What would success look like for fresh expressions?

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!

‘On tour’ with fresh expressions (Ruth Maxey)

Ruth MaxeyRuth Maxey reflects on going on tour with fresh expressions.

This year I had the privilege of three months' sabbatical from my work as a university chaplain. During that time I visited a number of fresh expressions of church, emerging churches and Christian communities. Many of the themes that have emerged during my visits are helpful if we are to constructively engage with today's cultural shifts and become churches that reach out in mission.

We live in a culture that highly values personal experience. It is the shift from trust in an overarching Big Story (meta-narrative) to a focus on our individual personal story.

This is a pattern that could be seen in many of the groups that I visited. The significant question would be, 'How does my experience connect with your experience, my story with your story?' And alongside that, 'How do our stories connect with the story of Jesus and the experience of faith?' This is a journey together, a shared experience, and a shared story. In order for that to be possible, many of the groups remained small, tight networks of friendship where people felt safe to share their story. But always the focus is on the individual personal story and its interconnection with others and with faith.

Our worship, our meetings, our church life therefore need to connect with people's hearts and souls, not just their heads. If we put a rationale for belief before the experience of faith we will have lost people. I believe one of the reasons that my own denomination (URC) is struggling at the moment is that it has historically put a high value on a learned ministry as if the preacher's sole task was to impart knowledge. Culturally we are out of step with a generation that learns through experience and learns collaboratively and we will continue to fail to connect with people unless we can touch their hearts and their souls.

There has been much debate over the idea of the Homogeneous Unit Principle (HUP). Michael Moynagh, a key figure in the fresh expressions movement, has argued strongly in favour of HUP – and will do so again when his new book Church For Every Context: An introduction to theology and practice comes out from SCM Press next year. Many other people, though, will respond that it is important that the church and its worship is there for everyone and therefore to deliberately focus on one group is to deny the broad inclusive nature of the gospel. But worship cannot help but be culturally expressed; it is just that currently most of the mainstream churches are dominated by a style of worship and environment that culturally suits the over 50s (or 60s?).

Our worship, our meetings, our church life need to connect with people's hearts and souls, not just their heads


Most of the groups I visited did not overtly say that they were trying to reach a particular demographic, but the very time, style, place of meeting did, in fact, express their mission focus. That focus is crucial if we are to connect with people beyond the church in a culturally appropriate way.

A lot of time and creative energy had been put into the worship of many of the groups that I visited. Often a lot of effort would go into creating a beautiful worship space (Sanctuary in Birmingham transformed a café into an Asian-style worship space). There was a recognition of the importance of the totality of the worship experience: the sight, the sound, the touch and a shift away from the focus on 'the word'. There was a desire often to recreate a sense of mystery and drama within the worship but combined with an informality. All of this enabled a positive first experience of worship

All the groups and churches that I visited were institutionally light, functioning in a more fluid and organic way than mainstream churches. There were ad-hoc groups formed when needed to meet specific tasks and individuals gifts were used appropriately and not shoe-horned into a pre-formed role. Culturally we increasingly work in collaborative rather than hierarchical ways and the church structurally needs to shift. The URC, already constitutionally more collaborative, should find such a shift easier, but that does not necessarily seem to be the case.

While many of the emerging church/fresh expressions of church that I visited sat lightly to their institutional connections, there was frequently a financial dependence on the mainstream church. There perhaps needs to be a more honest relationship on both sides. Fresh expressions need to recognise their true financial relationship to the mainstream church. Too many, I felt, dismissed the background costs of buildings and ministry. There needs to be an honest exploration of financial sustainability through, for example, imaginative fund-raising as at Beyond, or through more sacrificial giving by those involved.

Also, the mainstream churches need to recognise that they have always funded long-term 'new' patterns of missions in terms of sector ministries such as university chaplaincies, hospital chaplaincies, etc. Equally, overseas missionaries were funded with little expectation that there would be any quick financial return. If these emerging churches/fresh expressions are seen from that perspective, then the pressure from the mainstream churches for them to be quickly self-financing could perhaps be reconsidered. But equally if these new expressions of church really represent the future long-term shape of the church, then financial sustainability and long-term institutional structures will, at some stage, need to be addressed.

It has been a fascinating and inspiring few months. Fresh expressions of church offer no easy solution to the current crisis in the mainstream churches, but they do help to highlight some of the crucial areas where the church needs to grow and develop.

Am I part of a ‘beautiful failure’? (Mark Rodel)

Mark RodelMark Rodel asks whether he's part of a beautiful failure.

Two years ago, the St Luke's congregation in Somerstown (in the heart of Portsmouth) moved out of its building and began meeting in Wilmcote House tower block.

With the Bishop's permission, we stopped Sunday services and opened the Sunday Sanctuary. Now I'd say, looking at the terms with which we started out, Sunday Sanctuary has failed. The idea was that if we created something on a Sunday morning within a particular setting, people would come to it. We thought it would be sort of like turning up in their front rooms. It wasn't.

Some have come but there hasn't been a breakthrough in numerical growth. We have interacted with a large number of people since 2009 but we have good strong relationships with a total of just three families.

On the positive side, one of those is a family of eight and we baptised five members of our community on 20 November. Of those (four children and one adult), only one came from a family that I think would have explicitly defined themselves as Christians a couple of years ago. Six more members of our community were also confirmed at Portsmouth Cathedral on Sunday (27 November). People whose connection to Christian faith has been very basic and tenuous have discovered a lively faith for themselves.

I would describe Sunday Sanctuary as a beautiful failure. We have come to realise, not that it was a bad idea – and we are not to stop doing it – but we were still operating a 'come to us' model even if it was 'come to us in a different place'. If we are going to really make a difference in Somerstown, it's probably going to be one family at a time, building relationships and investing in them from personal resources, energy and enthusiasm. It's risky and costly and it exposes you.

The baptisms and confirmations remind us that we are part of the wider family of the Christian church, so I suppose I use the language of 'failure' provocatively. In terms of 'traditional' success criteria and measured outcomes, we have put them aside at Sunday Sanctuary and instead shared our lives with those who have come along. These are no longer people who have been added to the community (as in 'them' and 'us'); they are us.

It has become clear that it's not a case of 'if we tweak this event, the people will come' – they won't come

It has become clear that it's not a case of 'if we tweak this event, the people will come'. They won't come. We can't yet say if this is a lesson for fresh expressions generally. I suspect the lesson is not to remodel church to make it more attractive or accessible; instead it really is about going to people where they are and sharing life with them.

That asks big questions of us as ministers. I live in a house provided by the diocese; I don't live in the tower block – which we see as our focus. One begins to wonder whether the only authentic way to engage in this sort of ministry is to live the same sort of lives that 'your' people are living.

I would say that fresh expressions of church who sometimes seem to try and achieve something that we know – through experience – simply doesn't work. If we just change church, the people won't come in. Maybe in some places they do but in housing estates, in city centres, in tough environments, people don't go to anything. The only way you make a difference is if they trust you and they will trust you if they have found you to be trustworthy. And that takes time.

What are the resources that sustain you in that highly costly and demanding way of engaging with people? It's about a depth of spirituality. What we need from the church is not hugely effective managers of projects but holy men and women, boys and girls to tell the stories of doubt and question and love and joy and frustration.

At the beginning of this role I thought it would be a Pauline sort of thing with me getting something going and then others would come through from the community to take it on. I was wrong. Now I can see this taking a decade or longer to kind of get to a centre of gravity that might sustain itself. It's going to take years.

In terms of specific needs of our community, text-based materials are not useful at all and we are thinking much more about what we do with our bodies and say with our mouths. There are only just over 20 of us gathering together and our youngest members don't read (yet). They make up a significant minority of our small community so we take their needs seriously and you can't put words in front of them. If they're disengaged, you know straight away because we're all together!

Three years in and I feel like we are just beginning. I'm enormously challenged both by the call to ever more radical discipleship and how that makes sense to me and my family. I'm not prepared to play at being a Christian.

The Great Emergence: the best of times, the worst of times (Phyllis Tickle)

Phyllis TicklePhyllis Tickle explains what the Great Emergence is, and how it gives rise to the best of times and the worst of times.

If Charles Dickens thought he knew something about strange times, he should have stayed around to describe the years you and I are living through. They're strange almost beyond description, not to mention their constituting, like those of Dickens's tale, seemingly both the best and the worst of the possibilities.

These times of ours are referred to as the Great Emergence, if not by popular novelists, then at least by the scholars and credentialed observers who are doing today's writing and talking. Primarily their titling plays to the fact that about every 500 years our latinised culture goes through a major upheaval. Or perhaps we should say 'upheavals' in the plural, because everything changes. Every part of life from economics to politics to culture and social structures to intellectual pursuits and technological advances … everything must change. And ultimately, of course, so too must religion itself change.

Our upheavals, each one of which has had about 150 unsettling years of preliminary tick-up or lead-in, have also always had rather fanciful names that, like ours, have included 'Great' as part of them. Five hundred years ago, it was the Great Reformation. A thousand years ago, the Great Schism. Fifteen hundred years ago, the Great Decline and Fall. Two thousand years ago, the Great Transformation… and so it goes, and so go we as well. For you and I sit now firmly positioned in ways of living and being that, for almost 150 years, have been roiling dramatically in transition from old ways to new, from former bases of authority and organisation to new ones.

Only recently have those cataclysmic shifts begun to offer us up some clear hints about what the next few centuries will be formed by, what cultural and intellectual changes must be accommodated for by changes in how and who we are, and what re-configurations, both conceptual and material, are of necessity going to accrue. And religion, like every other part and parcel of who we are in the 21st century, is changing and, pray God, will continue to change significantly within the span of our lifetimes.

Religion, like every other part and parcel of who we are in the 21st century, is changing and, pray God, will continue to change significantly within the span of our lifetimes

Just as surely as denominationally-structured Protestantism birthed out from the Great Reformation without destroying a more hierarchal Roman Catholicism, so too another, more self-organising, more communal branch of Christianity is birthing now out of the Great Emergence. Fresh expressions is both a major evidence and also a member-part of that birthing.

Like the advent of neo-monasticism and its nascent community of communities, for example; or of emergent church and/or emerging church and their attempts to define themselves and distinguish themselves one from another; or of deep church and the powerful small church movement; or of the hyphenateds, such as Angli-mergents, with their loyalties to the old and the new in sweet congress; or of missional church with its quiet passion … like all of these and some half-dozen others, the coming and now the flourishing of fresh expressions of church bear witness to a new, powerful, and portentous re-configuring. Indeed, they bear witness to a reconsidering – as well as a re-configuring – of what it means to be Christian now in this time of Emergence, of how Emergence Christians can most devoutly worship, of how church should or should not be organised, and even of what 'church' is as a construct, of where authority lies and of how one lives in mystery…

The questions are almost as many as the questers, the answers lying just beyond our reach but not beyond our hope and our sure faith. So we move prayerfully on, we Christians in the twenty-first century of the Common Era. Whether we be Christians in fresh expressions of church or Christians in more traditional forms of church, parts of Emergence church or congregants in inherited church, the only real imperative seems to be that we move, all of us together, with informed knowledge and energetic and ongoing discernment of where we are and how we fit; with mutual respect for all of us whether we be building or simply repairing, expanding or primarily renovating church; and with a most holy fear, for, like Dickens, we are writing a tale about the best of times and the worst of times. The difference is that, unlike him, we are writing this tale before the fact, not in retrospect.

New adventures in Leeds (Beth Tash)

Beth TashBeth Tash discusses new adventures in Leeds.

I've lived here for nearly ten years: as a student, in youth ministry and now as a pioneer minister – or 'vicar in the clubs' as people tend to describe me. Even though I'm not a vicar. And it's not just about clubs.

Two months in and the sense of adventure is growing. There is excitement, expectation and a desire to see God's kingdom come… yet at the same time there is the cry of, 'O Lord, what are you going to do here? There are so many people who haven't even heard of you. So many. And there's just me.' This is generally followed by the frequent prayer of 'Help!'

I've had some brilliant meetings and a surprising number of 'open doors' (those are meetings with definite outcomes if you're not familiar with the jargon!). The police, the council, and a couple of bar managers have been helpful, encouraging, provided places on guest lists and even offered funding.

Great people have contacted me and I've popped into some fantastic Christian projects which are already 'doing the stuff'. How incredible to have people who will share their story, massively encourage each other and offer to work together. Thank you, God…

Recurring ideas include Street Angels, Club Angels, prayer walking and prayer space. Logos, money, space and support are tangible offers, while quick chats that have become deeper conversations are developing into friendships and lessons in culture.

I think of many questions – some of them embarrassingly simple – that might accompany these ideas and relationships. 'How do people actually become Christians?' 'What would it look like if they did?' 'Is there a church in Leeds that's OK with having people there that have never sung a worship song in their life?' 'Will the church love these people and accept them on the journey they're on?' I really hope so. But I'm not sure.

At the moment, a lot of the pressure to 'perform' is self-inflicted, but the expectation is clearly evident from others when they say, 'We can't wait to see what will happen with your job.' Well, me too! But what are people expecting and when? Is it bigger numbers for their churches? Is it a new church? They ask, 'So how's it going?' When I say, 'Well I've met some people, had some chats, hope to meet them again, prayed for people in club toilets, etc', the response is often along the lines of, 'Oh, OK.'

I start to wonder whether as Christians we've stopped celebrating the teeny sparks of light in the dark as well as the glaringly bright flames

And it makes me start to wonder whether as Christians we've stopped celebrating the teeny sparks of light in the dark as well as the glaringly bright flames. I love the big events and there's nothing better than seeing people encounter God and decide to follow Jesus, but I'm learning as we take on board what it means to be mission-shaped – and as we go to places that have very little or no experience of true Christianity – we who have Jesus living in us also need to be celebrating all and any signs of the kingdom that happen as we walk into a room. The smiles, the laughter, the appreciation, the tears as stories are shared, as perceptions of church are broken down, as the wounds and bruises of 'religion' are brought into the open and apologised for. In my ministry that might mean being alongside young clubbers while they vomit, as we pick up broken glass from the streets, as the police are told they're doing a good job, as Christians' hearts and eyes are opened to the 'groans of our world' on a prayer walk … maybe there are reasons to celebrate already.

And yes, there's always more to pray for. We need many more people to intercede with tears and heartache for more to live in relationship with God; for communities to be created in all shapes and sizes; for the transformation of our cities and streets to become places of safety, friendship, worship, love, holiness, purity, hope, faith and purpose.

Yet for now, can we celebrate the kingdom as well as the church? Can we Christians see ourselves as called to be even the smallest of sparklers to the people and places around us that could really do with a bit of lighting up? And can we get good at sharing those glimmers as well as the bright lights?

Ministering in Babylon? (Will Cookson)

Will CooksonWill Cookson wonders whether he is ministering in Babylon.

Alas, alas, the great city,

Babylon, the mighty city!

For in one hour your judgment has come.

Revelation 18.10

What a mess. The world financial markets are in a near state of collapse and protestors camp out on streets around the world. In London, the story of the St Paul's camp is well documented. Initial plans were to occupy the London Stock Exchange (hence the protestors' hashtag on twitter is #olsx), but the demonstrators end up on the cathedral's steps.

The mighty doors are closed for a period and the resignations follow of Canon Giles Fraser and the Dean, Graeme Knowles. The Church of England becomes a laughing stock, with political commentator Guido Fawkes tweeting: 'So #OccupyLSX score so far: Evil Capitalist Bankers Defeated – Nil, Wishy Washy Anglicans Resigned 2.'

As a drama, Downton Abbey author Julian Fellowes couldn't have done better.

But what has all this to do with fresh expressions? Well, I want to suggest that all of us – whether in a cathedral, inherited church or fresh expression of church like mine – can simply try too hard to get things right while in the eye of the storm. That can leave us in a terrible mess, just as it did for St Paul's.

When expectations are off the scale, it is all too easy to feel obliged to make a decision – any decision – to look bold and in command. That is when mistakes are made but, as Bishop Chartres said in a Radio 4 interview, 'Christians are very used to near-death experiences; they're also used to resurrections.'

Fewer decisions by us and more listening may reach deeper into our communities than we can ever imagine

What I think we are seeing now is something that many others find difficult to do, namely to bring people together who would not otherwise engage in dialogue or discussion. The church in London is becoming increasingly involved in talks between protestors and bankers and is playing a leading role in reflecting on the morality of the financial systems and markets.

Now I don't think this means that we dictate the solutions (and mostly when we do, they come out as naïve and just headline grabbing). However, what we are well placed to do is help them to search for common ground in order to hear and be heard. We believe in a triune God, a God who in his very being is relational. Therefore we must realise that everything is relational and everyone is called into relationship. At our best, we recognise that and allow space for all.

We got off to a bad start at St Paul's. Maybe, just maybe, we are starting to see what the church does best – namely to sit in the gap and start a real dialogue. When we do the same in our own communities then we can find beautiful examples of people from very different backgrounds sitting down together and listening to one another and learning from one another. They may even become friends.

We may, or may not, be in Babylon, but the reality is that we are still called to serve all those who come our way. Fewer decisions by us and more listening may reach deeper into our communities than we can ever imagine.

Reaching hearts (Tim Carter)

Tim CarterTim Carter wonders how we reach hearts.

The people of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own kind than are the people of the light

Luke 16.8

It seems to me that Jesus' observation is nowhere more applicable than in the field of understanding what motivates people, what really matters to them, what will make them change their behaviour. The stakes for marketing agencies are high – get this stuff wrong and they lose the account. They are experts on the human heart and maybe we can learn from them.

As I have begun to reflect on the culture of the area that we are working in and to explore what might be a fruitful way forward for ministering here, two long-running ad campaigns have bubbled to the top of my mind.

With images of each household having a planet to itself and a strapline of 'Looking after your world', the British Gas adverts paint a picture of the place that we have moved into. This commuter dormitory in the suburbs of Telford is, as the chair of the Community Association described it, 'a collection of houses, not a community.'

The second set of ads to spring to mind are those of Lloyds TSB: 'For the journey.' This seems to identify a way of thinking about life that resonates strongly with much contemporary missiology – if less obviously with the culture I'm seeing here.

Marketing agencies are experts on the human heart and maybe we can learn from them

At first I struggled with the discrepancies between these two stories. It seems to me that there is tension here between two deep desires that have been identified in contemporary English culture by these ad agencies. One desire is for self-sufficient, private, independent existence. The other desire is for someone to accompany us, to secure our destination.

As I thought about it a bit more, I came to the conclusion that I don't have to reconcile these stories. Rather, it might be that a spark of creativity can be generated in the gap between the poles of the paradox held in high tension.

As we seek to love God with all that we are, and to love those around us with the self-giving, vulnerable, truly present love of Christ, so we believe that people's understanding of their world will be reshaped by the Holy Spirit and they will know that Christ walks with them.

Patience and prayer for a ‘Messy’ vision (Matt Stone)

Matt StoneMatt Stone asks for patience and prayer for a 'messy' vision.

Having written an MA thesis and Grove Booklet on fresh expressions, I felt quite a lot of pressure (mostly self-inflicted) to actually start a fresh expression when I entered ministry 15 months ago. It can be so tempting to start something new because it is fashionable, or because other churches are doing it, or because it is in my job description, or because I – as the new young minister – want it to look like I am leading the church forward.

However, I've had to remind myself that this is simply not how God works. God doesn't ask us to start Messy Church or café church or run an Alpha course or start cell church or, in fact, very much at all without a lot of praying and reflecting first. The problem is: how do we know what God is calling us to do?

I work in a team ministry of seven United Reformed Churches, with primary responsibility for three churches within the group. For about ten months, I really wasn't quite sure what to do at all. I preached on a Sunday, visited the sick, conducted funerals, attended meetings and social events, signed up for a local Fresh Expressions mission shaped ministry course, and generally got to know the people and communities I serve. I wanted to do something evangelistic – something to reach out to those not being touched by our mostly traditional Sunday services – but the sense I got in prayer was that I had to be patient. Now was not the time. When I did have a vision for a church-run café within the village I live in, there didn't seem to be a venue that was suitable.

Nonetheless, the patience (and, at times, frustration!) is beginning to pay off. Over the last few months, God's guidance has become slightly clearer for at least for one of the communities I serve.

The problem is: how do we know what God is calling us to do?

At Wroxham & Hoveton URC, we have a worshipping community of about 40-50 adults, teenagers and children. Like many churches, we face an ageing congregation, the loss of teenagers to university and a shrinking Sunday School (known as 'JAM' – Jesus and Me). Although the church membership has remained relatively steady for 20 years, the demographic challenges are great and it has felt that we're in a 'make or break' time. If our Sunday School of 2-10 children becomes unviable, there would not be any church-run children's work in Wroxham. Families have simply not been attracted to what we offer on a normal Sunday morning, and many of the parents who send their children to JAM do not join the congregation for worship unless it is a family service. So what to do to reach our missing families and 20s to 40s for Christ?

Through conversation, prayer, reflection and a seminar over a period of months, Messy Church seemed to be what God was guiding us to. On Father's Day, we ran our first Messy Church session. All ten of our regular JAM kids attended with their families, including many dads (who are the least frequent attenders), plus we picked up one family from outside of the church. It's not just the families who benefited though. The church has been incredibly supportive and there were over 40 people present, including an enthusiastic group of volunteers cooking, leading and generally having fun! We ran another event for Harvest, which was equally successful, and have another planned for Advent.

I do not know exactly where God is leading us yet, but I know that it is worth waiting for. We are exploring whether we could run Messy Church on a more regular basis next year, and are seeking to reach out to those beyond our church's current periphery. Simultaneously, the idea of a regular midweek café-type event seems to keep coming back to our thinking and praying.

Developing a vision takes time and patience. It may be something radically new, or it may be a revisiting of something tried and tested. My advice for any church or pioneer is simply this: pray, pray, pray!

A ‘quick response’ to the gospel in Hanley? (Simon Sutcliffe)

Simon SutcliffeSimon Sutcliffe explores a 'quick response' to the gospel in Hanley.

As many of you will know from my previous blog, I now work part time with Venture FX (vfxhanley) and spend the other half of my week in Birmingham teaching at The Queen's Foundation. By cutting back on my time, I have been able to free up some financial resources which will help to develop the project further.

This now means (drum roll) that I have a companion on The Way. Ron Willoughby, employed for one day a week with vfxhanley, has always been on the edges of this project and I am thrilled that he is now at the heart of it. Ron has arrived at just the right time. Amongst other things, we are developing a small community – a group of people who for one reason or another either don't attend church, can't attend a church or don't want to attend a (particular) church, BUT, they are curious and sometimes compelled by this enigmatic first century Jew known as Jesus of Nazareth. So we are going to get together and see what happens.

Exciting times!

Some of that excitement is also down to a project I'm working on.

Have you ever heard of the Stations of the Cross?

Or geocaching?

And how about Quick Response (QR) codes?

Well, I got to thinking, what would happen if you combined all three? The result is the (digital) Stations of the Cross hidden in a city centre (Hanley, Stoke-on-Trent to be precise), that can only be accessed digitally.

This is how it works:

  • Around the city centre there are 14 QR codes hidden.
  • Each QR code leads to a password protected post on the vfxhanley blog – the password can be found with each QR code.
  • Each post has a picture (Station of the Cross), a short meditation and the co-ordinates of the next QR code.
  • The first blog page that introduces the idea will not be password protected but will have a QR code that can be made into postcards (left in shops with all the nightclub fliers, etc), put on church notices in the city and, hopefully, printed in the local newspaper.
  • The first blog post will be the beginning of the journey.
  • People will be invited to journey through a physical/digital pilgrimage centred around the Stations of the Cross.
  • Once you have found one and reflected on the Station, you use the co-ordinates to find the next.
  • You can do it in a day, or a take a few months.
  • You can either use a smartphone or a good old-fashioned map and compass.
  • When you’ve found one, you can leave a comment on the relevant Station blog post!
  • The idea is that other artists will want to contribute to the art that is on each blog page (please get in touch if you would; I've already had a couple of interested folk), and that people can either use their smartphones or take pictures and use a QR code reader when they get home (and then go off to find another on another day).

Watch this space to find out how it goes.

The power of words (Norman Ivison)

Norman IvisonNorman Ivison explores the power of words.

I'm having the fascinating experience at the moment of watching my 18 month old granddaughter acquire language. She is already learning that if she wants a certain response she needs to use certain words. She is getting quite skilled at it  – especially when her doting grandparents are around.

As a professional communicator, I have always been aware of the potency of language. As the Fresh Expressions initiative emerged six years ago, I remember how important it was to get the 'language' right if the values and principles were to gain currency. But it is also easy to forget the power of words.

Reading a fascinating book at the moment on male spirituality (The Intimate Connection by James Nelson) has made me ask how different the Fresh Expressions movement might have been if we had adopted another kind of language. It's a question that has crossed Lucy Moore's mind recently and she responds with her usual insight and humour in the book Pioneers 4 Life, edited by David Male.

So, for example, instead of 'pioneer' with all its stereotypical masculine 'starting from scratch', 'going into foreign places' connotations, how about 'nurturing' with its gentle approach, 'developing what is already there', 'doing it in a safe place' connotations? In some ways nurturing language is more faithful to the theology of missio dei, believing as I do that we are going where God is already and that nowhere is really the Wild West.

To some extent we almost become what we say we are, and that applies as much to the missional church as it does to the individual. In using the language of pioneering or venturing, we are in danger of saying that when forming new contextual churches you need leaders able to go into unexplored places, to hack out a home in the wilderness, to bring civilisation to the desert.

How different might the Fresh Expressions movement have been if we had adopted another kind of language?

But that is only half the story and in some places not the story at all. According to an online dictionary, a pioneer is 'a person who is among those who first enter or settle a region, thus opening it for occupation and development by others'. That's a very church-centric view of the way the Christian faith will emerge and develop in a new place. It can make the mistake of the hardened cowboy, herding the cattle and creating a homestead in the second half of the nineteenth century. They should have realised and we need to realise that wherever we go there are people already there. We will rarely be the 'first to enter and settle a region'. God will have long before started planting the seeds and tilling the soil and maybe even enjoying the growth.

So what kind of person is attracted to pioneering? Back to our choice of words. Would more women have applied to be missional ministers if 'nurturing' language had been available to them I wonder? I am in danger of making assumptions about gender difference I know – after all, there were some women pioneers in the Wild West – but how might the fresh expressions movement look if we emphasised the need to protect and foster the latent Christian faith we find, and stand alongside, holding hands and drying tears, rather than forging ahead, clearing the land and building church?

Before the Fresh Expressions office sends me my P45, I need to say that pioneering/venturing  language has and is serving us well. But we need other terminology alongside that if we are to do justice to our theology of cross-cultural mission here in the UK and to the wide range of people God could be calling into this work. It may make our communication more difficult and messy, but we are up for that.

The lesson for me as a paid communicator is always to watch my words and be aware of my own cultural background as I choose them. Certain words create a certain response. They make a massive difference.