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!

Are fresh expressions radical enough? (Matt Stone)

Matt StoneMatt Stone asks whether fresh expressions are radical enough.

Fresh expressions are designed to be fishing nets. They are the central thrust of the church's mission to reach the growing unchurched population – those who are unlikely to just wander through the church doors for an occasional service, and who may not yet be ready for an Alpha Course.

Whilst there are many fresh expressions that are reaching out to the unchurched very well, many others seem to attract more churchgoers and those with a previous church connection. This is not necessarily a bad thing, because we need to close the back door of the church and not just open the front one. But what's the reasoning for why some expressions don't attract those very much outside the church radar? What can we do about it?

Could it be because of their format? Could they still be too much like church services? As Dave Male argues in Evaluating Fresh Expressions (edited by L Nelstrop & M Percy, Canterbury Press, 2008), 'The danger of starting with church worship … is that it works well for those looking to reconnect with church culture but does not hold much attraction for those with no previous experience of church.'

One Eucharistic fresh expression I visited last year still assumes a familiarity with the Eucharist.  It still meets in a church, is structured around a liturgy, and is participative only in the sense that one drinks the bread and wine. Another fresh expression is a service that meets on church premises, albeit with food and a contemporary worship style. There is still a sermon, an offertory, and the chairs are arranged in rows around the screen and worship group. 

Whilst I believe that worship, scripture and the sacraments are vital ingredients of church life and faith, I wonder whether some fresh expressions could be more radical in the way they present, or engage with, these elements. Yes, they are often more context-driven and missionary in intent than traditional forms of church, but if the unchurched are to be reached, are they radical enough? Are we still thinking in a churchy mindset?

I wonder whether part of the problem is the domestication of fresh expressions. Some fresh expressions are simply former children's work programmes or other outreach or alternative services that have been renamed, restyled or repackaged. They are not always that 'fresh'! Have we adopted a 'mission-flavoured' rather than mission-shaped approach?

Fresh expressions: fishing nets or safety nets? (Matt Stone)

Matt StoneMatt Stone asks whether fresh expressions of church are fishing nets or safety nets.

A key question for fresh expressions is: who comes? Are fresh expressions actually being fishing nets and reaching the unchurched, or are they merely safety nets, picking up disenchanted and bored churchgoers? As part of my MA dissertation, published this month by Grove Books, I looked at six varied fresh expressions in the south-east of England and asked exactly these questions. Here's a snapshot of some of my findings.

In keeping with Tearfund's 2007 Report 'Churchgoing in the UK', which suggest that 19% of women attend church at least monthly, compared with only 11% of men, the majority of those who attended the surveyed fresh expressions were female. Considering that women are much more likely to be 'open dechurched' and men 'closed unchurched', it is clear that there is still a serious missional challenge in reaching men for Christ.

The age profile of those attending the fresh expressions was mixed. One might expect a higher proportion of under 30s, but with the exception of the two fresh expressions intentionally aimed at these age groups, this did not appear to be the case. The largest age cohorts were 30-44 and 45-59, and the smallest was 75+. This is in contrast to Tearfund's wider church attendance figures which suggest that one in four over sixties go to church regularly, whilst only one in eight 35-44 year-olds do so.

The overwhelming majority attended at least monthly. At each of the expressions there were between one and three people who were there for the first time, making up 5-33% of attendance. There are no comparable figures for general churchgoing, but given the size of most of the expressions studied, they probably had a much higher proportion of first time visitors than an average church. In terms of length of attendance, respondents' results were mixed.

Are fresh expressions fishing nets (reaching the unchurched) or merely safety nets (picking up disenchanted and bored churchgoers)?

Over 87% of those surveyed in every expression, and 100% in three of the expressions, had attended a church before. Hence, they were primarily churched or dechurched, rather than unchurched. However, it should be noted that at one fresh expression in particular, first time attendees were not encouraged to complete questionnaires, and only three did so. One of the leaders there counted nine completely new attendees, and 35 individuals who were not from that church. Whilst some of these may be from other churches, or are dechurched, we cannot ignore the possibility that a proportion were previously unchurched.

Nonetheless, whilst this fresh expression had the highest proportion of unchurched, all but two (11%) of its other respondents did attend another church too. In contrast, 30-43% of churched/dechurched respondents at all of the other expressions except one did not. Consequently, for a significant minority of those who attend, it is their only contact with a church.

Overall, the research threw up a mixture of good news and challenging news. It became clear that the fresh expressions surveyed were performing an important role for those who attended: whether they were bored churchgoers, dechurched or unchurched. However, it also became clear that very few unchurched people were being reached by some of the fresh expressions, raising further questions for how fresh expressions can reach those still untouched by a Christian community.

Fresh expressions of church growth? (Matt Stone)

Matt StoneMatt Stone asks how and why do fresh expressions of church grow.

How and why do fresh expressions of church grow? What do they do to bring in new members? What might traditional forms of church learn from their approaches? These have been the questions that have interested me as I've studied six varied fresh expressions in the south-east of England. Three key themes emerged.

First, it was clear that fresh expressions' leaders are networkers. They are the nodes in the networks that pass through and make up fresh expressions; reaching out and connecting through local churches, church organisations, schools, friends, families, social networking sites, blogs, websites, leaflets and parish magazines. Publicity is important, but word of mouth seems to be the most powerful tool. The networking is frequently multi-directional, as people connected to other church or social activities are brought into the fresh expression, and those who attend fresh expressions may be encouraged to attend other church or social activities.

Secondly, it became clear that networks were strengthened and embedded by people's desire for community. When asked what they liked about their fresh expression, questionnaire respondents repeatedly commented on the social nature of the expression and the friendships they had formed. As community developed, the members appreciated the way they journeyed together in faith.

How and why do fresh expressions of church grow? What do they do to bring in new members?

Thirdly, it was clear that many respondents appreciated the informality and fluidity of the expression they attended. A relatively unconstrained ecclesiology helped expressions respond to both the call of the Spirit and the spiritual and social needs of those attending. As one leader told me, "Our strategy was just to share values and worship together and teach and see what naturally evolved."

Whilst I only studied six fresh expressions, I would be interested to hear other people's stories. Do these themes ring true? Could and should these ideas be embraced by more traditional forms of church too? Are they fresh models for church growth?