'Fresh expressions of church' is a term coined by the Church of England report Mission-shaped Church and used in the Church of England and the Methodist Church for the last five years.
It is a way of describing the planting of new congregations or churches which are different in ethos and style from the church which planted them; because they are designed to reach a different group of people than those already attending the original church. There is no single model to copy but a wide variety of approaches for a wide variety of contexts and constituencies. The emphasis is on planting something which is appropriate to its context, rather than cloning something which works elsewhere.
Some fresh expressions are very different from church as we have been used to it in the UK – there is a surfer church on Polzeath beach, a youth congregation based in a skate park and a church for skiiers. Others are more familiar but in unfamiliar settings – such as church in a café, pub, church or school. They can be found in rural areas as well as in towns and cities and have been planted to reach all age groups - pensioners as well as those focused on children or young families. There is no intention to divide people up. The surfer church does not have security guards to ban non-surfers at the door. But the aim is to plant church into the communities to which people actually belong. Then those churches can reach out to people who are different as well. Many churches are neighbourhood based, but fresh expressions of church are also planted into networks.
This is based on two important biblical principles, both found in 1 Corinthians. First they assume that when the gospel is preached in a new community, God grows a church, not just wins some individual Christians. Paul says that he planted the gospel seed, others watered it, but God gave the growth and what he grew was the church in Corinth (1 Corinthians 3.6-9). He also says that when the new believers were baptised, they were all baptised ‘into one body’ (1 Corinthians 12.13) The second principle is that, just as God's Son entered our world to win us, so Christian missionaries need to enter the cultures they are trying to reach (1 Corinthians 9.19-23), so that new believers only have to face the stumbling block of the cross (1 Corinthians 1.18-25) and not the stumbling block of church culture as well! They can then become agents for change within their culture rather than be drawn out of it into a church culture, which may be alien to them.
The Fresh Expressions initiative has been encouraging and resourcing these developments for the past ten years. It has coined a working definition of a fresh expression of church. It will not be the final word but it is good enough for now.
A fresh expression is a form of church for our changing culture established primarily for the benefit of people who are not yet members of any church.
- It will come into being through principles of listening, service, incarnational mission and making disciples.
- It will have the potential to become a mature expression of church shaped by the gospel and the enduring marks of the church and for its cultural context.
It is a long definition but it is worth unpacking carefully. A fresh expression is a church plant or a new congregation. It is not a new way to reach people and add them to an existing congregation. It is not an old outreach with a new name ('rebranded' or 'freshened up'). Nor is it a half-way house, a bridge project, which people belong to for a while, on their way into Christian faith, before crossing over to 'proper' church. This is proper church!
Fresh expressions are a response to 'our changing culture'. This movement assumes that the church is shaped by both the gospel and the culture it is trying to reach. It is not meant to be conformed to culture, but it is meant to be appropriate for reaching and transforming a culture.
It is primarily for the unchurched – for those who have never been or for those who have stopped going and are not willing to go back to what they experienced before. We are trying to win those who are not reached by church as we know it. At least a third of the adults in the UK, and the majority of children and young people have never been regularly involved in any church in their lifetime – so this is a big mission field, and a growing one.
Because there is no standard model of fresh expression of church. They cannot and should not be cloned! Rather there is a process, which is normally followed, when they are established. It begins with listening – to God and to the community or network you are trying to reach. It is more about discernment than strategic planning: Looking for the Holy Spirit's opportunities, and obeying his call. Out of the listening – which may take some time – comes service: a way of serving the people you are trying to reach. Christians who want to share good news need first to be good news, to show genuine concern for others. This is the start of 'incarnational mission'. Which means following the example of Christ and seeking to evangelise within the community you are now serving. In that context we can begin to make disciples. The very last thing that is decided is the nature of the worship service. Fresh expressions are not about planting a congregation which worships the way the planters prefer and then hoping that other people like it! Listening come first, decisions about worship styles last.
These are fledgling churches and congregations. They have not had the time to become mature. But they have the potential to grow into a mature expression of church. Traditionally the marks of the church have been listed as one, holy, catholic and apostolic. But maturity will not mean they become like the churches which planted them. They must remain relevant to their cultural context.
This language assumes that all local churches are 'expressions of church'. No one local church can fully express Christ and his gospel. Each needs to be related to others, which have different gifts or contexts. In particular the fresh expressions of church are not meant to replace existing forms of church, and they are certainly not in competition with them. We use the expression ‘the mixed economy church’ as a way of saying that the one economy of God’s church need both our inherited approaches and fresh ones.
These are challenging and exciting times. Most denominations are finding that their old ways do not reach some parts of our culture. We need the new and the old and then we can work together to reach our nation.