Fresh expressions of the United Reformed Church

Linda Rayner updates the United Reformed Church's progress in taking fresh expressions of church to heart.

These are exciting times for the United Reformed Church (URC). As part of our ongoing restructuring programme we recently appointed three Deputy General Secretaries: one each for Mission, Discipleship and Admin/Resources. The first two indicate that the attention of the denomination is clearly on mission and discipleship, and talks are continuing in order to discern how best to inspire our churches to share the gospel message with people in our local communities, helping church members to recognise that we are all today's disciples – and as such, Jesus has called us all to share in his mission.

The ideas that mission is local and growth is more than 'bums-on-pews' are hugely challenging for many of our 1,500 congregations, and fresh expressions is proving a powerful tool as we work together to become a truly missional denomination.

In 2011 I was privileged to be appointed half-time URC coordinator for fresh expressions, and after much prayerful deliberation (during which time I confess to having had some serious doubts about God's plans), I'm now thanking God every day that the post was extended to full-time this May. This has provided me with the luxury of time to think about how to develop a deliberate strategy for embedding a fresh expressions mindset into our denomination. It's challenging, but for me to see the penny drop as people 'get' the idea, and the excitement as they realise their own church can be part of this movement, is hugely rewarding.

The URC is divided into 13 Synods – huge geographical areas including the Synods of the whole of Scotland and the whole of Wales. Each Synod has at least one dedicated coordinator for fresh expressions of church, and according to the level of understanding and adoption in each area, I work with them in setting up local strategies for introducing/continuing to encourage fresh expressions into each Synod. We are committed to theological and cultural diversity, which means that each congregation is different and has its own ideas regarding mission priorities – and being a conciliar church means that no-one can instruct them to develop a fresh expression, it's a case of persuading them that this is important and effective local mission.

So the intention is to continue with a rolling plan of vision days and mission shaped intro in each Synod, taking into account the specific needs of each area as we go. (Such is the nature of the URC that this type of programme is already well underway in some areas, whilst others have barely heard of fresh expressions of church and need an introduction that is shorter than a vision day). We are also encouraging churches to send teams to mission shaped ministry courses, and talks are continuing at denomination level regarding training for pioneer ministry, both lay and ordained.

The denomination is halfway through a ten-year strategic framework called vision2020, which was adopted in order to inspire and support mission planning at all levels. It consists of ten statements and a check-list of missional indicators like 'intentional sharing of the gospel' and 'inclusivity'. Fresh expressions sit beautifully in many of the statements – including 'spirituality and prayer', 'hospitality and diversity', 'evangelism' and 'church growth'.

These are indeed exciting times for the URC. We now have nine pioneer ministers, and many truly missional churches with a fresh expressions mindset. Our Annual Church Returns now ask which churches are involved with fresh expressions, and I'm really looking forward to being in touch with the ones who ticked the box. It will be great to discover just how much is really going on. I have a feeling there's a lot more than I know.

New shoots in the United Reformed Church (Linda Rayner)

Linda Rayner reflects on progress in the United Reformed Church.

Four years ago, I took up the half-time post as Fresh Expressions Coordinator for the United Reformed Church after the denomination had become a partner in the movement.

My original remit was to discover where fresh expressions of church were already happening, but the mapping exercise didn't quite happen as first planned and the bulk of the job has seen me acting as an advocate of fresh expressions and pioneering at all levels of the church – and I just love it!

Since then, I've witnessed quite a few changes but have always been delighted when local churches suddenly 'get' fresh expressions and embrace what God is doing through fresh expressions of church. It's wonderful to see them making mission their top priority and starting to discern what's going on as they join the movement of the Holy Spirit in their own communities.

It has also been a blessing to be invited to various ministers' summer/winter schools, where discussions about new ways of being church are lively and thought-provoking – with some of those gatherings leading to local invitation to facilitate further discussions. It's great to know that some of those ministers go home to share fresh ideas with their churches across the UK, building enthusiasm for mission and new ways of being church.

At the recent URC General Assembly, it was good to hear the term 'fresh expressions' used in many of the discussions; in some respects it's becoming part of the URC language. However, at the same General Assembly, Fresh Expressions team leader Phil Potter addressed a very-well attended fringe meeting and it became clear that there are wide variations in levels of understanding, so there is plenty of work to be done!

At congregation and ministerial level, there is still a fear of change; I don't think this is any different in the URC to any other denomination. We are witnessing something new, which is very scary for a lot of churches – and many church members find it difficult to accept that there are two or three generations who have never heard of Jesus Christ and never set foot inside a church. These churches don't understand why others won't just come to church 'like we did when we were young' and they don't realise that cultural change means that people (not just young people) don't feel obliged to accept the 'hymn sandwich' approach to worship when society expects interaction.

Yet they see the age of their own members increase, and numbers fall, and cannot bring themselves to try something new. It's not that they stubbornly insist on staying the same, it's more a case of them not knowing where – or how – to turn, and anyway, their own church is providing sufficient spiritual nourishment for them, so why should they change?

That's where the message of the mixed economy is so, so important. When I talk to these congregations and leadership teams, I always start by reassuring them that any fresh expression of church, inspired by the promptings of the Holy Spirit, will run alongside their current church and definitely not replace it. Mind you, I do get them to examine what it really means to be a welcoming church – and that can cause a few uncomfortable moments. It's also important to explain that the new expression of church will never be a bridge into their current Sunday service, which again can cause a few murmurs.

Interestingly I've noticed that the churches that are currently in vacancy are often the ones that respond most quickly to the message of fresh expressions. In the URC, the vacancy period is normally at least two years, meaning that these churches have been forced into close self-inspection and started to realise that they need to adapt to new ways of thinking as they work together without a minister.

Like other denominations, during the last two years, the URC has forged ahead in introducing pioneer ministers into some of the Synods (regions). These ministers are discerning the way forward, looking and listening for ways to set up fresh expressions of church in their own areas. This has led to some important discussions in the church about the nature of ministry, ordination and church leadership. I think the URC is unique in that we have a recognised ministry called Church Related Community Worker (CRCW). These ministers are commissioned to help the church live out its calling to serve as Christ in the community; this can lead to some confusion, because CRCW ministry can look similar to Pioneer ministry. CRCWs make a huge difference as they encourage churches to engage with their communities, and bring the Gospel message to those who may not otherwise hear. Their remit is to enrich the community, whilst the pioneer remit is to develop a new worshipping community.

The URC is working hard to embed fresh expressions into its everyday life, and I believe we're now starting to see the difference in our denomination.

(Reform) Faith in action: fresh expressions in the URC

Linda Rayner explores why United Reformed Churches sometimes struggle with the term fresh expressions, in an article published in Reform magazine in July 2012.

Churches sometimes struggle with the term fresh expressions – but I'm simply looking to chart things being done with the intention of forming a new type of church community.

I am often asked to go and talk to congregations and elders about mission opportunities and one of the first messages they hear is that mission doesn't necessarily mean bringing people into church; instead it centres on taking mission out to where people are. As a result of that we then start talking about fresh expressions of church which are established mainly for those who are not yet members of any church at all. I am also Training and Development Officer for North West Synod and it's amazing how much the two roles dovetail. On top of that, I am studying at Northern College, so there is quite a lot to fit into a working week!

One of my tasks is to map URC congregations working to establish new ways of being church. This is as much about relationship building as it is about information gathering and I'm delighted that the networks now know about my role and are much more familiar with what it means.

The mapping results so far have included some surprises. I'm not seeing a specific geographical pattern for instance but there are many pockets of activity up and down the country and I have come across a lot of churches involved in fresh expressions ecumenical partnerships.

Some people, when describing something like café services, may say, 'It's not a 'proper' fresh expression because we have been doing it for years.' I know that churches sometimes struggle with using the term fresh expressions but I'm simply looking to chart things being done in a new way, a way that has the intention of forming a new type of church community.

Fresh Expressions' thinking is not in the bloodstream everywhere in the URC but it's not in every Anglican or Methodist Church either. I don't think the URC has any specific challenges compared to the other denominations in this regard. Our congregational nature means there can be all sorts of exciting things going on but the wider URC church community is not always aware of them. The irony is that people outside the church can often grasp the idea of what it means to be a fresh expression far more quickly than those inside the church; they're also quick to ask questions or make it clear they're not interested! I see that in my leisure time too. I'm a fan of modern jive and there are people who – as soon as they know I work for the church – simply disappear and I never get another dance with them. Then there are those who want to know more and more about my work. In other words, meeting people where they are and not trying to force the issue.

Eastern Synod has appointed a new Pioneer Minister, Rev Tim Yau. They have employed Tim to look at developing church in and around Ipswich waterfront and on a local housing estate. He has been observing what is already going on there as part of his listening for mission to become part of the community. I'm really looking forward to seeing what develops there.

A highlight of my work so far has come from URC-focused 'vision days' which are designed to highlight fresh expressions and the concept of going out in mission rather than bringing people in. 62 people attended the day at Bramhall, Cheshire, and the plan is to produce tailor made resources and arrange further Vision Days for our churches because the material is turning out to be very enlightening for those within the URC.

Look out for me at General Assembly where there will be a Fresh Expressions stand in the venue foyer and a Special Interest Meeting when it is hoped that the leader of the Fresh Expressions' national team, Bishop Graham Cray, will be part of a speaking panel. I will be encouraging people to keep on doing what they see is working; they shouldn't feel that they have got to change it. On the other hand, if there are ways to get the Gospel message out to people in a different way, then give it a try because – even if you give it 12 months and then find it's not right in your context – you won't regret it. If you sit there and don't try at all, you will never know.

Linda Rayner is URC Coordinator for Fresh Expressions.