Hot air balloonsFresh expressions serve a society that prizes diversity

Respecting differences is a hallmark of today's world. This should be nothing new for the church. Diversity was built into the church's genetic code when it was born at Pentecost.

We should expect the church to take different forms to connect with different people, and to develop a variety of theologies in response to questions these people are asking.

Much of the doctrine we take for granted, such as the Trinity, was developed in response to questions that arose during the early centuries of Christianity. So we shouldn't be surprised if 'new' theologies emerge today. Of course, these new theologies (and new forms of church) should be faithful to the word of God.

Diversity is a mark of the Holy Spirit

At Pentecost, the Spirit did not enable the different cultural groups in Jerusalem to speak the same language; the apostles were equipped to speak in different languages. What an affirmation of cultural variety! The Spirit touches individuals – and cultures – differently. People's spiritual journeys are rarely the same. As Lord Carey used to say,

The Spirit never leaves identical fingerprints.

Churches have often stifled diversity: 'This is what churches normally do; let's do it here'

Yet churches have often stifled diversity. When they have sought to reproduce, they have imported an inherited model of church - 'This is what churches normally do; let's do it here.'

But meeting on a Sunday, having a monologue sermon and following other normal church practices may not be appropriate for the people the church is called to serve. Church round a meal, including discussion of a Bible passage, raucous laughter and a period of quiet mediation with candles may be far more suitable.

A lot of church planting in the 1990s was ineffective because it didn't take local cultures seriously. Not enough time was spent listening to people whom the church plant sought to serve. A pre-existing model of church was plopped into a school or a housing estate instead of allowing church to emerge out of a group, in a form that fitted the people involved (George Lings & Stuart Murray, Church Planting: Past, Present and Future, Grove Books, 2003). 

Different expressions of church can connect with different people

If you narrow choice - 'This is the only sort of church you can go to' - you exclude people. But if you increase choice, you widen access. No one expression of church can be fully involved with lots of 'people groups' simultaneously. Teenagers seldom gravitate to churches full of grannies! 

A church needs to be immersed in a particular culture to serve people. If it is not, people in that culture will struggle to identify with the church, to see it as 'theirs'. Churches reproduce effectively when they plant offspring in specific cultures – be they older people, children, a council estate or users of a leisure centre.   

That is one reason why many different expressions of church are starting to emerge. Society continues to fragment, and the church is taking more varied forms to serve those fragments.

Does this mean that the parish is dead?

The parish system was the Church of England's attempt to be present in every community in the land. Now that society is more fragmented, fresh expressions have become a 21st century way of carrying that vision forward. They are a means for church to be present in a multiplicity of networks and neighbourhoods within or alongside the parish system. This presence will take different forms to connect with different cultures.

Discovery Days - puppet showThe Diocese of Oxford set up a community project called Discovery Days on a growing new housing estate, home to a wide cross-section of people. As the estate grew in size, so did the number of groups for different people provided by the project.

Now people of all ages, interests and occupations enjoy the chance to come together in fun and fellowship. Some are beginning to make the journey into 'church', which will take a form that fits the estate.

But shouldn't the church comprise people who are different?

Many Christians are cautious about churches made up of the same kind of people - technically known as the 'homogeneous unit principle' (which is discussed more fully in More on homogeneous units.)

Shouldn't there be a rich mixture of people

Because in Christ 'there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female' (Galatians 3.28)? In heaven there will be no divisions. Every tribe, tongue and nation will be gathered round the throne of God (Revelation 5.9-13, 7.9, 15.4). Shouldn't church be a foretaste of this?

Christians should be themselves in their particular culture, but also in some way connect to people with different cultures

However, culture is always a particular culture

The culture of a group is what gives the group its identity. It makes the group different to other groups. That is why people join the group. They identify with its culture, whereas they do not identify with the culture of another group.

So you could have a gathering of different ages, but the way everyone related, what they did and the values they cherished would create a culture that was specific to that group. Members of the group would have things in common, but other people might not share the group's common interests, shared values or agreed ways of doing things. People outside the group might say, 'That's not me.' In saying that, they would be recognising that their culture is different.

The idea that everyone can have the same culture is an illusion

People are different, and because of that they form groups that look different. That is why Revelation pictures different tribes, languages and nations coming together. People will gather round God in their distinct cultures. Why? Because they will be free to be themselves. Fresh expressions bring a foretaste of this when they both reflect people's different cultures and link these cultures together. Christians should be themselves in their particular culture, but also in some way connect to people with different cultures.

Diversity and connectedness will go hand in hand when Christ returns

That should inspire us to make sure both are part of the church's life today. This theme is developed in God values unity across diversity.

Should we celebrate theological diversity?

Some pioneers of fresh expressions would say: 'Yes'. Not only should the form of church reflect different cultures, but we should allow culture to throw fresh light on what we understand by the gospel. 

When the church reaches new groups of people, often it faces new questions that lead to new theological insights. Paul developed the notion of justification by faith as he faced a new situation: should Gentiles be circumcised?

The doctrines of Trinity and incarnation were developed as theologians grappled with the questions of the Hellenistic-Roman world. Christian theology is expanding today as it comes into contact with new areas of experience in Asia and Africa

Andrew F. Walls, The Cross-Cultural Process in Christian History, Orbis, 2002, ch2

If the Spirit is active in the world, wouldn't we expect traces of the Spirit's activity to speak to us from within the surrounding society?

As fresh expressions engage with people from very different cultures to inherited church, shouldn't we expect new questions to arise and new theologies to be developed in response?

Going further, if the Spirit is active in the world, wouldn't we expect traces of the Spirit's activity to speak to us from within the surrounding society? 

All this makes some Christians nervous. They fear that our understanding of the gospel could be too heavily influenced by culture. These concerns should be carefully heard. (You might want to read D. A. Carson, Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church: Understanding a Movement and its Implications, Zondervan, 2005).

To ensure that fresh theology remains faithful to the historic gospel, might new insights be helpfully checked against the following criteria?

  • Have these insights come out of a context where the Spirit is clearly at work? The Jerusalem leaders affirmed Paul's new insight - that Gentile converts did not need to be circumcised - partly because they saw convincing evidence of the Spirit's work (Acts 15.8, 12).
  • Do the insights have a precedence in Scripture? Indeed, do they throw fresh light on Scripture? Do they create an 'A-ha!' moment - 'These Bible passages make so much more sense when we read them in this way'? (It may be helpful to read Ray S. Anderson, An Emergent Theology for Emerging Churches, Bible Reading Fellowship, 2007, ch. 6.)
  • Are the insights being approved by the wider church? This process of reception, as it is technically known, can take time, but a good question to ask is whether there is evidence that the process has begun.

Though the essence of gospel and church remain constant, each has to be re-expressed in the culture to which God sends us. Both may have to address new questions.

All this adds to the diversity of the church, and may raise questions about the very nature of church (see Are fresh expressions proper church?).