What would success look like for fresh expressions?
Are fresh expressions of church successful? Part of the answer of course depends on how we measure success, and an easy way to do this is to use the definition of fresh expressions offered by the Fresh Expressions team.
What is a fresh expression?
The actual wording is quite long, but the definition boils down to four things. Fresh expressions are:
- missional – they work mainly with people who don’t attend church;
- contextual – they fit the situation;
- formational – they make disciples;
- ecclesial – they encourage church to emerge among the people they serve (rather than being a stepping stone to church on Sunday).
So, one answer would be to say that success for fresh expressions would be ventures that display these characteristics. 'But do they last?' people often ask, which means that we must also say something about sustainability.
What would sustainability in fresh expressions look like?
Often sustainability is understood in terms of 'three selfs' – self-financing, self-governing and self-reproducing. Some people add a fourth – self-theologising. A sustainable venture will develop a 'local theology' that responds to its context. These expectations work for some fresh expressions, but by no means all. A youth congregation, for example, is unlikely ever to be financially independent. A micro church arising within a luncheon club for older people will share its parent church's administrative arrangements and remain part of its governance structure.
Far from reproducing, some fresh expressions may last only for a season. A church in a leisure centre or a workplace may exist for a while, but come to an end when a key person moves to another part of the country.
Fresh expressions are fresh. Often they don't look like inherited church. So we should beware of imposing on them expectations that arise from our experience of church plants in the past. Maybe we need a more flexible set of criteria than the three or four-self formula to fit the fluid world in which we live. A starting point might be to understand sustainability in terms of:
- viability: we should expect fresh expressions to be viable for as long as it is appropriate rather than having the goal of permanence. Some will be seasonal, others long term;
- flow: we should expect fresh expressions to assist the flow of their members from one Christian community to the next, especially if they last for a limited time. When a venture comes to an end, are members being helped to find an alternative worshipping community? Sometimes, sustainability will be more about flow than durability;
- appropriate independence: we should expect fresh expressions to have the degree of independence that fits their context.
Why this emphasis on flow and transience?
Part of the answer is that God seems to be doing something new. Fresh expressions are starting to spring up on the front lines of life.
Whereas in the past a church would plant a 'daughter' church in quite a formal way, now – in addition – small Christian communities are forming around people's passions and in the contexts of their daily lives. They include a heavy metal gathering in central London, around 80 Merseyside Police officers meeting in small groups as part of the Riverforce workplace church, and a group that prays and worships on its regular walks in the countryside.
Many are small, fragile and often short-lived – a key person leaves and the gathering stops meeting. But while they last, they are as much church as an Evensong for six people in a rural parish. They are an exciting development because they are bringing Jesus (who is present where two or three are gathered) into the midst of everyday life.
This is what church originally involved. St Paul's house churches – often it seems with just 8 to 10 people – were at the intersections of home, work and social networks. Through most of church history, village churches were connected to the whole of people's lives. But with the industrial revolution and the growing fragmentation of life more recently, church has become separated from ever more dimensions of existence. Fresh expressions of church are beginning to reverse this trend.
So here is an intriguing prospect: success for fresh expressions will be when church has emerged in all the different fragments of life, demonstrating by its presence that Jesus is Lord of all.
Many of those who join these front-line churches will also belong to more conventional churches at weekends, perhaps not worshipping every Sunday but having a regular pattern of involvement. There is nothing in the New Testament to say that you can't belong to two 'local' churches…
Does this mean that we don't need traditional church plants?
Absolutely not! One thing we are learning from church plants undertaken by Holy Trinity Brompton, St Helen's Bishopsgate, Co-Mission and other networks is the advantage of planting at scale.
Large church plants, by definition, have the potential to connect with bigger numbers of people than micro churches. But once these plants have reached into their networks, perhaps of young professionals, the question then becomes, 'Who are they not serving?'
Taking Christ's love to different networks and groups may well involve the formation of smaller gatherings that can cater for people from different backgrounds and with different interests and needs.
A well-known Oxford church has established, through its parish worker, a Sunday afternoon congregation in someone's home for people on the local council estate. Most who attend would never feel at home in the large, middle class, student/young professional congregations of the parent church. But in a living room with others from the estate, they are part of a small worshipping community, in which they can grow into the Christian faith.
Here is an example of a large church using its resources to found a small one, with a very different feel, in a pocket of the parish that would otherwise have been left out. The big and the small go together. Indeed, they often need each other.
Other large churches have developed mid-sized communities each with a missional focus – perhaps a neighbourhood, or a common interest such as contemporary films or a demographic group, like young families. These communities, which replace home groups for those involved, seek to reach people who do not currently attend church and to be church with them. Members might worship together every fortnight or so, find ways of serving and sharing the gospel with the people they are called to serve, and worship at the parent church once or twice a month.
Might success for fresh expressions involve a drawing together of various approaches? Instead of seeing church planting-at-scale as separate from fresh expressions, for example, might success include a growing understanding that different methods can be combined together in complementary ways?
Might success also be about connecting up?
Connecting up is vital for at least two reasons. First, many people object to niche church because it seems to deny the New Testament vision of church bringing together different people.
But consider the house-based churches in the New Testament: they were in different parts of a city and presumably catered for people who lived in the area or belonged to the householder's network. These must have been as much niche as many of today's congregations that contain a particular ethnic, social or income group. Equally (and very importantly), these small churches appear to have met together from time to time in larger gatherings. In Colossians 4.15-16, for instance, Paul distinguishes between the whole church at Laodicea and individual churches, like the one hosted by Nympha. It was in these bigger gatherings that the mixing up of different networks occurred.
Connecting up is imperative, therefore, to make real one of the basic ideas of church – that Christ is creating a community in which people are one with each other, however great their social and other differences. Secondly, it is essential for discipleship. No one local church today can cater for all the many discipleship needs that exist among its members.
One couple may have a teenager with an eating disorder and want to meet with other Christian parents in a similar situation. Someone else may want to understand more about the Old Testament. Yet another person may wish to join Christians working with homeless people. How can one church meet all these varied needs?
'Coalitions of the willing'
Success for fresh expressions will include forming or joining 'coalitions of the willing', in which local churches – both inherited and fresh expressions – pool their resources for mission and discipleship. One church might organise study courses, another prayer retreats, while another takes the lead on action for the environment. Each church would focus on its gifting and calling.
This would help to ensure that however small a fresh expression, new believers could be involved in the wider body, have a richer experience of church and access resources that would help them to grow in the faith. FEASTS – Fresh Expressions Area Strategy Teams, currently being rolled out by the national Fresh Expressions team, offer further opportunities for churches to come together at a more local level.
There is no doubt that success for fresh expressions will be multi-faceted. It will comprise communities that are genuinely missional and contextual, seasonal as well as permanent. It will also combine large-scale church plants with micro churches and involve inherited and new forms of church pooling resources for discipleship and mission – a mixed economy indeed!