What is a fresh expression of church?

Definition

Sunset on the beachA fresh expression is a form of church for our changing culture, established primarily for the benefit of people who are not yet members of any church.

  • It will come into being through principles of listening, service, contextual mission and making disciples.
  • It will have the potential to become a mature expression of church shaped by the gospel and the enduring marks of the church and for its cultural context.

This definition is a bit of a mouthful but it does make some important points.

Remember that the incarnation happened when God became human through Jesus and immersed himself in human life. So 'incarnational mission' means being involved in the everyday lives of the people you are called to serve - involved in their context.

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Comment
Is it only about 'being involved'? Or is it that and more? 'To incarnate' is 'to enflesh', 'to embody'. We are invited by God to become those who embody the gospel. Put flesh on it. Make the gospel present. So that others can see it, feel it, taste it. I wonder what that means for an individual... for a group... ?
Sue Hope, Priest in charge St Paul's Shipley and Adviser in Evangelism for the Bradford Diocese

The definition emphasises four things in particular

Fresh expressions are:

  • missional – serving people outside church;
  • contextual – listening to people and entering their culture;
  • educational – making discipleship a priority;
  • ecclesial – forming church.

A phrase like 'fresh expressions of church' can be vague and unclear. Sometimes the label is used to cover almost anything - even a new church notice board! (See Mike Hill's blog.) This can breed a certain cynicism.

Might these bullets give meaning?

Might these bullets be a helpful way of giving meaning to the term? For example, if a denomination or a diocese has a policy for promoting fresh expressions, does what it has in mind satisfy these criteria? If a local church is describing an initiative as a fresh expression, again does the venture meet these criteria? Let's be relaxed if it doesn't – it could still be a worthwhile project. But at least the church wouldn't be raising false expectations.

So if you are doing something new mainly for churchgoers or are running a parents and tots group but have no plans for it to become church in its own right (perhaps forming a cell church among the parents and carers), both could be really valuable. But they would not be fresh expressions according to our definition. Might we all be helped by using ' fresh expressions' in a careful way?

Are there are other terms that mean the same?

Other terms that cover fresh expressions of church are emerging church, new forms of church, new ways of being church and church plants. See What does a 'mixed economy' church involve?

At the heart of fresh expressions is a different way of thinking about church

The aim is not to provide a stepping stone into existing church, but to form new churches in their own right

Many existing churches operate with a 'you come to us' mindset. 'Would you like to join us?' is an invitation to come to 'our' church, set out as we like, at a time that fits us, in a style that we have pre-arranged. The flow is from outside-in: from the world into the congregation.

Fresh expressions have a 'we'll come to you' mindset instead. They start not with an invitation ('Come to us on our terms'), but with an offer ('We're willing to come to you, serve you and stay with you. If you want, we'll also help you to be church in a way that suits you - in your style, not ours'). The aim is not to provide a stepping stone into existing church, but to form new churches in their own right. The flow is from the congregation to people outside – not inward, but outward.

Fresh expressions is a new mindset, not a new model of church to be copied. It is a mindset that starts not with church, but with people who don't belong to church.

Comment
In today's recession-dominated ministry situation, the funds are not as easily available to start a more traditional building-centered, stipend-dependent ministry. Most likely, new church plants will be fresh expressions and they will not usually be held back by lack of budget. This is good news. Maybe the recession will create greater acceptance for non-traditional church planting?
Andrew Jones (tallskinnykiwi)

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A spectrum of fresh expressions exist

Mind the Gap - kidsExisiting congregation renewal

The renewal of an existing congregation through mission, especially through careful listening to the non-churchgoers the congregation is called to serve. This might involve radically reshaping the provision of all-age worship, for instance, or rethinking a midweek service.

Reinventing an existing group

An existing 'fringe' group, mission project or community service could be reinvented so that it is no longer a stepping stone to Sunday church, but becomes 'church' in its own right. A youth group might grow into a youth congregation, or a luncheon club for the elderly might add worship after the meal.

Creating a new community

Creating a new Christian community within a single parish or circuit, as a mission initiative. Often it will be lay led and have a relatively small budget. An informal service in a local leisure centre and a midweek after-school meeting for a meal and worship would be two examples.

A large mission initiative

A large mission initiative spanning several parishes or circuits. It will be more likely to require a full-time paid post and to have a more substantial budget. It could be a new network church across a city-centre for Generation X, a town-wide teenage congregation or a home-based church plant on a new housing estate.

Examples

An Alpha course was held in a teashop in a former mining town in Nottinghamshire. Several years and several Alpha courses on, Fellowship@Grannies continues to meet in the teashop on a weekday evening, its members now leading and supporting successive Alphas.

A Church of England minister wanted to build church without a building. With his bishop's blessing he now leads a network church centred round students and young professionals in Bristol. Meeting in a coffee house is just one way in which Crossnet is made accessible to newcomers.

A central Birmingham network church meets in bars and cafés. It drew on members' personal contacts to create a community where all are welcome whatever their stage of faith. Accepting the transitional nature of city life, B1 seeks to accompany growing Christians.

Are 'fresh expressions' the same as 'emerging church'?

Emerging church has become a popular term, especially in the United States, to describe all sorts of new ways of being church, though we detect signs that the term is beginning to go out of use (has it become too broad to be helpful?).

There are at least three groups within the 'emerging church' family:

Society has changed and church must change too
  • Those who think and write about Christianity and our changing culture. They are wrestling with the challenges presented to the Christian faith by 'post-modern' thought and behaviour. How can the gospel connect with today's world? What might be the implications for church?
  • Those exploring new forms of church mainly with people who still go to church (but who are often about to leave). Typically they are into alternative forms of worship and authentic community. Many have a missional heart, but their starting point is to work with Christians who are dissatisfied with existing church.
  • Those exploring new forms of church mainly for or with people who don't attend church. Some of these innovative forms of church have a fruitful track record, but others are small, young and fragile. Though not everyone would use the term, we would describe these communities as 'fresh expressions of church'.

All three strands acknowledge that society has changed and church must change too. The challenge for all of us is to recognise God at work in each other and champion what God is doing.

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