Fresh Expressions over the long term

This is a review of the 50th edition of Encounters on the Edge booklets written for the Diocesan News, which gives an overview of the Fresh Expressions that have been featured, how they have gone, and what can be learned from them.

Encounters on the Edge – 50th Issue. The Story So Far.

In 1999, George Lings and his colleagues in the Church Army decided to begin writing a series of short booklets documenting a new movement in church growth. Up and down the country, creative, interactive new services and mission initiatives were springing up bringing in those beyond the fringes of traditional church. George and his colleagues began to look at this movement by analysing individual examples to celebrate what was good and ask critical questions of it.

Twelve years later, the movement has gained a name – Fresh Expressions of Church, and the Encounters on the Edge series celebrated its 50th issue. They decided to look back at the Fresh Expressions that they had highlighted in the previous 49 issues and ask how our understanding of fresh expressions can be increased from the overall pattern of what they had seen.

A Fresh Expression of Church, according to the movement’s own definition, is “a form of church for our changing culture, established primarily for the benefit of people who are not yet members of any church.” They are not designed to replace traditional models of church, neither are they to be seen as stepping stones into traditional church, but they are culturally appropriate communities which are intended to become fully-fledged congregations in themselves. Because they grow up out of a particular community, they are shaped by the cultural marks of that community alongside the gospel, and they may look and feel quite different to established patterns of church.

How have they done?

Of the 57 Fresh Expressions that have been highlighted in the Encounters series, they have ranged from community-based church plants, cell church, youth church, children’s church, alternative worship, cafe churches, and new monastic groups. (It is worth reading the individual issues on each of these subjects). Their settings have covered the range of possible living options currently on offer in England, from city centre and UPA’s to new-build, suburbs and rural areas, and from the North East to the South West. Many who had never had meaningful contact with a traditional church have become followers of Christ because the gospel was inculturated into their setting. This surely is what the apostle John was getting at when he wrote of Jesus “The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighbourhood. (John 1:14, The Message).

This diversity prompted George Lings to reflect:

It is simply not true that fresh expressions are a middle class, middle England phenomenon.

His analysis does raise questions that many Fresh Expressions practitioners are currently facing. For example, what happens when the founding leader moves on? How do we disciple these new church attendees to a mature faith? How do we grow leadership from within the congregation?

Eleven of the 57 Fresh Expressions congregations had ceased since they were featured in the Encounters series, and over half of these can be linked to the founding leader leaving. In a couple of cases the lay-led fresh expression was hindered by the incumbent of the overseeing parish. However, in 25 of the 57 cases, when the founding leader moved on, a successor has been sourced either from within the community or from elsewhere. (The others are still being led by their founder). Succession can clearly be achieved, however, we must be realistic about timescales in allowing the founder to fully establish a direction:

“Three year contracts for leaders here are almost useless and even five year ones are often insufficient to establish communities that can survive the departure of the founder as well as remain effective among their peers.”

Are they Church?

One of the criticisms often levelled at fresh expressions is this: are they really church? Clearly the answer depends on what definition of church that you use. Jesus said “Wherever two or three are gathered in my name, there I am” (Matt 18:20). Calvin adds the sacraments and preaching of the scriptures to that (Institutes 4.1.9). Archbishop Rowan Williams defined church as “what happens when Jesus is there, there received and recognised.”

Lings is clearly realistic about the question. “I would look for people being won by Christ, knowing they are in Christ, being transformed through that encounter and slowly growing to be more and more like him”. Clearly, therefore, some fresh expressions are not church yet, but they are on the way to being church. Some are not and will not be (and therefore don’t deserve the term fresh expressions), whilst others are steadily enabling an encounter with Christ and helping people mature in their faith. By the same token, there are good and bad examples of traditional church up and down the land, some who are bringing many to encounter with Jesus in whatever tradition, others who are faithfully reproducing the liturgy and performing the Eucharist but where no-one is being won by Christ and people are barely being transformed by his Spirit. Do they warrant the term church? Lings adds,

Holding a high view of sacraments is fine as long as one’s view of the Church is higher… think as highly of the Church as you like, as long as you view of Christ is higher… the Church only exists because he has brought it to birth.

Will they continue?

Even though some examples of Fresh Expressions are now over ten years old, they are still in their very early days. They have begun from an idea or a call of God to go to incarnate Christ in a particular place or among a particular people and form Christian community there. They are slowly evolving their structures and traditions and responding to the cultural context they are in. Each stage brings different challenges too as the church is born, grows, and slowly matures.

By contrast, inherited churches have, sometimes, centuries of stable, gradually evolving broad tradition, loved by their members but often misunderstood by their non-members. There are few in the church who can remember when it was begun. These communities slowly change in order to bring people in. Fresh Expressions, “were born in order to be Church, among those beyond existing Church, and in cultures disconnected from that Church. It is good that they are related but different”. It is perhaps unsurprising that some are misunderstood by the inherited Church.

But as our society changes and continues its course, post-Christendom, Lings concludes that the established church needs to continually give birth to new forms of church for new contexts.

I suspect our western Church is still largely captive to Christendom’s values. So our focus is too pastoral, our identity is insufficiently counter-cultural. There is too much of the clerical club and we are too content with attendance, not discipleship. Will we dare to invest more in inventing churches we don’t yet have, less into rescuing the ones that don’t want to change, as well as what we put into improving the ones with potential? I fear we are still wedded to taking beauty treatments when we need to have babies.

Encounters 50 offers an excellent summary of the last 12 years of Fresh Expressions church planting, and gives some sobering challenges both for practitioners of those Fresh Expressions and for the inherited church at large.

Encounters on the Edge Issue 50, along with all back issues, can be purchased from http://www.encountersontheedge.org.uk.

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One Response to Fresh Expressions over the long term

  1. R. M. says:

    Interesting that Lings said our focus was too pastoral. I was in a meeting with a departing Methodist minister recently, and he said that his pastoral work was more important than what happened with the congregation on Sundays. Noone else in the meeting responded to that comment. It sounded a bit problematic to me, but I decided to let it go….

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