The OF dimension of church refers to being part of the universal church, Christ's body, stretching back 2,000 years in history, forward into eternity and around the globe.
This is very much to do with identity - whom do we identify with? Christians are baptised into the body of Christ, so feeling part of the universal church should be a central component of their identity. This identity involves a sense of inter-dependence with other Christians, which includes the experience of giving and receiving. St Paul encouraged the churches he planted to be committed to the whole body when he urged them to take up a collection for the impoverished church in Jerusalem (2 Corinthians 8.1-9:5).
Churches have expressed this 'of' dimension in a multiplicity of ways. They have used organisational means, such as meetings of local ministers, other informal networks, denominational structures and formal ecumenical arrangements.
They have drawn on the traditions of the church in their worship – from the Lord's Prayer, to hymns and ancient prayers, to historically rooted liturgies, especially communion. They have been aware of how their understanding of the faith has been shaped by 'tradition' – by how they belong to a particular tradition of interpreting the Bible, for instance.
Connecting to the wider church should be a priority for fresh expressions
Not only is the wider church part of their identity, but linking up with other Christians can support fresh expressions in their ministry. For example:
The wider church can be a resource
providing support through prayer, financial help and resource materials for example.
The wider church can aid discipleship
Might the key to effective discipleship lie in sharing the task with the wider church? For instance, making disciples can be helped by:
- taking young people to a Christian summer camp;
- encouraging new Christians to join a pilgrimage, go to a large conference like Easter People or Greenbelt, or attend a retreat;
- joining with other churches to organise a monthly 'celebration' or a series of evening classes on aspects of the Christian faith;
- encouraging new believers to visit Christian websites, listen to Christian music and podcasts, and read Christian magazines and books;
- joining the 'parent' church for social events or at major Christian festivals.
The wider church can join up the fragments of society
No single expression of church, fresh or established, will be able to engage with every culture nearby. Nor will it be able to undertake every aspect of mission. That is why inter-church relationships are so important. Working together, churches can serve more people more effectively and link different cultures together.
The wider church can help practitioners support each other
In particular, learning networks can help pioneers of fresh expressions to keep abreast of good practice, find answers to particular problems and feel supported.
How fresh expressions end up connecting to the wider church is an open question
Many do so now through both denominational structures and informal networks. But where will the balance lie in future?
Will denominations prove too rigid and cumbersome for fresh expressions?
'All I wanted was to start a fresh expression among my friends. But now I hear I've got to get a bishop's licence, go for an interview... Forget it! I'll just keep in touch with others doing the same sort of thing.' Some fear that denominations will try to colonise fresh expressions and stifle them in the process.
Or will denominations learn how to become servants of fresh expressions
Will they listen to them, respond to their needs, beflexible and make minimal organisational demands? 'We couldn't have grown as a fresh expression without the denomination's support.' Might part of the future for denominations lie in learning to love fresh expressions? What would it mean for a denomination to be a blessing to fresh expressions?