This example, which also illustrates how real-life fresh expressions tend to be more messy than our four main circles might imply, is provided by American Neil Cole (in Organic Church, Jossey-Bass, 2005). Cole has been involved in planting hundreds of cell churches in just a few years.
He describes how a small team might, for example, throw a barbecue for a block of apartments and strike up friendships with some of those who turn up (loving and serving).
As part of these friendships, team members share their faith. If someone becomes interested, the team might suggest that the person invites friends and family to his or her apartment to hear more. Those who are interested come back the next week and a small group begins to form (building community).
The group explores the Christian faith (exploring discipleship). As members come into faith, they are encouraged to be church where they are, in the apartment (church taking shape).
In this example, the four circles overlap closely - so much so that the second and third circles (building community and exploring discipleship) become virtually one. Even so, the underlying dynamic of 'A fresh expressions journey' remains: loving and listening, building community, exploring discipleship and becoming church.
Loving and serving
'Loving and serving' refers to the many possible starting points for a fresh expression – from a spirituality-at-work group, to hanging out with friends, to a 'Saga group' for the over 50s. It follows the example of Jesus who proclaimed the kingdom, demonstrated it with acts of power and lived it through his relationships with others. He summarised his mission as one of service (Mark 10.45).
The wide variety of possible starting points leaves space for spiritual discernment. Instead of beginning with a fixed assumption - 'We must do café church'; 'Let's start a new worship service'; 'They began with something for families, so should we' - the task is approached with a question: 'In this situation and with the gifts and resources available to us, what would be the best way for us to love and serve this particular group of people?' Prayer and listening give an opportunity for the Holy Spirit to answer the question – perhaps in surprising ways.
'Loving and serving' provides a yardstick against which to evaluate possible starting points for a fresh expression. 'Is this the best way we can love and serve these people?' Amid the process of listening, which is often confusing and may well involve trial and error, 'loving and serving' provides criteria to aid discernment.
'Loving and serving' is rooted in incarnational mission. The missional team draws alongside the people it is called to serve, listens to them and to God, and finds contextually appropriate ways to love and minister to them. Immersed in the surrounding culture, the fresh expression is built on a platform of love.
In some situations, 'loving and serving' may include church plants that use lively worship and relevant apologetics to reach people who do not currently attend church. These plants will be authentic fresh expressions if they arise within a network of loving relationships, if the missional team has discerned that worship and apologetics are the best way of serving the people it is called to serve, and if the worship and apologetics take a culturally appropriate form.
More often, however, we suspect that 'loving and serving' will involve a community project, for example, or Christians sharing their interests with other people, or a small team finding an innovative way to befriend people in a specific culture. The gap between church and contemporary people is often too wide to go straight into apologetics or worship.
'Building community' is the process of forming healthy relationships – between the missional core and the people it is called to serve, and between members of the wider group. It involves encouraging members of a group of homeless people, an environmental campaigning group or a discussion group that meets over a curry to get to know each other, trust one another and develop a sense of belonging.
'Building community' can take many forms – from a mums and toddlers group in which members make good friends, to a spirituality evening class attending a film together, to an all-age event in which food plays an important part. Community may centre on gathering together or be more dispersed (such as friendships nurtured through the week). It can be mainly face-to-face, online or both.
Jesus built a community centred on him. He ate meals with his followers, travelled with them and devoted periods of special time to them.
'Building community' is valuable in its own right. Enabling people to feel accepted, to have a sense of belonging and to have an opportunity to share something of themselves may be one of the biggest gifts that a mission group can offer.
It is also important for mission. Loving relationships reveal something of Christ, they give people an important (though partial) experience of church and they create a framework of trust within which to share the gospel. A strong community will outlast the presence of its pioneer.
If the initial focus has been to connect with people through love and service, 'building community' may well be the next priority. Perhaps efforts have been concentrated on launching a drop-in centre. The initial emphasis will be on helping people to feel welcomed and loved. Later, though the warm welcome continues, the focus may shift to building up a sense of shared belonging, involvement and ownership.
Moving to 'exploring discipleship'
This involves holistic evangelism. We are aware that 'evangelism' has unhelpful connotations for some people, yet it is vital to the process of developing a fresh expression. In human terms, it is what moves people through the circles. It can be done at any time during 'loving and serving' and 'building community' – and indeed earlier, during the listening process. It may involve one or more of the following elements:
Acts of kindness
If people are to see Jesus, they need to see his heart of love. This is best shown in acts of kindness. A lads and dads football team might support a family with a disabled son on their housing estate. A book club with a spiritual dimension might provide financial support for a school library in Uganda.
Many people long to be associated with something good. They struggle in their everyday lives to be as good as they want to be. Belonging to a group that has an altruistic dimension may help them achieve some of the goodness they aspire to. As their hearts are warmed by this experience, they may become more committed to the group and more open to exploring what it means to follow Christ.
This is about sharing your faith naturally in everyday conversations and organising events that provoke questions about Jesus. These events may include opportunities for people to hear personal stories about faith.
Creative expressions of spirituality
This can help to increase a group's awareness of spiritual issues. Group members might be invited to express their spiritual longings and understandings through painting, photography, poetry, pottery and in other creative ways. These might not be explicitly Christian, but frequently they will be pointers to God. As talking points, they might help others to feel more comfortable in expressing their spiritual views.
This is our phrase for what Ann Morisy calls 'apt liturgy'. It is designed for people who have little faith or are confused about faith. It provides opportunities for individuals to encounter God, heighten their spiritual awareness and encourage them to explore Jesus.
For instance, leaders of a luncheon club might put candles on the tables after the plates have been cleared away, play some Christian music, invite someone to read a few verses from the Bible, allow time for silent prayer and ask someone else to read a couple of written prayers - all lasting about 20 minutes. Guests could leave straight after lunch if they wished or stay behind for this simple act of worship.
Some church-run cafés have adjacent quiet rooms, perhaps with lighted candles, where individuals can pray and reflect silently. A prayer board played a key role in encouraging ethnic women to talk about spiritual questions. As church begins to take shape, missional worship can evolve into a fuller expression of Christian worship.
The experience of healing
This can play an important part in opening individuals to God. In a culture that strongly values experience, healing can give people an experience of God. Healing may come through the love of Christian friends, through the prayer of Christians (in their personal devotions or corporate worship), through healing services or through other kinds of prayer ministry. Not raising unrealistic expectations is clearly important.
'Exploring discipleship' is about encouraging individuals to discover what it means to follow Christ. The focus on discipleship is deliberate. It is at the heart of what it means to follow Jesus. As individuals see Jesus through their involvement in fresh expressions, the prayer is that they will want to explore further.
'Exploring discipleship' will be preceded by various forms of culturally appropriate evangelism, as just described. The aim of this evangelism will be to put Christ sensitively on the agenda and encourage individuals to explore intentionally what discipleship involves. For some people, exploring will come after 'loving and serving' and 'building community'. For others, it will start more quickly.
'Exploring discipleship' could involve mentoring individuals on a one-to-one basis. One person may be followed by another, till there is a sufficient number to form a small cell.
Or there could be enough people to form an explorers' group. The group might use an adapted version of a published course such as Essence, Christianity Explored, Alpha or Emmaus. Or it might use home-grown material. Or it might follow the example of one person who invited her friends to explore spirituality: 'Jesus is known as one of the world's greatest spiritual teachers. Why don't we look at the stories he told and see if we agree with them?'
Some people may come to faith quickly; for others it could be a very gradual process. Patiently fanning the flames of the Spirit is a key task for the core team. As individuals enter the faith, they should be encouraged to see discipleship as a life-long process affecting the whole of their lives.
Church taking shape
The prayerful hope is that church emerges naturally from exploring discipleship. As the desire to follow Christ grows, members of the group start to consider what it would mean for them to be church in their culture.
This will mean exploring what's involved in growing UP toward Christ, OUT in service to others, IN in deepening fellowship, and in being part OF the whole body of Christ. How these dimensions are expressed will vary from one situation to another. Worship, as part of the UP dimension, will evolve out of the group's experience of missional worship, and will be authentic both to the Christian tradition and the context. (See Are fresh expressions proper church?)
As cells form, sometimes they will cluster together in monthly or occasional meetings. Some will strengthen the spiritual life of the original group from which they sprang so that the group becomes more like church. A luncheon club, for example, might incorporate communion from time to time. An Alpha cell might take responsibility for future Alpha courses, designed for people in the wider group.
As church takes shape, it will develop a way of life that is appropriate to its culture. With more and more fresh expressions being planted in different cultures, we can expect forms of church to be increasingly diverse.
Do it again
A flourishing fresh expression will show fruit in lots of ways. One will be to reproduce itself – to do it again. Reproduction is a vital part of what it means to be church.