Five summertime ‘experiments’ (Kris Beckert)

Kris Beckert suggests five things to try this summer if you're looking to discern where a fresh expression of church might be appropriate.

Before being called into ministry, I was an environmental scientist by trade. Much of my job consisted of asking questions, forming hypotheses, designing how I'd test them, and coming up with results.

Entering into the Church world didn't change the way my brain works – it merely changed the mission and subject of the experiments. Maybe that's why I see this whole idea of starting fresh expressions of church as an experiment in listening and serving the people in our own context—and letting the need and environment dictate the form and structure instead of the other way around. And although these experiments may not demand our standing knee-deep in waders all day in the middle of a marsh, it does require us to step out and serve, try new things, and experiment in our neighbourhoods and communities. You only learn by doing it, not thinking about it.

As an environmental scientist, the summer was always the most opportune time in our research season, and I think it might also be the case when we're talking about starting fresh expressions of church. If you're looking for a chance to see what God might do through a potential fresh expression of church this summer, think about experimenting in one or more of the following areas.

1) Festivals, fairs, and 5K runs

Every town has them; do you know what they are? Even if an art exhibition or pet show don't happen to be 'your thing', it might be a learning and listening experience that God uses in your own spiritual formation. Why not get your family and friends to volunteer together to serve? Street markets and fairs are the perfect chance to do some listening in your community too. Sit on a bench and watch who turns up – and who doesn't. Ask God to reveal who you might be called to reach while you are handing out water or walking from one stall to another.

2) Prayer walking

Now that it's nice enough to be outside and light until late, why not gather a group or go by yourself to prayer walk your community? Pray for the places you pass; the schools, businesses, shops, homes. The Holy Spirit might urge you to chat with someone on your path with whom you might not have otherwise spoken. What do you notice? Who and what cries out to you in your community? Take the time to listen.

3) Go outside

Jesus spent a lot of time in the great outdoors and met a lot of people there, even on his way from place to place. Creating opportunities for people to gather can be anything from organising a street party to flying a kite at a local park. Or, if fishing is your thing, share in it with some youngsters – and their families – and invite them all to share in a cooking session afterwards. Jesus found potential disciples in fishermen, maybe you will too. If you don't have a garden, throw together an urban picnic at a school playground or provide the ice creams at a neighbours' get-together; God might open your eyes to a new group of people when you use the good weather as an excuse to get to know them!

4) Holidays for the family-less

Father's Day, August Bank Holiday, or special events like the World Cup – these are times when families get together for barbecues and picnics. However, there will be lots of people in your community who don't have family in the area. Who are these people? What could you do? On Mother's Day this year, a woman in my church invited me to share in a picnic with others from her block of flats who didn't have mothers to visit. She was the person of peace, introducing me to everyone as we shared our food together and had a great time. It occurred to me that we could do this for every holiday and probably make some new friends too. After all, Jesus spent time with those nobody else wanted to spend time with – and that's where he grew His Kingdom too. Are you willing to do the same?

5) Teachers and students

It's the end of the school year so how can you serve weary teachers and students at this time? Could you drop off some pastries and free coffee for teaching staff in the last, long, week of school? Are there children who might need healthy lunches and companionship with other youngsters in your community over the summer? Or do you live near a university where students and professors will be on campus for a summer school? How could you share the Good News there?

These are just a sample of potential 'experiments' you might try as you see if God leads you to start a fresh expression of church. Here comes summer… what are you going to do with it?

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Cookie-cutter Church (Kris Beckert)

Kris Beckert wonders whether we need a wider range of cookie cutters.

Most of my family and close friends know I am one of those people who will not be found baking tasty treats in the kitchen for hours on end. 

When I was a kid, the compulsion to bake only arose once a year around Christmas time. We kept our set of metal cookie cutters, maybe 20 of them in all different shapes and sizes, in a plastic bag. But year after year, as the dough was chilling, I would reach into the bag and select the same five shapes to use over and over again. The reasoning was simple: they fitted the season, I knew the dough wouldn't get stuck in them and their shapes baked well in the oven. I could expect my cookies to be ready to eat.

Duh. Why would you even risk trying anything else?

Years later and I've begun to wrestle with that same question as it applies to ministry. Apart from beginning my ministry with the launch of a church plant, much of my experience as a pastor has been in the shape of what most people would draw if they selected 'Church' in a game of Pictionary: a building with or without steeple; preacher/pastor; pulpit; choir or worship group; Christians studying the Bible; money given to the poor; a busy car park. If we took a drive around your town, most likely we could pick out at least a dozen churches with similar shapes, actions, ministries, and advertisement campaigns telling people their church is the best thing since the invention of the chocolate chip.

Kind of like a Cookie-cutter Church.

And the fact is, many of us really have wondered what Church could be like beyond those same four or five shapes we've been using year after year in stone buildings, brick sanctuaries, church plants, and historic communities. Many of us have experienced some kind of call from God tugging at our heart, calling us to reach into the bag and pull out a new shape of ministry to try—one that fits better around the countless people in our community who have no desire to enter the form of Cookie-cutter Church, yet who still need the Gospel. We find ourselves sitting in our offices, a sermon draft and the minutes of some meeting or other on the desk in front of us, a calendar dotted with parish socials, weddings and funerals; our most recent salary slip in our bag – and we feel that call.

But when you risk picking up a new cookie-cutter, you have to put an old one down and that's what scares us so much. We don't know HOW it's going to work or IF it's going to work. There's something comforting about having that sermon and minutes on your desk, those events and expectations on your calendar, that pay in your bank account. It's how your predecessor, your mentor, and your clergy friends from college have shaped their ministry all along. It's the expected job description of the pastorate that predicts how their cookie is going to rise and bake and what kind of story they will tell.

Then you realise that God doesn't want to write their story with you.

It's not that the traditional cookie-cutters of what we are used to as Church aren't mission-shaped; it's just that the Holy Spirit does not restrict us to using only them. Just as the early Church took on various forms in various places, led by disciples who understood the boundaries as well as the flexibility of the Spirit, God has gifted and called some of us to do the same. It's interesting how the attractiveness of following that call often varies with our present circumstance. Obedience to his call may mean you have no 'pastor's office', no building campaign, no pulpit or secretary or holiday bible school. Instead, you may be holding a support group for abused women, discussing theodicy in a pub, or praying with a running team before their first marathon – all exciting, scary, and not quite the prestige of the pastorate celebrated by many of your clergy colleagues and peers.  

As a relatively 'green' pastor, I can't help but wonder what it would be like if I didn't have to choose between mission and maintenance but instead be mission empowered and endowed by maintenance – as well as being given a share of the same materials and resources to get the new cookie-cutter started. I can't help but wonder what would happen if I followed the call to fresh expressions of church, regardless of what success or failure I may find myself in. I can't help but wonder if God might be waiting for us to use some of the other cookie-cutters he's given, those that arise in the dreams of you and me.

But first, we've got to step into the kitchen.