Ministering in Babylon? (Will Cookson)

Will CooksonWill Cookson wonders whether he is ministering in Babylon.

Alas, alas, the great city,

Babylon, the mighty city!

For in one hour your judgment has come.

Revelation 18.10

What a mess. The world financial markets are in a near state of collapse and protestors camp out on streets around the world. In London, the story of the St Paul's camp is well documented. Initial plans were to occupy the London Stock Exchange (hence the protestors' hashtag on twitter is #olsx), but the demonstrators end up on the cathedral's steps.

The mighty doors are closed for a period and the resignations follow of Canon Giles Fraser and the Dean, Graeme Knowles. The Church of England becomes a laughing stock, with political commentator Guido Fawkes tweeting: 'So #OccupyLSX score so far: Evil Capitalist Bankers Defeated – Nil, Wishy Washy Anglicans Resigned 2.'

As a drama, Downton Abbey author Julian Fellowes couldn't have done better.

But what has all this to do with fresh expressions? Well, I want to suggest that all of us – whether in a cathedral, inherited church or fresh expression of church like mine – can simply try too hard to get things right while in the eye of the storm. That can leave us in a terrible mess, just as it did for St Paul's.

When expectations are off the scale, it is all too easy to feel obliged to make a decision – any decision – to look bold and in command. That is when mistakes are made but, as Bishop Chartres said in a Radio 4 interview, 'Christians are very used to near-death experiences; they're also used to resurrections.'

Fewer decisions by us and more listening may reach deeper into our communities than we can ever imagine

What I think we are seeing now is something that many others find difficult to do, namely to bring people together who would not otherwise engage in dialogue or discussion. The church in London is becoming increasingly involved in talks between protestors and bankers and is playing a leading role in reflecting on the morality of the financial systems and markets.

Now I don't think this means that we dictate the solutions (and mostly when we do, they come out as naïve and just headline grabbing). However, what we are well placed to do is help them to search for common ground in order to hear and be heard. We believe in a triune God, a God who in his very being is relational. Therefore we must realise that everything is relational and everyone is called into relationship. At our best, we recognise that and allow space for all.

We got off to a bad start at St Paul's. Maybe, just maybe, we are starting to see what the church does best – namely to sit in the gap and start a real dialogue. When we do the same in our own communities then we can find beautiful examples of people from very different backgrounds sitting down together and listening to one another and learning from one another. They may even become friends.

We may, or may not, be in Babylon, but the reality is that we are still called to serve all those who come our way. Fewer decisions by us and more listening may reach deeper into our communities than we can ever imagine.

In the spotlight of statistics (Will Cookson)

Will Cookson discusses being in the spotlight of statistics.

Did you hear Radio 4's Today programme on New Year's Eve? The Archbishop of Canterbury was interviewed about the decline in numbers, and influence, of the Church of England. The statistics are, of course, pretty dreadful (only 20% self-defined themselves as Church of England in the 2011 census and that is down from 40% in 1981).

Now, the thing about numbers is that all too often people use them badly. They are either written off as 'lies, damned lies and statistics' or they are used badly to justify our own prejudices.

But good statistics should challenge us to think more clearly and deeply about what we face and – through prayer, discussion and thinking – enable us to perceive where God is calling us to be and to do. Good statistics shine a spotlight on us and our situation. The danger is that we try and pretend that they say something else or explain them away, precisely because they challenge us.

I have been struck afresh reading the call of the first disciples in the Gospel of Mark. What hit me was that when Jesus called them they were not promised where they were going or what their life would look like. They were just called to follow Jesus and to do so immediately. As Jesus says to them, 'Come, follow me, and I will show you how to fish for people!' (Mark 1.17 NLT). Their lives would never be the same again. The cost of giving up their life as it was, with their jobs and families and familiarity of routine, was to be replaced with a new and risky one.

One of the things that Archbishop Justin seemed to be saying in his Today interview was that we need to re-capture this adventure of travelling with Jesus; that we might not know what the future will look like but it is enough for us to be following Jesus and to use what we have to reach out with the good news.

Overall, the fresh expressions movement is encouraging churches to think creatively whilst preserving what is good. The Archbishop welcomed the way that fresh expressions of church have already increased the Church of England by the equivalent of two dioceses, with the vast majority of those attending from de-churched or unchurched backgrounds.

But more is needed

We need to continue to encourage one another to be adventurous and creative. This year at Springfield Church, we are beginning to build Missional Community Groups to reach out with the good news of Jesus – as well as experiment with more creative forms of services. For instance, we scrapped our traditional Nativity and carol services in 2013 and replaced them with a Christmas Experience, using gospel music and drama to re-tell the Christmas story.

But more is needed

We need to grow our understanding of the society that we seek to serve. That is why I am looking forward to the Faith in Research Church Growth Conference in London on Thursday, January 16. I'm looking forward to be challenged with more research and statistics as to how the church can grow further and what more is needed.

Springfield Church – in the spotlight with Rowan Williams

Will Cookson, of Springfield Church, Wallington, Surrey, reports how a long-planned visit from the Archbishop of Canterbury became a once-in-a-lifetime experience. In his first visit to a church since the announcement of his resignation, Rowan Williams discussed the practicalities of the announcement and why he believes God persuaded him to take fresh expressions of church seriously.

Sometimes events just present themselves. Months ago, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, accepted an invitation to the 20th anniversary celebration of our fresh expression of church. This took place on Sunday (18th March) – just two days after Rowan had announced he was standing down!

His press officer spoke to me about how she was trying to keep the media away from the service (seemingly the BBC had expressed an interest). It had always been the plan that I would interview him but there suddenly felt more pressure – especially as he only gave one interview to the Press Association and wasn't giving others – and I felt a real concern not to embarrass him.

The day turned out to be an amazing one. He arrived for a youth breakfast prior to the service of celebration. His new chaplain commented to me that he (the chaplain that is) found it a bit of a 'culture shock but that shows how marvellous the Church of England is'. There were so many wonderful highlights and memories to take from it. The enthusiasm of Rowan with the young people, the handing out of flowers to the children and his obvious joy in blessing the youngsters, his sermon without notes, his obvious humility and warmth and his tangible holiness.

I believe that the service will be remembered as a key event in the life of Springfield. No-one can ever again say that they don't feel Springfield should be part of the Church of England (externally or internally). I believe that it has given our church a confidence in its place and its mission that has been deepened by his visit.

My planned 5-10 minute interview in front of the congregation actually turned into 20 minutes because my clock broke!! I can't say I was sad about that… it was a great privilege and Rowan said some important things as part of it.

In his resignation he said that one of the two things that gave him most satisfaction was the launch of Fresh Expressions. So I asked him about what had convinced him of the need for Fresh Expressions.

His answer was initially brief: 'God'. He went on to describe how as a Bishop in Monmouth he was aware of so many different things happening outside the church and when he became Archbishop that

there ought to be some way of connecting all that with the mainstream of the Church more effectively and more intentionally.

He then said that it felt like Graham Cray's report [Mission-shaped Church] was

one of those moments that God had prepared – things slotted together.

His visible commitment to Fresh Expressions around the country has ensured that they have been given the space to thrive and grow. It gives places like Springfield and others space to come into being and to be reminded that

the Church is always being restored and renewed from unexpected places.

A marvellous, wonderful, life-giving day. Thank you Rowan for being such a prophetic Archbishop!

Springfield - Rowan Williams

A full transcript of the Archbishop's address can be found on the Archbishop of Canterbury's website.

Springfield Church

Will Cookson is minister of a 'church that was a fresh expression before the term was invented'. He tells how important it is for fresh expressions of church to keep on reinventing themselves.

Watch Will Cookson and Sue Bosley discuss multiplication not duplication (transcript available on the update Oct12 link to the right).

Springfield Church was originally set up by Holy Trinity Wallington in 1992 to reach out to the community. In 2002 it became what is known as an Extra-Parochial Place (EPP) in Southwark Diocese which meant we had no 'official' parish and no church building. Our two key objectives were, and are, mission and worship and we now have about 400 people of whom about 40% are under the age of 18.

Springfield's two congregations meet in different places in Wallington on Sundays at 10.30am. The larger one gets together at Wallington High School for Girls while our second is the Springfield@Roundshaw cafe church which meets at St Paul's church on the Roundshaw estate.

Springfield Church - café church

The thing about a fresh expression is that over time it can become regularised in the way it does things so it has to re-discover itself. To an extent, when I came here almost 10 years ago that was what had happened to Springfield; it had got set in its ways. The thing that cried out to me was to go to a cell church model because everything has to be relational if it's going to 'speak' to people outside inherited church.

We are doing this through a whole series of different things, such as a Christian club at a local school (Xplore), Messy Church in the same venue (Footsteps), parent and toddler group transformed into Messy Church format, as well as cell groups and various ministries – such as an English conversation class – planted in the community. When we were asked by the vicar at Roundshaw estate to plant a new congregation in that area, we sent out 25 people and now average about 40 at the café church. Most of those who have joined come from the estate itself.

We have a huge focus on relationships and building events and ministries that reinforce and complement each other. To my mind, too many Messy Churches have focused on trying to get the numbers in and getting the event done efficiently. We concentrate on the relationships that people can make there and – as a result – have seen friendships growing, families joining us for other events, parents getting involved to help and some becoming part of Sunday congregations, cell groups and taking part in Alpha courses. The social events organised by those different cell groups look to encourage community and it may take one, two or three years for people to get involved to that level – but that's OK, it all takes time.

Springfield Church - smile

The common problem for many churches is that they have some great ministries but they are stand-alone and don't benefit from the relational overlap. So, for example, children come to Xplore on Mondays after school with their families invited to our monthly Messy Church. Those in Year Six are given invitations to our youth outreach The Mix, again every month, at a local community centre. The larger-scale events we put on are never officially advertised; we prefer to use word of mouth and ask people and families if they'd like to come along. Feast in the Field attracts about 600 people as a community event with laser quest, assault courses, Scalextric and face painting among other things. We also take up to 600 people to the cinema at Christmas. If we advertised I am sure that we could get larger crowds in but we would lose out on relationship building. We find that the more that we overlap and inter-connect what we do, the more that people are interested and able to take the next step in their faith journey.

Springfield Church - sharingThe Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, will be visiting Springfield Church to help us celebrate our 20th anniversary next year by preaching and presiding at our Sunday morning service on 18 March. It's a wonderful recognition that churches such as ours are now integral parts of the Church of England and no longer an oddity! The Archbishop's visit is a practical sign of his enthusiasm for this mixed economy and a huge encouragement for us.

Springfield has always been a different sort of church. We were a fresh expression before the term was invented! The thing with many fresh expressions is that as their communities mature then it's all too easy for them to revert to 'normal' church mode.

We really emphasise to our leaders that the focus shouldn't be on the task but on the people they're seeking to serve and reach for Christ. This has led to a real depth of community with a very high level of participation; about 80% of our congregation is involved in something.

The important thing for anyone involved in a fresh expression to remember is that we're here to reach the unchurched. The disenchanted Christian and dechurched Christian will also come our way but keeping that outward focus is vital if we're going to continue in our true calling.