Fresh expressions often develop through experimentation - by trial and error. For example:
- a house group in a small Shropshire town was keen to reach out to young families. Holding worship and social meetings in a local garage proved, however, to be more attractive to the local youth, and 'Garage Praise' was born.
- organisers of a church community project run a café and recycling shop for disadvantaged people in a Merseyside community. They wanted to take their Christian witness further by holding a gathering in a local pub. Over time they realised that the church-like nature of the gathering and a lack of public transport were stopping people coming. Now a breakfast club, TANGO, provides a cheerful space for a closer encounter with the church instead.
- a rural evangelist hoped to create a space separate from church where seekers would feel at home. A monthly meeting in a village hall at first attracted a stable number of unchurched who felt able to bring their questions. Gradually, local Christians also got involved and dominated the group, Sunday 4:6. The evangelist's original vision was lost to a different kind of need. Fresh expressions don't always turn out as hoped.
Experimentation is part of God's creation
What is evolution if it is not a history of experimentation? One species flourishes, another doesn't, a third mutates. It is as if each is asking, 'What will work in this context?' God has chosen experiments to propel creation.
Likewise, civilisation is the product of successful experiments – from houses that fit their environment, to regional diets, to systems of government. Every manufactured thing around us is a successful experiment. Flops have long been forgotten. Experimentation is an essential part of being human.
So when churches experiment, Christians are being true to themselves, as creatures made to experiment. They are also reflecting the character of God, who loves experimentation so much that he has built it into the template of creation.
Experimentation is one of the defining features of fresh expressions
Often pioneers do not know what will take root in their situation, or if church can be planted at all. They try something (sometimes anything!), and then learn from the results.
Some people involved in fresh expressions react negatively to the term 'experiments', feeling that it devalues and marginalises them. Perhaps this reflects the failure of the church to develop a strong theology of experimentation.
If experimenting is a vital aspect of being human, it should not be on the margins of church. A church filled with the Spirit of creativity will have experiments at the centre of its life – whether inherited church or fresh expressions. Why shouldn't a fresh expression keep experimenting?
The church seems to be entering a period of more active experimentation.
This experimentation focuses not on the details of church life but on the very essence of church.
Many new and different forms of church are being started in a variety of contexts. Often local churches and pioneers are flying blind, not sure what will really work.
Quite a few experiments have failed to develop as originally hoped, and many remain fragile. It is in the nature of experiments that many do not work. But there have been plenty of encouragements as well.
It's an exciting time for Christians to join this process of experimentation. Even if results do not live up to the original prayers, sharing experiences with other pioneers will help the church to learn how best it can connect with and serve contemporary people. The more people who experiment, the quicker everyone will learn!
Are we talking about experimentation with mission or around church practice? Being creative with different styles of worship may count as a church experiment but is a very different process to starting with incarnational mission. This requires improvisation, being open to what emerges and letting that shape a community that is both authentic and faithful to the enduring marks of the church.
Beth Keith, The Sheffield Centre
Wouldn't creative be a better word than experiment?
It has a stronger theological resonance, for example. Talking about experimentation, however, has a number of advantages:
- it is profoundly theological because it is such a key aspect of the creative process.
- it sharpens up the idea of trying something new. 'Creative' has that sense too, but 'experimentation' puts it more strongly.
- it contains the idea of failure. Again, failure is often part of the creative process, but the idea comes across more clearly in 'experimentation'. Failure is an obvious part of experimentation. Taking this on board can be liberating - 'God has built failure into the structure of creation, so I don't have to be so afraid of it.'