Time for a change (Paul Whittle)

Paul WhittlePaul Whittle thinks it might be time for a change.

Lesslie Newbigin once said: 'The nature of the church is never to be finally defined in static terms, but only in terms of that to which it is going.' Part of church is to be changing – and fresh expressions of church are currently offering exciting examples of how that is happening.

This is nothing new. The mid seventeenth century early independents (or congregationalists) were developing relevant ways of being church. In the first half of the eighteenth century, John Wesley responded to the need to find new ways (not instead of the old ones, but to go alongside them) and so began Methodism. Just two examples.

Through most of the 1980s I was minister at a former Central Mission of Congregationalism which, in the first half of the twentieth century, had offered such services as the poor man's (sic) lawyer, public baths (preferred to the municipal version as the plug didn't pop up after a given period), and limited medical services.

But things move on. The Church Related Community Work programme is a small but important and innovative element in United Reformed Church life. Church Related Community Workers offer a parallel ministry to that of more conventional Ministers of Word and Sacrament, seeking to enable churches to engage in and with their communities and so creating change and bringing possibility.

This, for me, is one form of pioneer ministry. Not all the programme does would be identifiable as 'fresh expressions' – but much would be. In Nechells, Birmingham we developed a breakfast club, under fives work, girls' club, credit union, nearly new shop, internet cafĂ©, etc, alongside alternative worship and Bible study. That particular project now takes a different form, and may close, but for twenty years made a significant difference in a vulnerable community. Fresh expressions are probably not for ever!

Much mission falters because we jump straight from encounter to discipling – we have missed out the need to build relationship

Reading Steve Hollinghurst's book Mission Shaped Evangelism, I was struck by his suggestion that effective projects tend to operate on three levels.

First: 'build relationships in the wider community on their territory'. Second: 'create or find places where Christians and non-Christians build relationships and explore issues'. Third: 'establish discipleship groups explicitly aimed at those who want to explore and deepen Christian faith'.

Hollinghurst suggests that much mission falters because we jump straight from stage one to three. We move from encounter to discipling – and it doesn't work because we have missed out the need to build relationship. Perhaps another problem for some of us is getting stuck at stage two. Good fresh expressions of church don't make either mistake.