Challenges facing fresh expressions of church (Andrew Roberts)

Andrew Roberts explores the challenges facing fresh expressions of church.

What a great privilege it has been to serve alongside the rest of the Fresh Expressions team for just over eight years! As I move on to my new role with the Methodist Discipleship and Ministries Learning Network, here are some personal reflections on what has been achieved and what lies ahead.

When I was interviewed for a post with Fresh Expressions in 2005 I was asked many things, including my thoughts surrounding the hope that 10,000 fresh expressions would form. I thought it was a great thing to aim for and said something along the lines of, 'With God all things are possible'. And of course they are… Now, eight years on with hard data being produced, we are well on the way to seeing that figure realized! If the growth of the fresh expressions movement follows the pattern of other significant movements of mission, then it is not unreasonable to expect to see the rate of growth accelerating (and again the research produced by the Methodist Church and Church Army in both cases shows that happening).

There is so much to be hopeful for as the fresh expressions movement looks to the future. There also continue to be significant challenges:

The movement needs to become younger, deeper and more diverse

Whilst there are very encouraging developments in the number of children and young people involved in fresh expressions, in leadership terms the movement remains very 'middle-aged plus'. The identifying, releasing and supporting of young leaders (and by young I'm thinking 15 – 30) is an urgent task. I accept that you have to start where you are, but if we remain where we are the fresh expressions movement risks heading into retirement with the early adopters.

There is an urgent need to identify those upon whom God's anointing lies who can lead his people into the future

I am very struck by how the emerging generation of young Christians can navigate the big issues like sexuality, interfaith relations and post-denominationalism. The point needs to come –and come sooner rather than later – when the emerging generation leads the older generations, with those of us who are older being their minders and mentors.

Much good work has been done in the areas of theology and discipleship but more, and deeper, work is still needed

The theology that is emerging from fresh expressions needs to be given its rightful place within the theology of a mixed economy church. Whilst the Anglican-Methodist report Fresh expressions in the mission of the church helpfully affirmed the validity of fresh expressions as churches; it disappointed in that it failed to explore in depth the theological lessons being leant (or relearnt) within fresh expressions. In evaluating fresh expressions (and inherited churches) we need to embrace fresh as well as inherited theology.

Broadening ethnicity

One of the highlights of my time with Fresh Expressions (not surprisingly!) was a trip to Barbados to work with Christians there on a mission shaped ministry course. Initially I felt conspicuously 'obvious' due to the colour of my skin but, of course, I was made to feel incredibly welcome and at home. One of my prayers for the ongoing fresh expressions movement in the UK, and around the world, is that it will embrace – and be embraced by – all ethnicities. There are some great examples of this emerging, not least in South Africa, but again more needs to be done.

Looking ahead, the good news is that the partners and supporters of Fresh Expressions have recommitted to the future of the team and are securing the resources for the work that needs to be done. So, as I move on, I pray God's blessing on all involved and look forward to those 10,000 fresh expressions forming.

A heart for God and Harley Davidsons (Andrew Roberts)

Andrew Roberts reflects on a visit to Zac's Place in Swansea.

Some days we are reminded of why we do what we do. I recently experienced one such day. It was the day I went to Zac's Place.

On arrival my first reaction was, 'It's just like the film!' Having played the Zac's Place clip from expressions making a difference many, many times it was great to meet the people and see so much of what appears on the dvd. All of the characters who speak on the film were there.

If you ever meet anyone who is cynical, sceptical or dismissive when it comes to fresh expressions of church, may I suggest that – in love of course – you bundle them in the back of a van and drive them to Swansea. If meeting the 'Zaclicans' does not transform them then I don't know what will.

I encountered a community of self-proclaimed 'ragamuffins' that is one of the most authentic Christian communities I have ever met. In my weaker moments I would gladly destroy many a church noticeboard that says 'All are welcome' because it is simply not true – unless the visitor totally conforms to the whims and wishes of the controlling powers.

At Zac's, I instead met people really trying their very best to make all welcome and it doesn't matter whether you arrive in a limousine, on a pushbike or simply walk in off the street. Of course, as we know from the film, there are bikers – big guys in leathers and combat trousers who love their Harley Davidsons. Please Lord, if there are any internal combustion engines in heaven may they growl like a Harley.

It's well known that Zac's Place offers an open door to the battered and broken and those with serious addiction issues but it also offers a real welcome to middle class professionals. There is no inverse snobbery, no resentment of those who have some of the nicer things of life – just real people trying their best to be real disciples of Jesus.

And then there is Sean. This was the second time I had met him and again I came away thinking he is one of the most Christ-like people I have met. Let's be fair, he looks the part for starters but then he feeds the hungry, clothes the naked, heals the hurting, turns the other cheek and gets a beating when other bikers want to punish someone for the crimes of paedophile priests. Unashamedly centred on God's Word, he likes nothing more to open up the Bible and offer to others the Bread of Life. He offers a striking reminder that we should give proper prominence to the role of the Bible in forming disciples.

I was there to do a vision day in partnership with Associate Missioners Alicia Baker and Sean, both of whom were superb in presentation and conversation. We had asked to go to Zac’s to try doing a day in a bona fide fresh expression of church and it worked extremely well. Zac's went to town on the hospitality. There was coffee, cakes and sweets galore and a fabulous lunch of homemade soup, baked potatoes and salads. The standards when it came to timings and technology were very high – ragamuffin culture and the professional standards we aspire to worked very well together.

Perhaps most importantly, the learning was added to and enhanced by the venue – partly because:

  • people there were living and breathing a fresh expression all day;
  • Zac's Place people joined in. So when we presented our learning/theory/models, we could test it straight away against the realities of that community – and I'm delighted to report that most of it fitted extremely well.

Discussion of values was particularly interesting, with the Zaclicans highlighting the importance of the value of transformation – both personal transformation (including conversion and discipleship) and the transformation brought about by the struggles for social justice. I came away challenged that we need to do more to explore, encourage and be part of prophetic witness and the struggle for social justice.

We talk about the need for culturally authenticity and this was a culturally authentic vision day. If we had been spouting nonsense we would have been told in no uncertain terms that we were doing so! Instead, it was a delight to see the members of Zac's being affirmed in who they are and what they do.

At the end of the day Sean said how helpful it had been for the community to think through who they are and realise they are a valued part of this thing called the fresh expressions movement.

For future reference, work and planning, this way of learning in situ would be really good to proliferate. Sharing co-produced experiential learning takes things up a level! The Zac's folk highlighted the value of transformation. Their living of the value transformed me. It was a wonderful day.

Let’s get rid of ‘unchurched’, ‘dechurched’ and ‘churched’ (Andrew Roberts)

Andrew RobertsAndrew Roberts suggest we get rid of 'unchurched', 'dechurched' and 'churched'.

When I was a young minister in Doncaster a new mum came with her baby at the behest of her own insistent mother saying she needed to be churched. Unfamiliar with this medieval practice of purification I explained that she was very welcome and prayed prayers of thanks with her for the gift of her new child. That seemed to do the trick and she went away happy, returning a few weeks later to have the child baptised.

I admit to having felt uncomfortable then with the 'churched' phraseology and admit now to being uncomfortable with talk of the churched, dechurched, unchurched and never churched in a very different context – namely the world of fresh expressions. The language is used a lot; especially when writers are quantifying the missional effectiveness of newly forming churches. But is it good language?

I have two particular problems with it. The first is that it risks turning people into ecclesiastical 'widgets' or commodities. Categorising or defining people in a way that allows them to be quantified is helpful for particular pieces of analysis but risks depersonalising human beings made in the image of God. It also feels very institutional.

The second problem I have is that we may well end up falling into the same trap that has blighted many an inherited church, namely putting attendance or association before discipleship. Are we looking to 'church' people or make disciples of Jesus? As Martyn Atkins is fond of pointing out, Jesus says, 'I will build my church, you go and make disciples'.

I submit a plea for some more helpful, human and Christlike language. I recognise that discipleship is communal as well as personal so in seeking to denote who is part of fresh expressions might we be better to talk of newcomers (unchurched or never churched), returners (dechurched) and regulars (churched). We talk about people in this way at my local pub and it feels a lot warmer.

I'm sure there must be better suggestions out there. What do you think?

What is a missional community? (Andrew Roberts)

Andrew RobertsAndrew Roberts explores missional communities and whether the term is helpful.

The phrase missional community seems to be being used both more frequently and in more diverse ways in the mission-shaped/fresh expressions movement. In a moment I want to ask if the phrase is helpful but first here is a quick attempt at a typography.

I am aware of four ways in which the phrase is being used. You may well be aware of others so do please add to the list.

1. As an alternative description of a fresh expression

A pioneer minister in Birmingham said to me recently that his community were thinking of identifying themselves as a missional community rather than as a fresh expression. At the moment their website declares

we are a fresh expression of church and are currently exploring what it might mean for us to become a new monastic community for the city.

'Missional community' could be a very good descriptor of many a fresh expression. The bread-making church Somewhere Else for example is demonstrably both missional and a community. Interestingly their website declares them to be a

a Methodist church journeying with people of all faiths and none. Gathering as a community around the making and sharing of bread.

2. To describe intentionally-small fresh expressions or emerging churches

Especially those that might be described as new monastic. safespace in Telford might be described in this way. On the Fresh Expressions website, Mark Berry says

Perhaps the best way to describe who we are is as a new-monastic community, a community of followers who are seeking first and foremost to be equipped, resourced and supported in living a life that exudes mission.

3. To denote small- to medium-sized groups that are constituent parts of larger church

Groups that gather in community and who engage in mission together to a particular neighbourhood or network. Good examples would include those that are part of St George's, Deal and St Thomas', Sheffield. Confusingly they can also be called many other things including clusters, go communities, mid-sized communities, mission-shaped communities, and MSCs.

4. To describe an Order of Mission

A dispersed community of people who are united by a common rule or covenant and a shared commitment to mission. Examples would include The Order of Mission (TOM), the Methodist Diaconal Order and CMS.

Is the term 'missional community' helpful?

In the light of the above I want to ask:

  • first, is the language understandable when it is being applied in so many ways? Or has it becomes so complex that it has become devalued? We may understand what we mean and developing a comprehensive typography could be the basis for a good MA dissertation, but what does someone with no Christian experience make of it all?
  • second, is the term 'missional community' helpful, particularly when others (eg. the local Mosque, an AA group, the aficionados at the Apple Store) may legitimately argue they are a missional community too? Where is the Christian distinctiveness?
  • thirdly, and ironically, could the term be a hindrance to mission? Is there a risk that it objectifies and therefore puts off the people the community is seeking to reach?

As for an alternative, if it is necessary to explain what a missional community is by using the word Christian, why not simply talk of Christian community in the first place?

What are your thoughts?

(CEN) A bag of chips and culturally authentic mission please

In a small Midlands town, a church's large dayglo poster advertised an evening of inspirational choral music. On the other side of the road, directly opposite the church's notice board, was a small row of shops – including a bookmaker, tattoo parlour and a chippy. The road was wide but the cultural gap between the two sides was more than that; it was enormous.

Why would the person putting a tenner on Wayne Rooney's goal-scoring skills, adding a tattoo to their collection or investing in a bag of chips even think of taking in the works of John Rutter? And vice versa.

There were very few, if any, tattoos evident among the concert-goers as they arrived in their gleaming cars. It all served to make me wonder who that church was for and to what extent it truly represented the parish in which it was set.

More and more we live in a world of mixed up cultures. Even in 'chocolate box villages' that may outwardly appear to be mono-cultural the scene is changing. These cultures may be represented by families whose lineage goes back a long way in the area's local history – and incomers who have moved in relatively 'recently'. That is, within the last 20 years or so!

The challenge for the church is to engage in mission and form disciples in this plurality of cultures. Much is rightly made of the need for cross-cultural missionaries in 21st century Britain but, with the majority of the population having no conscious, meaningful relationship with Christ; there are thousands of people within the regular orbit of disciples of Jesus who need to be introduced to him. There is an urgent need for Christians (especially younger Christians) to be able to form church within cultures and contexts that are familiar to them but which may not be represented (and sadly sometimes not welcomed) in the local Parish Church or Methodist Chapel. For many, the calling is not to cross cultures but simply to cross the road and build relationship with those they know or find there. And wherever God sends, the call and commission is the same, namely to make disciples.

As fresh expressions form in cultures both familiar and strange, some key lessons are being relearned about how disciples are formed:

  • they form in sacramental community;
  • fruitful fresh expressions seek to create communities where belonging comes before believing and which model holistic living;
  • they know the formative power of a rich spiritual life of prayer and worship and a deep sense of God’s imminence and transcendence.

Methodist minister Barbara Glasson said that at Liverpool's bread-making church, Somewhere Else, they sought to make disciples

through friendship, laughter, being real with each other, finding a way to engage in honest conversation, honouring questions, encouragement and mutual learning.

Pioneer Anglican Priest Ian Mobsby, of London-based Moot, adds that

grace and radical generosity are the focus of the community and its understanding of the New Testament word ekklesia for the Church.

These are communities seeking to model the grace of God. This sacramental dynamic is given practical expression through table fellowship and a culture of hospitality. The specific sacrament of Holy Communion is highly valued.

Many fresh expressions have a profound sense of the Eucharist as a place where they meet with Christ, however creatively or humbly the arrangements by which the sacrament is celebrated. When leading Sanctus1 in Manchester, pioneering minister Ben Edson said

Communion is central. It is the way that people feel part of the community, and for some has been a rite of passage into the community. It helps sustain community and focus us on the central focus of our discipleship – the person of Christ.

Disciples grow through supportive relationships. Throughout Christian history this has been true, from the first disciples of Jesus being sent out two by two through the house churches of Acts to more contemporary cell groups and household churches. Fresh expressions of church have grasped the importance of mentors, companions and small groups for making and nurturing disciples. The small groups typically share the features of Acts 2.42; teaching (the group is usually seen as the key gathering for biblical study and learning), fellowship, eating/breaking bread and prayer.

One of the root meanings of the word disciple is 'learner' and this is especially important for those nurturing those new to the faith in fresh expressions. Wholesome, life-giving, biblical learning is vital and a community full of new Christians or those exploring the way of Jesus is often the most fertile of learning environments. No wonder then that General Secretary of the British Methodist Church, Martyn Atkins says of fresh expressions

I find discipleship almost happens at an accelerated pace.

And it is not just those new to the faith who grow. There is no greater stimulus to the learning of established Christians than the questions of explorers or new Christians!

In fresh expressions, disciples are being formed by engaging in mission, serving the needy and getting stuck in. When I was learning to swim I was the most exasperating of pupils. One day my teacher's apparently inexhaustible patience ran out and he picked me up and threw me in the pool, and I found I could swim. Please don't copy this as it would probably be illegal today! We often grow most when God calls us out of our comfort zone and into the needy zones of others.

Wolverhampton Pioneer Ministries, a joint Anglican/Methodist fresh expression of church for young adults, has a strap line of 'putting a smile on the face of the city'. The motto found particular resonance last year when the cities of Wolverhampton and Birmingham were the focus of summer rioting. The young adults of WPM were at the forefront of the clean up and peaceful reclamation of the cities. They grew visibly in their discipleship that week and enjoyed the goodwill of the people of the city – to paraphrase Acts.

We live in a world of many cultures and many needs. Fresh expressions, alongside other churches, are increasingly playing their part in making the love of God known in the midst of the mix and forming new disciples who can themselves cross streets and cultures, bearing with them the reconciling message of Christ crucified and risen.

Andrew Roberts is Director of Training for Fresh Expressions and a co-author of Fresh! An introduction to fresh expressions of church and pioneer ministry (David Goodhew, Andrew Roberts, Michael Volland, SCM Press, 2012).

This article was printed in the Church of England Newspaper on 2nd March 2012.