Keeping the focus on fresh expressions of church (Ian Mobsby)

Ian MobsbyIan Mobsby wonders how we can keep the focus on fresh expressions of church.

One of the most useful chapters that came out of the new book Ancient Faith, Future Mission: fresh expressions in the sacramental tradition, was by the now Bishop Steven Croft. In his chapter (where he critiques the development and resistance to fresh expressions in the Church of England), he reminds us that the key focus of fresh expressions is to build ecclesial communities out of contextual mission. Steve reminds us that in the end all labels such as 'emerging church', 'fresh expressions' and 'alternative worship' are about contextualisation, and about the important refocusing on mission in our increasingly post-Christendom, post-modern and post-secular culture.

Often the term 'fresh expressions' can be confusing. This is why it is so important that the focus is on building church and not as some people seem to think, 'it's all about worship'. One of the strengths of the Fresh Expressions initiatives is that it draws on deep missiology. From the start it has drawn on the work of Vincent Donovan and Roland Allen, both accomplished missionaries who have written comprehensively about the process of mission as growing the church in particular contexts. It is for this reason that Fresh Expressions in its second phase of five years is focused on the process of listening, responding in loving service, building community, discipleship/catechesis, and finally, the development of contextual forms of worship.

This process is key if mission is to be focused on the 'unchurched', the largest growing missional need. As we increasingly become a post-Christendom culture, it is expected that the numbers of 'dechurched' will fall. The dechurched were a much easier group to do mission to in some ways; the unchurched are a greater challenge because of the socio-cultural challenge of engaging with people who have no understanding of the Christian faith at all, and some of the ways we express it can be deeply anachronistic. However, if we are to be committed to 'proclaiming the gospel afresh to every generation', this missional focus on the unchurched is crucial.

Fresh Expressions journey

We know from research that traditional church planting models are good at engaging with the open dechurched and recycling Christians, but not good at engaging with the unchurched in general terms. The other great problem with traditional church planting is that it tends to set up attractional rather than missional models of church. Attractional models of church tend to over-focus on a strong Christian subculture that makes it hard for contextual forms of church to develop. So we must not lose the focus on building ecclesial communities out of contextual mission. After all, this is the focus and definition of fresh expressions, of seeking 'to build church with people who are not yet members of any church'.

So how do practitioners engage with proper cultural, missional, theological and I would argue Trinitarian thinking to assist good practice? Well, one good book that has come out that I really think hits the mark is Pete Ward's Participation and Mediation: A practical theology for liquid church. This book is about keeping focused on building ecclesial communities out of contextual mission. The strange thing is that many of us, including me, are quite shocked by how well Pete articulates a method and process out of experience, which is pretty much spot on the journey that many of us practitioners have been making. Pete therefore has drawn together a book out of his great experience which I can only say would have made my life a lot easier if it was around 15 years ago! Further, Pete's work takes contemporary approaches to mission by culturally listening and engaging where people are as a bedrock to then engage with practical theology. As Pete says, I am convinced that practical theology and engagement with it, is crucial as a form of prayer and discernment. Or as Pete puts it:

The Challenge I faced as a youth minister required the ability to reflect both theologically and culturally… The style of relational ministry… I set myself [was] the task of journeying into the world of young people and meeting them in situations where they felt at home. The idea was that I went to their territory. This means that I was a visitor in a context where they were in control and they set the rules. Needless to say this was not at all easy, but interestingly almost from the start I felt that this kind of ministry was a deeply spiritual practice. Going to young people, rather than asking them to come to me, gave me a strong sense that I was in some way sharing in God's love and concern for the world. In fact more than that, I was struck by the conviction that the Holy Spirit was there with the young people even before I arrived. (Pete Ward, Participation and Mediation, SCM Press, 2008, pp 13,27.)

Commitment to reflection of the cycle of need, cultural analysis, mission, theology, God as Trinity, and building ecclesial community has to be the central craft of any committed pioneer minister. So, enjoy the journey, because at the end, it is about thinking and acting in our attempt to catch up with what God is already doing in people's lives, and this is what I believe fresh expressions of church is all about.

The use of new monasticism as a model of church for some fresh expressions (Ian Mobsby)

Ian Mobsby explores the use of new monasticism as a model of church for some fresh expressions.

Ian MobsbyIn the last five years with the Moot Community, and in the previous ten with the Epicentre Network, I have been on a journey attempting to do worship, mission and community in the context of post-modern spiritual tourism. You will have come across this every time someone says the mantra: 'I am not religious; I am interested in spirituality.' It has been a journey where this context has really changed me quite profoundly.

For too long the church has been bound to unhelpful binaries: lay and ordained, Catholic and Protestant, activist or personal piety, radical and mainstream, and so on. The truth is, if we stand a chance of ever making an impact with the de- and unchurched who are interested in spirituality as a mission imperative, then we will need to draw on variant elements of the wide traditions of our Christian inheritance.

We need to get away from this ridiculous 'them and us' which finds its foundation in misunderstanding, lack of love and fear. I think practitioners of emerging and fresh expressions of church in a post-modern context understand the post-binary holistic need for this more acutely than their predecessors. So, as practitioners, we can draw on 2,000 years of resources of the church to assist us in this task.

The prevailing church culture remains cognitive and propositional rather than experiential

Many people interested in spirituality today trawl the internet seeking spiritual communities that do – and are – what they say they are. They seek communities of integrity where there is love, openness, honesty, inclusion and participation. Unfortunately, too many churches feel like incredibly dysfunctional families where few of these qualities are evident. They are, in effect, spiritually impoverished. The prevailing church culture remains cognitive and propositional rather than experiential.

At the same time, many people are seeking something that goes beyond materialism, consumption and technology. Many have become aware of this need through personal tragedy, addiction, life stages, illness or study. So the challenge is: how to provide opportunities for authentic worship, mission and community for people who are seeking to become more deeply human, unaware that this is a spiritual quest. Such people often do not know who they are, let alone that they have a need for God!

How do you engage with spiritual tourists whilst being authentically Christian? Well, I would encourage people here to really consider models of church. Why? Because if you don't your project will end up with something that is dumbed down, individualistic and consumptive as a default position. This is where the new monastic or new friar model can really help if you are engaging with spiritual tourists.

One of the main mistakes we made with the Epicentre Network is that it was held captive to deconstruction, consumption, individualism and was somewhat anti-theological. Yes, it was very participative, but the lack of a model made it difficult to have a healthy basis. It was a collective of individuals that was never fully able to become a community because of its inability to re-envision or reconstruct. We ended Epicentre after ten good years of exciting and innovative mission activity because it was impossible for it to grow into being fully church. This was a painful lesson.

With Moot in its early days, we focused on the need to balance hospitality and inclusion with the authentic practice of the faith. Yes, experimental and contextual, but authentically Christian all the same. We were struck with the question: 'How do we have a community that allows people to belong who do not believe; that allows them to experience the community; that is authentic and life-giving without dumbing down on the faith?' It was Steve Croft who suggested to me the use of a rhythm of life as a focus to the community, so that it be Christ-centred.

Moot, inspired by the monastic pre-modern rules, crafted a rhythm of life through a communal bottom-up process to form an aspiration for how we wanted to live. Its language was not churchy but spiritual and embodied the gospel. So now we have a mixed community of both committed Christians and those who are spiritually searching, all desiring to live out these aspirations as a form of discipleship, where people are at different stages of the journey.

The pre-modern model of the monastics – and in particular the friars who had a spiritual rhythm of life and were sent to service particular localities – enables us to reframe new monasticism as a helpful model for an open, accessible Christian community with a focus on experience and exploration, that assists people to shift from being spiritual tourists to communitarian co-travelling pilgrims. Moot has developed sacramental (focusing on God's presence with us) and experiential forms of worship, mission and community drawing on this new monastic basis.

So, ancient forms of Christian contemplation reframed into post-modern language and sensibilities become the resources for prayer that work in terms of bringing centredness and peace. Mission then becomes seeking to catch up with what God is already doing in loving service by the whole community through social justice projects, the arts and other imaginative pursuits, and worship becomes an event of encounter of God and other pilgrims as a place of inspiration and hope-sharing.

If you are interested in going deeper with this, check out my two books: The Becoming of G-d and Emerging & Fresh Expressions of Church.

Trail blazing times for Moot – Mar13

Moot has started the formal process in seeking to set up an Acknowledged New Monastic Religious Community in the UK.

In what is a new initiative of the Advisory Council for the Relations between Diocesan Bishops and Religious Communities (the body which oversees good governance and support of the various religious communities in communion with the Church of England), Moot has begun the discernment process being led by the two appointed visitors, Abbot Stuart Burns of the Anglican Benedictines and Sister Joyce of the Anglican Franciscans.

A working party, made up of participants of the Moot Community and others pioneering new monastic communities elsewhere, has begun the careful negotiations to prayerfully seek a way forward. It is hoped that by the end of July 2013, there will be a formal proposal and completed constitution for the Community to consider before it goes before the Advisory Council.

As a founding member of the Moot community, Ian Mobsby said the move was a trail blazing one:

This is an exciting time, and an important piece of work, exploring in prayer and dialogue how Moot is growing up in its sense of vocation and sustainability.