The power of words (Norman Ivison)

Norman IvisonNorman Ivison explores the power of words.

I'm having the fascinating experience at the moment of watching my 18 month old granddaughter acquire language. She is already learning that if she wants a certain response she needs to use certain words. She is getting quite skilled at it  – especially when her doting grandparents are around.

As a professional communicator, I have always been aware of the potency of language. As the Fresh Expressions initiative emerged six years ago, I remember how important it was to get the 'language' right if the values and principles were to gain currency. But it is also easy to forget the power of words.

Reading a fascinating book at the moment on male spirituality (The Intimate Connection by James Nelson) has made me ask how different the Fresh Expressions movement might have been if we had adopted another kind of language. It's a question that has crossed Lucy Moore's mind recently and she responds with her usual insight and humour in the book Pioneers 4 Life, edited by David Male.

So, for example, instead of 'pioneer' with all its stereotypical masculine 'starting from scratch', 'going into foreign places' connotations, how about 'nurturing' with its gentle approach, 'developing what is already there', 'doing it in a safe place' connotations? In some ways nurturing language is more faithful to the theology of missio dei, believing as I do that we are going where God is already and that nowhere is really the Wild West.

To some extent we almost become what we say we are, and that applies as much to the missional church as it does to the individual. In using the language of pioneering or venturing, we are in danger of saying that when forming new contextual churches you need leaders able to go into unexplored places, to hack out a home in the wilderness, to bring civilisation to the desert.

How different might the Fresh Expressions movement have been if we had adopted another kind of language?

But that is only half the story and in some places not the story at all. According to an online dictionary, a pioneer is 'a person who is among those who first enter or settle a region, thus opening it for occupation and development by others'. That's a very church-centric view of the way the Christian faith will emerge and develop in a new place. It can make the mistake of the hardened cowboy, herding the cattle and creating a homestead in the second half of the nineteenth century. They should have realised and we need to realise that wherever we go there are people already there. We will rarely be the 'first to enter and settle a region'. God will have long before started planting the seeds and tilling the soil and maybe even enjoying the growth.

So what kind of person is attracted to pioneering? Back to our choice of words. Would more women have applied to be missional ministers if 'nurturing' language had been available to them I wonder? I am in danger of making assumptions about gender difference I know – after all, there were some women pioneers in the Wild West – but how might the fresh expressions movement look if we emphasised the need to protect and foster the latent Christian faith we find, and stand alongside, holding hands and drying tears, rather than forging ahead, clearing the land and building church?

Before the Fresh Expressions office sends me my P45, I need to say that pioneering/venturing  language has and is serving us well. But we need other terminology alongside that if we are to do justice to our theology of cross-cultural mission here in the UK and to the wide range of people God could be calling into this work. It may make our communication more difficult and messy, but we are up for that.

The lesson for me as a paid communicator is always to watch my words and be aware of my own cultural background as I choose them. Certain words create a certain response. They make a massive difference.

What would Jesus measure?

Norman Ivison explores how we measure 'success'.

New Year's resolutions are obviously on the way out. When I asked a congregation of 150 a couple of weeks ago how many had made them, only 3 people owned up. But New Year is still a time for looking back, taking stock and imagining what a new future might be like.

For each and every fresh expression of church, that process of assessment leading to imagination and then action is really important. Without reviewing the past, where we started from, how far we have travelled; and without imagining the future, where God might be leading us, who might be key to new ways forward, what needs to change, we will simply drift around on a sea of uncertainty. And then you are at the mercy of every changing tide and shifting storm.

Prayer and discernment are key to looking to the future, but there are other practical things we can do to help our fresh expression develop too. I'm fascinated by the way the early church was quite open and transparent about the need to reflect and learn from the past, before moving on into the future. Paul, in particular, was constantly reminding his readers about the journey they had been on and wasn't slow in recommending possible routes ahead. Being willing to assess, to measure progress so far, seems to be an important guiding principle in the first century church.

But how do you do that in a fresh expression of church? Do you simply count heads? If you do, then is the counting done at the largest gathering for worship, across the week to include all activities, or across the whole community engaging with your new form of church? What exactly would Jesus measure?

Assessing how far you have come and imagining where you might go next has got to be much more than simply measuring attendance. Thankfully my colleague, Michael Moynagh, has done some significant thinking on this whole area. In an appendix to his book Being Church, Doing Life, he reminds us that any evaluation needs to be seen as

a contribution to the process of spiritual discernment,

and that discernment

is the process, week in and week out, of help(ing) you recognise what the Spirit wants you to do next.

He goes on to give one method of evaluation based on a fresh expressions journey, and encourages both an evaluation of the quality of our life together and a more quantitative approach to progress too.

So for example, if you feel loving and serving the local community or network is a major priority you could ask two sets of questions.


  • In what ways have you been loving and serving people?
  • What stories reflect well and less well on what you have been doing?
  • For the team, what have been the high and the low points of the past year?
  • What were your hopes at the start of the year and how far have they been achieved?
  • What has surprised you and what have you learned?
  • What ideas for improvement have people suggested?


  • How many people in your network or neighbourhood do team members meet regularly?
  • What are the average numbers at your main event – at the start of the year? At the end?
  • What is the overall number of people you are in touch with (e.g. you see them at least once or twice a year)?
  • What are the results (in relation to your service) of your satisfaction survey, if you have done one?

These are all good questions and you can of course repeat this process with all the stages of a fresh expression journey.

So for many fresh expressions of church it is time to be much more sophisticated in the way we evaluate progress and the way we imagine the way ahead. The new year is a good time to do that and those funding us might be delighted to know that significant progress is being made and that is not just about numbers. And who knows, if fresh expressions demonstrate a new way of assessing where we are on the adventure God is taking us, other churches might quickly follow.

Keep turning the wheels

'Keep turning the wheels!' I was grateful for that unsophisticated, but sincere, piece of advice from a friend a few months ago when I told him I planned to cycle from Newcastle to Edinburgh.

There was, of course, a good deal more to it than that. Challenges included pedalling through a mini Scottish heatwave whilst forgetting to top up on water, reading a map on the move and keeping the old dérailleur free from grit and dust! (For the non-cyclists reading this: a 'dérailleur' is the device that changes gears by moving the bike chain from one sprocket to another.)

Needless to say, there was a good deal of necessary multi-tasking, but actually all I seemed to be doing was cycling (yes, and sometimes pushing) along quiet country roads.

Helping something to move in a particular direction is actually quite a complex task. That's no less true for the church. Looking back over the last ten years since the Mission-shaped Church report was published, it's encouraging to see how much has changed and moved forwards. But there is a long way to go.

The vast majority of congregations are still to look at ways of engaging those with whom they currently have no contact. National and regional church leaders have difficult resourcing decisions to make. How do you keep the show on the road and yet at the same time reach brand new areas?

The Fresh Expressions partnership has done a great deal to help train and encourage local pioneers. We are in touch with thousands of people who want to try new ways of being church, who want forms of church which will be relevant places for their friends. We are championing best practice and trying to support and accompany wherever we can.

There has also been a real attempt, particularly in the Church of England and Methodist Church, to effect policy change and explore new forms of ministry and leadership. Other denominations have quickly followed suit. But sometimes it still feels as if progress, though considerable, needs further encouragement along the way.

If the UK church is serious about trying to reach those usually well off its radar, especially if it is going to go for growth, then the task is complex. Like riding a bike or operating an intricate piece of machinery, attention has to be paid to every part. We need to oil the inter-connecting cogs in order to help ease the journey.

The church finds itself in a new missional context in these days; those responsible for selecting and training both lay and ordained leaders need our support to discern the best way forward to respond to that context – as do the people holding the purse strings. How to make financial decisions that have a positive impact on mission in such difficult, economic times? It's an enormous task. Let's pray for those in the thick of those budgetary demands.

There's no doubt that missional experience (and passion!) is increasingly essential in the person specification for many of the church's key leadership roles. Do we take that into consideration enough I wonder? Accountability is a question that is often on the agenda when fresh expressions of church are discussed; let's lend a helping hand to anyone with the responsibility to implement policy changes within denominational structures – changes which involve individuals being held to account. How can such changes be embraced? How can we give support?

Of course there are challenges. Regional church leaders already have extremely lengthy 'to do' lists so who can possibly have an overview of all this? Hard-pressed local leaders often run from pillar to post just to keep up with the regular demands of church life. So, in the end, it will be those to whom God has given a passion for people who have not yet met him, and are unlikely to meet him in conventional church, who need to get those wheels turning.

That will mean pioneers taking a holistic approach, and getting involved in diocesan synods or circuit meetings. It will mean those pioneers:

  • understanding the decisions that are made and their implications for mission;
  • being willing to talk to those responsible for implementing policy, especially when things seem to be moving slowly.

It will also mean involvement with those designing courses and training schemes and helping them to contextualise what is taught – as well as feeding into discussions with leaders and treasurers as tricky financial decisions are made. It won't be easy but it is worth it!

One decade on from that report and many committed and hard-working pioneers are beginning to make a big difference to their communities and networks. The signs are good. Many people, who have never been part of church, are finding faith for the first time. But if this new movement of contextual, missional churches is to gain momentum, let's not forget to have a regular 'MOT' so that every 'cog', every aspect of our lives as churches together, is put to the test.

We can't offer short cuts and there's a steep incline ahead of us, but it's exciting to tackle it together.

Sermons: in or out? (Norman Ivison)

Norman Ivison asks whether sermons are in or out.

I must have visited over fifty fresh expressions of church in the last few years and in only a handful have I heard a sermon as part of the gathering for worship. That's not surprising. The emergence of post-modernism with its dislike of authority and meta-narrative, contemporary educational theory and real attempts to create contextual learning experiences, all cast the traditional monologue-sermon in a rather poor light.

It's a brave blogger who dares criticise the sermon model though, and personally I love the challenge of preparing and delivering a well crafted sermon. In fact many see the conventional sermon as God-given, although I still need to be convinced that what passes for preaching in many churches is anything like the preaching and teaching we read about in the New Testament. Indeed, according to John Stott's I Believe in Preaching, the sermon is 'indispensable to Christianity'. David Day defends it too in a workbook for preachers, saying that whilst the monologue-sermon seems to be universally derided, the speech per se is not dead, citing the popularity of stand-up comedians.

But do traditional sermons make an impact? According to research done by staff and students at Durham University, many Christians look forward to the weekly sermon, but under 17% said they frequently changed the way they lived as a result of hearing one [The View from the Pew, CODEC/College of Preachers, 2009].

When I surveyed 34 fresh expressions of church, it became clear that a wide range of alternatives to the sermon was employed including group discussion, practical action, individual mentoring, and online learning. But to be honest, some of the teaching I experienced seemed rather superficial and one-dimensional, and felt as though it had been prepared at the last minute. I know you can say that about many more conventional churches too, but I guess I expected better from those really wanting to engage people who have never experienced church before. One leader admitted he woke up on Friday mornings with a heavy feeling in his stomach and a thought buzzing round his head: 'what am I going to say to the community this evening?' Transformational preaching and teaching seems to be in short supply both in conventional and fresh expressions of church.

I did though come across some excellent examples of a thought-through strategy to teaching and preaching. One city centre fresh expression based its modes of teaching on the four Honey and Mumford learning styles, based on those of educationalist David Kolb, as spelt out in his book Experiential Learning. He claims that people learn mainly:

  • by feeling rather than thinking, preferring to trust their hearts more than their head;
  • or by watching situations and impartially describing them, preferring to observe rather than experiment;
  • or by thinking more than feeling, preferring to use logic and ideas;
  • or by actively experimenting as a prime way of learning, preferring doing rather than observing.

That seemed a creative way of acknowledging that sermons don't work for everyone.

So before we throw the homiletical baby out with the pedagogical bathwater, we need to try very hard to find good alternative models to the traditional sermon, if we do believe this one-size-fits-all, tried and tested model, no longer works well for most people in our context. We also need to make sure that a balanced diet is offered. David Dunn-Wilson, in his book, A Mirror for the Church, says that every church should be teaching in six areas: the missional, pastoral, apologetic, ascetic, liturgical, and doctrinal. But it is so easy in a fresh expression, to major on the pastoral and missional and forget the rest.

So here is the challenge: tell us how you teach and preach in the fresh expression you are part of. How do you plan what you do and at the same time remain sensitive to the contemporary needs of your community? How do you measure the effectiveness of your teaching? How do you provide opportunity for interaction and discussion? If you engage mainly one-to-one, how can that be sustained as your community grows?