless” that they now call out to me and each other as they get off at their stop, their sacrament is the sacrament of care, what more does a church need?’ The dream is of the day when all local bus services are recognized as more than just transport services.

Thse great aspirations of community (in a counter-cultural way) are certainly something to celebrate. Barriers have been broken down and relationships formed. But is it church? I would say – not yet, until it is God focused as well as each-other focused. Shier-Jones continues:

Aspiring to greatness means seeing the Eucharist not in small glasses or silver chalices of wine, bit in street parties, luncheon clubs, water stations and soup kitchens. It means learning how to honour a baptism where tears are the water and the promises are to stop self-harm, put away the needles and live! It means learning to sing a new song in a strange land where street rap and dance are recognized as worship and clubbing as church. Aspiring to greatness is about imagining and relationship with God that everyone can participate in, including those who can’t sing, can’t read, and won’t sit still.

This is closer to the mark as we think about ways of reimagining church, but primarily, in order to be church, the venture must be focused on journeying towards God. A fresh expression, at any point in time, may not yet be God-focused, but it should be on a journey toward this. It comes down to what makes church, church. Jesus said “where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them” (Matt 18:20).

The reformer, John Calvin, who also did a lot to reimagine church, echoes Jesus’ statement:

“Wherever we see the word of God sincerely preached and heard, wherever we see the sacraments administered according to the institution of Christ, there we cannot have any doubt that the church of God has some existence.”(Institutes 4.1.9)

Shier-Jones again:

Being transformed by the gospel does not mean being changed into a middle-class, squeaky clean suburbanite. The aim of the gospel is not to make people respectable in the eyes of scoeity; it is to make them reconciled to God.

If we aspire to greatness in our communities then we must see past simply bringing our communities together to one another (a gospel side-effect) in order to reconcile individuals and communities together to God.

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