Baby's hand holding parent's fingerReproduction is fundamental to God's mission

Just before the ascension, Jesus told his disciples to reproduce what he had done. He had made them disciples, and they were to do the same with 'all nations' (Matthew 28.19). 

The first Christians 'reproduced' the life of Jesus

That is one way of reading the two volumes, Luke and Acts: the life of Christ continued into the life of the early church. The Spirit seeks to reproduce the Son in believers, who are children of God and drawn into the likeness of Christ. Believers are to reproduce themselves by increasing their number. 

Many of Jesus' parables of the kingdom concern reproductive growth

In John 15, for example, he uses a vine to explore the idea of fruitfulness among his followers.

The key question is: what is fruit for? Certainly it is to be enjoyed and to nourish, but is it a total accident that fruit is the biological mode of reproduction?

George Lings, Anglican Church Plants, Church Structures, Church Doctrine, Their Relationships, A sabbatical report, 1992, p113

Christians have long sought to reproduce themselves by planting new churches

The very first Christians reproduced something of the community life they had enjoyed with Jesus. The church then reproduced itself throughout the Middle East and into Europe and Asia. Down the centuries, again and again, the body of Christ has reproduced itself by starting new churches. Reproduction has spread the church.

Fresh expressions are the latest instalment of this long-running story

They aim not to reproduce clones, just as parents do not naturally reproduce clones of themselves. Rather, they seek to reproduce Christian communities that have something of a family likeness, and yet also express their own distinctive character. Exact 'lookalikes' are rare in a family. By reflecting the variety of the cultures they serve, fresh expressions are making 'lookalike' church less common within the family of God. 

In the west, most churches are trying to grow by addition

'A hundred people come most Sundays. How can we add to that number?' It can feel quite exciting to see the congregation steadily grow. The trouble is that many congregations don't grow. Instead, they get stuck on a plateau or even shrink.

Fresh expressions are about growing church by multiplication

Instead of adding more people to the Sunday congregation, existing church multiplies the number of congregations - different gatherings for different people, who come together from time to time (hopefully) to celebrate their oneness in Christ. UK church statistician, Bob Jackson, has shown in his book, The Road to Growth (CHP, 2005), that the most effective way to increase church attendance is to multiply congregations through some form of church planting.

But can fresh expressions themselves reproduce?

Most have yet to show an ability to do this. Pioneers may need to absorb an ascension theology.

We need to follow the example of Jesus

Footprints, sand and sea

Before departing to heaven, Jesus looked at his disciples and saw that many (the Greek could read 'most') doubted (Matthew 28.17). What might we have done in that situation? We would probably have concluded that three years of discipleship training were not enough. A further period was needed before the disciples would be ready to start reproducing the church.

But that was not how Jesus reacted. He concluded that the best thing to do was to leave his followers to get on with the job. He left them with his teachings, the Old Testament, leadership, a celebratory meal and above all the Holy Spirit, and he trusted the Spirit to equip them for the task ahead. Would we have had the church if Jesus had stayed behind?

Leaving was central to St Paul's missionary work

Forced by circumstances and led by the Spirit, Paul frequently spent only a short period with his new converts. The longest - two years - seems to have been at Ephesus (Acts 19.10). Like Jesus, he left them with the basics of the gospel, the Old Testament, leadership, the sacraments of baptism and communion, and the Holy Spirit, and he trusted the Spirit to use these other resources to mature them in the faith. In Paul's absence, the church spread into the surrounding regions.

Later Paul visited his new churches to encourage them, and of course he wrote to them when the need arose. He provided ongoing support. The departure of the pioneer was a vital part of reproducing church. It freed Paul up to plant further congregations, and it allowed the new converts space to repeat what Paul had done.

Moving on would enable the pioneer to plant again

Planting gifts are rare and the church needs to make the most of them. Church planters are not always church builders.

New converts are given space to step out and become pioneers themselves

Pioneers would model a priority for the church

If they left to plant once more, pioneers would model a church's priority. Often the person who exercises most spiritual influence on new believers is the one who was instrumental in bringing them to faith.

When that person goes on to plant yet another congregation, they make a powerful statement: 'If it's a priority for me, it should be a priority for you.'

Why did Paul exhort his converts to evangelise so rarely? Because he did not need to. His life was an exhortation. He provided an example that made exhortation unnecessary.

Roland Allen, Missionary Methods - St Paul's or Ours?, Lutterworth Press, 2006 edition, p93

Leaving would release the pioneering gifts of others within the new Christian community

Instead of staying in the shadow of the original pioneer, new converts are given space to step out and become pioneers themselves. Does this have implications for the job descriptions of Pioneer Ministers within the Church of England? (See also Sustaining a fresh expression).

Early Bird logoAn example of a fresh expression being reproduced is Early Bird. A new curate to a market town took the only opportunity available to make a niche for young families.

Running a half hour service early on Sunday mornings attracted fathers and young children. His innovative approach is now being reproduced around the country.

This is wonderful where it works. But we should remember that fresh expressions involve being culturally sensitive, so a successful model in one area may not fit another.

Reproduction is much more than reproducing a particular way of being church

'They did it there, let's do something similar here.' It is about a congregation reproducing itself within its network or neighbourhood, as St. Paul's churches did in Asia Minor.

Threshold - Pete and Kath AtkinsExamples of this happening in Britain today are relatively few, but Threshold Church is one. A local GP and his wife in rural Lincolnshire felt called to re-establish the church in their surrounding villages. They planted one church, which has grown into four congregations serving 15 communities. Each is looking to grow and multiply again.

A stunning American example is provided by Neil Cole (in Organic Church, San Francisco, 2005). He has seen over 800 small churches form within 6 years.

When someone comes into faith or expresses a real interest, they are not invited to church. Instead, they are encouraged to invite their friends to their homes, where they can explore the faith together and become a church themselves. Leaders of these new churches are carefully mentored.

Building reproductive DNA into fresh expressions is not impossible, but remains a challenge.