The OUT dimension of church

The OUT dimension of church is about mission in its broadest sense. This mission, summed up in the phrase 'kingdom of God', is about bringing wholeness to the entire creation. Its sweep is breathtaking! The mission of the church must be seen in this wide context. The church is not the kingdom of God and we must not reduce the horizons of God's mission to the horizons of God's church. But the church is called to share in God's mission, and baptism is a sign of that call.

The New Testament image of salt catches a sense of the dispersed church, not withdrawing into itself but acting as a preservative and (some think) fertiliser to help new things to grow in the world. The church is to help life to flourish. Fresh expressions are part of God's call to mission explains further why the mission of the church is vital.

Eye closeupThe five marks of mission identified by the worldwide Anglican Communion provides a helpful framework for thinking about what mission involves:

  • to proclaim the good news of the kingdom;
  • to teach, baptise and nurture new believers;
  • to respond to human need by loving service;
  • to seek to transform unjust structures of society;
  • to share and safeguard the integrity of creation, and sustain and renew the life of the earth.

Fresh expressions.will be fully church as they display these five marks in their corporate life.

Are fresh expressions based on too narrow a view of mission?

'Are they just a new way of getting people into church?'

Christians have different views about the weight that should be placed on evangelism. Appealing to the Great Commission, some see 'making disciples' as a top priority. Others note how much time Jesus spent caring for people and believe that the church's main task is to be involved in activities like community development, which may not involve evangelism.

Fresh expressions are a way of bringing evangelism and loving service together

At their best, fresh expressions - as well as inherited forms of church - seek to do both. They are a way of bringing evangelism and loving service together. In How do fresh expressions develop?, we suggest that many fresh expressions will start with some form of loving service, build community around that, provide opportunities in the context of community for people to encounter Jesus if they wish and over time develop into mature church.

They are not just about getting people into church. They are foremost about loving people – treating them with respect, working with them and offering them the 'good news' (when appropriate) in the context of mutual support.

A more valid criticism may be: 'Fresh expressions tend to be socially conservative'

We hear about fresh expressions meeting in cafés and based on people's interests and hobbies (such as making greeting cards, a sewing circle and a book club). But relatively few have formed among people campaigning for third world debt relief, for measures to tackle climate change and for a better deal for the elderly.

Make Poverty HistoryJustChurch is an exception. Featured in the spring 2007 edition of expressions: the newspaper, JustChurch meets in Bradford during the week and writes letters on behalf of pressure groups such as Amnesty International as a focal point of its worship. 15 to 25 young adults attend, most of them new to church practice.

Will a larger number of socially radical fresh expressions emerge in future? Might mission agencies, for example, form communities of people concerned about third world debt and other issues? As these communities explore spiritual resources to support their concerns, might they grow into new expressions of church? If fresh expressions are to have a radical impact on society, they need to have a healthy understanding of the relationship between church and God's kingdom. This is discussed more fully in God seeks to transform society.

What is an appropriate mission field for the local church?

Any healthy church committed to mission needs a defined group of people that it can serve. Traditionally, churches served their local areas. But increasingly people are linked together by networks that jump local boundaries. Other people live in places where the locality is fragmenting. Occupants of a new housing estate may have little to do with people at the other end of the village. Different ethnic groups may live their own lives next to each other.

Fresh expressions respond to these changes in local identity

Some go wider than the locality; they seek to connect with networks that cross geographical boundaries, such as teenagers in a secondary school, a housing estate that spans two parishes, an ethnic group or 'Gen X'. Others drill down to smaller geographical units - a block of flats perhaps. Others work with specific groups who live within the locality – young mothers, users of a sports centre or a luncheon club. 

This has raised questions about the future of the parish system within the Church of England

Sunngindale residents

Are fresh expressions challenging the parish as the basic unit for mission? As originally conceived, parishes enabled the church to be present in every community. But as society has changed and people relate to their locality in more diverse ways, the parish as a basis of mission is having to be rethought. When a parish 'drills down' and starts fresh expressions among specific groups of people within its boundaries, it still has a great mission role to play.

For example, a Church of England reader studying ministry wanted to reach out to her local community. Using contacts in the Sunningdale sheltered housing block provided by her parish church's annual carol service, she established a monthly meeting which is now run by residents.

But when networks jump parishes, fresh expressions may require a looser relationship to the parish - perhaps sponsored instead by a group of churches.

Eden logoFor instance, a youth worker was commissioned by a bishop to discover ways of reaching the young people living within the borders of a Sussex deanery (a local group of Church of England churches). Out of two small newly formed youth groups serving a handful of parishes evolved Eden, a youth church which attracts and resources people of all ages across a whole diocese.

Even in cases like this, however, fresh expressions can give contemporary form to the motivation behind the parish system. They are a different way of being present in every community in the land.

Can fresh expressions fulfil another task of the traditional parish church

This is to bring local people together? Fresh expressions that go smaller than the parish can help to do this, for example, by keeping in touch with the parish church and hosting joint events from time to time. Fresh expressions that go wider than the parish will need to find alternatives, such as working with other churches in the area. Connecting up is one of the big challenges for fresh expressions (as for some inherited forms of church).

What should be the criteria for membership?

When a church makes reaching out a core part of its life and is heavily engaged with non-believers, the question often arises: 'Who is a member?' Some denominations make clear distinctions between those who belong and those who don't. Others have kept the boundaries more 'fuzzy'. The open baptism policy in many Church of England parishes, for instance, was intended to be highly inclusive.

How can a fresh expression be splendidly inclusive of non-believers, yet retain its identity in Christ?

Many fresh expressions dislike rigid boundaries between members and non-members

lest they become exclusive and unwelcoming. But the danger is that if everyone belongs whatever they believe, the group may lose its Christian distinctiveness. How can a fresh expression be splendidly inclusive of non-believers, yet retain its identity in Christ?

Some scholars believe that the early Christians resolved this tension by gathering together for a full meal, to which everyone was invited. They would chat about everyday life, and perhaps include a talk about Jesus. Then those who were baptised would progress to a second stage. They would take the leftover bread and wine, and celebrate them as an ante-past of the Messianic banquet to come. All were included in the evening, without threatening the Christian community's distinctiveness (we are grateful to Dr Alan Garrow for pointing this out). Is this a helpful model for preserving Christian identity while remaining inclusive?

East Café Church

Some fresh expressions have done something similar - Somewhere Else, the 'bread' church in Liverpool, for instance. Having made bread in the morning, during which community forms, some people go into another room for worship before lunch. Anyone can attend, but there is no pressure on people who prefer not to (see Barbara Glasson, Mixed-up Blessing, Inspire, 2006, p40).

Open for both services and coffee mornings, the high-street-based Easton Methodist Church on a Dorset peninsula decided to combine the two. It launched 'Café Church'. Prayer and presentation feature alongside a simple menu in a café, which provides fellowship for up to 40 local people each week.