A populous church is a healthy church? (Toby Cohen)

Toby CohenToby Cohen asks whether a populous church is a healthy church.

It is ironic that the fresh expressions movement is used by the church as a fig leaf when attendance figures again reveal declining involvement in 'traditional' forms of church. Fresh expressions would certainly appear to be the answer to the church's predicament, but only if it pays greater attention to the movement's witness.

For a journalist, the fresh expressions movement is both exciting and frustrating. It provides great feature pieces and quirky short news articles but seldom claims the headlines. As a decentralised entity, it does not announce schisms, pronounce on social ills, or denounce distant bishops. When it does register on the news radar, it is usually at the point it becomes tangible with the church body in such matters as debates about funding, underlying ideology, or the work of Bishop Graham Cray. This nature spares the movement from many of the headaches which dog the traditional church, but it also demonstrates what many regard as a highly authentic form of Christianity.

Evangelicals are usually keen to cast off the shackles of institutionalised forms of church in a bid to return to a faith they describe as more biblical. But there is one common habit which seems to be a remnant of the patriarchal established church. That is, to believe that a populous church is a healthy church.

It's hard to imagine a scenario where the number of people involved in church activities isn't of interest. But a church must be suspicious of itself when it simply looks at attendance figures and finds reason to be boastful or anxious. It is particularly dangerous for people who are part of a less well-attended church in one part of the world and want to associate themselves with large groups in another.

A church must be suspicious of itself when it simply looks at attendance figures and finds reason to be boastful or anxious

I remember a talk 18 months ago with The Economist editor John Micklethwait, co-author of God is Back, and Evangelical Alliance theologian Justin Thacker. It seemed they pictured God as a Victorian schoolboy parading his battalions, returning to us at the end of time to do a head count of the different people united by an arbitrary term. Yes, forms of Christianity are thriving in some developing parts of the world. So are intolerance and violence.

Devotion to the mixed economy mantra is a noble characteristic in many fresh expressions people. But what gets so many of us excited is the fresh expressions attitude that it's what you're doing in the first instance that counts, not how many people you're doing it with. And not what you might do next. There is a relationship between those of course, but it seems the church would particularly benefit from adopting more of that fresh expressions ethos at this time.