Two elements are at the heart of fresh expressions:
- a strong mission focus;
- a willingness to re-imagine church so that people can encounter Christ in their culture.
This involves a new mindset about church.
Re-imagining church requires you to think about church in at least three different ways.
First, church is more than a meeting.
It is almost a cliché to say that church is not a building, it's people. But when we think of church as people, we often have the meeting within a church building mainly in mind. As Winston Churchill said, 'First we build our buildings, then our buildings build us.'
For many people, church is what happens on Sunday morning. Centuries of church practice have made it difficult to imagine church as anything other than a weekly worship gathering. We 'go to church' because we think of church as a meeting.
Some fresh expressions are beginning to challenge this. They see community as being at the heart of church life, and they have an understanding of community that is much bigger than a weekly event.
Community is built through personal encounters all through the week - individuals eating together, going to a film with each other, or just hanging out with one another online or in real life. People don't 'go to church', they are church throughout the week through their relationships.
Australian writer, Michael Frost, asks (in Exiles: Living Missionally in a Post-Christian Culture, Peabody: Hendrickson, 2006, p276):
Why can't we think of churching together as a web of relationships? Why are we obsessed with the singular event rather than seeking the rhythm of a community churching together?
Secondly, church is more than worship
Many Christians have been taught, in the words of the Westminster Confession, that 'Man's chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him for ever.'
They have been told that worship is the ultimate means of glorifying God and should be at the centre of church life. So much of church revolves around worship that other things, like fellowship and mission, take second place (or are almost totally ignored).
But this huge emphasis on worship is not born out in the life of Jesus. Certainly, he spent time in corporate worship and in solitary prayer. But what the Gospel writers stress is his public ministry, and his death and resurrection. Presumably it was his entire ministry, and not just his worship, that 'pleased' his Father (Matthew 17.5).
Likewise, Acts puts the emphasis on the mission of the early church, not its worship. In the wonderful summary of believers' life together, corporate worship is definitely included, but alongside much else such as eating together, meeting daily and sharing possessions (Acts 2.42-47).
In Romans 12.1 Paul equates worship with a sacrificial life, not with a worship service. Have many churches elevated corporate worship to too high a position?
In Are fresh expressions proper church? we suggest that church is what happens when people gather round Jesus. Four things can be expected to happen:
- growth UPward towards God;
- growth INward in fellowship;
- growth OUTward in mission;
- growth in the sense of being part OF the whole body of Christ.
Might fresh expressions help Christians expand their vision of church? Instead of church being like a dysfunctional table with one leg longer than the rest, can we re-imagine church growing in a much more balanced way, with all four dimensions receiving equal attention? What would have to change in your church for this to be true?
Thirdly, mission is more than an invitation
Many conventional churches have a 'you come to us' approach to evangelism. The invitation is to join church as members currently like it.
But as we discuss in What is a fresh expression of church? many new forms of have a 'we'll come to you' attitude. They seek to serve other people and, if they want, encourage church to emerge among them. Mission is much more than an invitation to 'what we like'.
At their best, fresh expressions resist parachuting a set model of church on to people. Instead of a preconceived notion of church, they start with a desire to express church in the culture of the group involved. Church is shaped by the context, rather than by: 'This is how we've always done it'. One-size-fits-all gives way to diversity.
Responding to a culture means respecting people's decision whether or not to journey into the Christian faith. Fresh expressions is not about religious imperialism – 'We'll invade your culture and make you Christians!'
It's about putting other people first, being sensitive to their spiritual values, offering them a chance to encounter Christ if they wish, but respecting their right to take a different spiritual path.
Churches can relate to culture in one of three ways
These adopt a 'you come to us' approach. Their activities are designed to encourage people to journey into God's love by joining the existing church. If they are involved in the community, it may be partly in the hope that their presence will be a stepping stone into church on Sunday.
These are very active in their communities, working with them in all sorts of ways, largely as an end in itself. Social action is seen as a vital part of the gospel, requiring churches to be heavily engaged with their surrounding cultures. But when it comes to inviting people to journey into God's love, the assumption is that the journey will occur as individuals are drawn into existing church.
These are heavily involved with their surrounding cultures, but don't share the assumption that people – if they are interested – will come to faith through established churches. They try to encourage church to grow within the cultures they are engaged with.
(The differences between 'attractional' and 'incarnational' churches are more fully described in Michael Frost & Alan Hirsch, The Shaping of Things to Come, Hendrickson, 2003, pp41-42.)
Not every church need become 'incarnational'
It may be quite sufficient for an 'engaged' church to be involved in community activities that embody kingdom values. The ultimate call for Christians is to promote the kingdom. Yet if every 'engaged' church fell short of being 'incarnational', what would happen to the long-term viability of the church?
Fresh expressions belong to 'incarnational' forms of church. They are not about creating stepping stones into mother church, though links with existing church are very important. Nor are they about social action alone, though social action – hopefully – will be a priority. They are about encouraging Christian communities, with all the marks of church, to spring up among people who don't go to church. Fresh expressions is a mindset that starts with mission.
Perhaps this issue is not best labelled as 'attractional' versus 'incarnational, but as 'attractional' versus 'extractional' or 'incarnational' versus 'impositional'. A missional church will be wary of extracting people from their community and creating a ghetto, but it will want to attract people to Jesus by the way that it (albeit imperfectly) embodies the values of God's kingdom.
Stuart Murray Williams, Urban Expression
Fresh expressions involve thinking about church differently
This means that people can encounter Christ in their own cultures. What might change in the surface appearances of church?
Fresh expressions are meeting in cafés, village halls, people's kitchens, on the internet, as well as in church buildings.
Day or time
Some fresh expressions meet on a Sunday and others on a weekday – during working hours, in people's spare time or over a meal. Some don't have a fixed time.
Style of worship
Worship can take place as a distinct activity or as part of a meal, either with hymns and songs or using silent meditation, or both. Ways of learning, exploring faith and discipleship are often more informal than in existing churches.
Size of group
Cells are sometimes the basic unit; they multiply and either exist independently or cluster together regularly. Or the basic unit may be a larger group which from time to time breaks into smaller hubs of activities involving friends who don't go to church.
Lay people may play a more prominent role in fresh expressions than in many inherited churches. Indeed, non-believers and new Christians may be more involved in the leadership at an early stage.
An over-dependence on ministers or vicars can reduce incarnational mission. People local to the neighbourhood or network have an intricate knowledge of the community. More importantly, their connection with others is not as professionals or experts but as people; they are authentic inhabitants of the wider community.
Beth Keith, The Sheffield Centre
The priority of worship
As we've discussed. Worship will become vital as the fresh expression develops, but it may not be the focus of the church's life as it typically is in more established churches. The life of a fresh expression may centre on serving the community, fellowship or perhaps taking part in events with lots of Christians and churches, such as a youth celebration. Worship within the fresh expression may support these other emphases.
This is perhaps the biggest change, dwarfing by far mechanical questions of how and when to meet. Instead of slotting into an historic mode of church that doesn't fit, fresh expressions are forms of church which are authentic to those involved. Authenticity is a core value.
Thinking differently about church will bring at least four underlying changes
From all-purpose church to cultural congregations
In our past monolithic society, the local church served the spiritual needs of every person in its patch. Different sub-programmes met particular needs. Each church tried to be an all-purpose church.
In today's fragmented society, many people do not 'belong' to a local community in general, but to one part of it – to the group of parents who meet at school, to a new housing estate or to a particular street.
So to connect with church, individuals will need to 'belong' in the same way. They will need a spiritual home that fits the character and concerns of their bit of the mosaic. Most young adults, for example, go to churches which attract many other young adults, too. This is partly a statement of cultural identity.
Rather than fighting this, we would be wise to work with the grain of identity. Standing alongside people where they are now will place us where we can walk with them towards a new identity - in Christ. Christian unity can be expressed by the fellowship that exists between different cultural gatherings.
But will Christian unity be expressed in this way? What practical steps will be needed to encourage cross-cultural friendship, partnership and fellowship? Will fresh expressions have the energy to prioritise this? And are there contexts where anything less than a multicultural expression of church is a denial of the gospel of reconciliation?
Stuart Murray Williams, Urban Expression
We must face the fact that many fresh expressions won't stay culturally the same, even if they start as cultural congregations. They can't, because they are about people who change and grow and whose circumstances change and grow. The youth congregation of today will become in just a short time a group of 30-somethings, with kids, homes, mortgages and aging parents. In fact, they turn into what looks like 'church as we've known it' - at least in terms of heterogeneity - fairly fast! But if the mission impulse is always there in the DNA, that group will become those who liberate other fresh forms of doing mission. They will also find ways of doing mission from their own new changed context. It's the DNA that counts.
Sue Hope, Priest in charge St Paul's Shipley and Adviser in Evangelism for the Bradford Diocese
From specialist chaplaincies to specialist congregations
The church has traditionally employed professionals to extend its work into spheres of life not easily reached by the local church, such as chaplains to hospitals, prisons, industry and 'communities' that feel alienated from church.
This model has worked well when the church was strong and just needed to fill the gaps. But contexts where chaplaincies were appropriate are now places where certain kinds of people might feel that they could 'belong' to the Christian faith.
This creates opportunities for new Christian communities that serve people in particular situations. Some deaf chaplains, for example, who cared for and outreached to the deaf now support congregations for and of the deaf. (In the Church of England, some of these congregations are beginning to contribute to Diocesan funds.)
From para-church organisations to parallel congregations
Another extension of the church's work has occurred through para-church organisations, including missionary societies, Christian aid agencies, voluntary groups working with drug addicts and many others. These organisations have been careful not to create 'churches', to avoid competing with or distracting from the life of the mother church. The church is likely to grow only where it is most credible, and this will include situations where it is clearly seen to serve other people effectively.
Christian Aid is consulting on how to start CA congregations, to draw in the many sympathetic CA supporters who are not members of any church. Might other Christian communities form in similar contexts? Christians with strong commitment to the global South might form the nucleus of a new church. They would provide support for development in the poor world and drew in people without a church background who identified with this aspect of Christian faith.
From church-with-school to school-with-congregation
The strong church of previous years extended its care for young people by pioneering school education. Today, church schools form one of the most credible expressions of Christian faith. Parents of other faiths and none queue up to get a place for their children.
The scarce research in this area suggests that church schools do little to increase the membership of the traditional church (except church-aided schools in rural areas, which have some effect).
But the goodwill towards Christian values shown in relation to church schools has produced a 'fringe' of people who may be willing to belong to Christian faith in a more focused way.
With a little leadership, might this be harnessed to develop new Christian communities centred on the life of the school and supporting its wider work? Might the latter include creating the kind of society we want our children to grow up into?
How far will the mainstream churches get involved?
These changes are already starting to happen. The question is whether existing churches will seize the opportunities.
In each of the four situations just described, Pioneer Ministers or other clergy could support the emergence of new Christian communities, and foster them till they were largely lay-led, self-funding, in fellowship with other congregations and operating under the overall leadership of a local 'Mission Community'.
In my experience, fresh expressions more readily emerge when Christians living out their faith in their workplace, neighbourhood or network, perceive God at work outside of church. Over time, a Christian community starts to develop with those not attending church. Do we miss something when we look primarily to clergy to initiate fresh expressions? Shouldn't the movement be more ready to embrace what is already happening, whether or not initiated by clergy?
Beth Keith, The Sheffield Centre
(These last two sections are based David Muir and Mark Rylands, 'A Vision for Pioneer Ministry', 6 February 2007, Fresh Expressions Devon.)
What aspects of church must stay the same?
This has become a key question because so much can change. A framework for thinking about this can be found in Are fresh expressions proper church?