Ruth Maxey reflects on going on tour with fresh expressions.
This year I had the privilege of three months' sabbatical from my work as a university chaplain. During that time I visited a number of fresh expressions of church, emerging churches and Christian communities. Many of the themes that have emerged during my visits are helpful if we are to constructively engage with today's cultural shifts and become churches that reach out in mission.
We live in a culture that highly values personal experience. It is the shift from trust in an overarching Big Story (meta-narrative) to a focus on our individual personal story.
This is a pattern that could be seen in many of the groups that I visited. The significant question would be, 'How does my experience connect with your experience, my story with your story?' And alongside that, 'How do our stories connect with the story of Jesus and the experience of faith?' This is a journey together, a shared experience, and a shared story. In order for that to be possible, many of the groups remained small, tight networks of friendship where people felt safe to share their story. But always the focus is on the individual personal story and its interconnection with others and with faith.
Our worship, our meetings, our church life therefore need to connect with people's hearts and souls, not just their heads. If we put a rationale for belief before the experience of faith we will have lost people. I believe one of the reasons that my own denomination (URC) is struggling at the moment is that it has historically put a high value on a learned ministry as if the preacher's sole task was to impart knowledge. Culturally we are out of step with a generation that learns through experience and learns collaboratively and we will continue to fail to connect with people unless we can touch their hearts and their souls.
There has been much debate over the idea of the Homogeneous Unit Principle (HUP). Michael Moynagh, a key figure in the fresh expressions movement, has argued strongly in favour of HUP – and will do so again when his new book Church For Every Context: An introduction to theology and practice comes out from SCM Press next year. Many other people, though, will respond that it is important that the church and its worship is there for everyone and therefore to deliberately focus on one group is to deny the broad inclusive nature of the gospel. But worship cannot help but be culturally expressed; it is just that currently most of the mainstream churches are dominated by a style of worship and environment that culturally suits the over 50s (or 60s?).
Most of the groups I visited did not overtly say that they were trying to reach a particular demographic, but the very time, style, place of meeting did, in fact, express their mission focus. That focus is crucial if we are to connect with people beyond the church in a culturally appropriate way.
A lot of time and creative energy had been put into the worship of many of the groups that I visited. Often a lot of effort would go into creating a beautiful worship space (Sanctuary in Birmingham transformed a café into an Asian-style worship space). There was a recognition of the importance of the totality of the worship experience: the sight, the sound, the touch and a shift away from the focus on 'the word'. There was a desire often to recreate a sense of mystery and drama within the worship but combined with an informality. All of this enabled a positive first experience of worship
All the groups and churches that I visited were institutionally light, functioning in a more fluid and organic way than mainstream churches. There were ad-hoc groups formed when needed to meet specific tasks and individuals gifts were used appropriately and not shoe-horned into a pre-formed role. Culturally we increasingly work in collaborative rather than hierarchical ways and the church structurally needs to shift. The URC, already constitutionally more collaborative, should find such a shift easier, but that does not necessarily seem to be the case.
While many of the emerging church/fresh expressions of church that I visited sat lightly to their institutional connections, there was frequently a financial dependence on the mainstream church. There perhaps needs to be a more honest relationship on both sides. Fresh expressions need to recognise their true financial relationship to the mainstream church. Too many, I felt, dismissed the background costs of buildings and ministry. There needs to be an honest exploration of financial sustainability through, for example, imaginative fund-raising as at Beyond, or through more sacrificial giving by those involved.
Also, the mainstream churches need to recognise that they have always funded long-term 'new' patterns of missions in terms of sector ministries such as university chaplaincies, hospital chaplaincies, etc. Equally, overseas missionaries were funded with little expectation that there would be any quick financial return. If these emerging churches/fresh expressions are seen from that perspective, then the pressure from the mainstream churches for them to be quickly self-financing could perhaps be reconsidered. But equally if these new expressions of church really represent the future long-term shape of the church, then financial sustainability and long-term institutional structures will, at some stage, need to be addressed.
It has been a fascinating and inspiring few months. Fresh expressions of church offer no easy solution to the current crisis in the mainstream churches, but they do help to highlight some of the crucial areas where the church needs to grow and develop.