What does 'A fresh expressions journey' seek to do?
The journey tells a story about how fresh expressions of church often develop. It seeks to answer questions like:
- 'if we pioneer a fresh expression, what would the experience look like?'
- 'is there a bird's eye view of how a fresh expression takes shape?'
- 'is there a way of discovering where we are in the process?'
You may come to these questions with little church-founding experience. 'A fresh expressions journey' is meant to provide an introductory way in. As your understanding grows, you may find that the journey takes place in a different way and that the four main circles are in a different order.
Not all fresh expressions develop in this way – the Spirit cannot be boxed in to a single model. Many pioneers find that fresh expressions emerge unexpectedly, the process is complex and much of their experience is unique to their situation.
Inevitably, therefore, 'A fresh expressions journey' is a simplification. Some pioneers would use different language to describe the four central circles in the diagram below.
What is 'A fresh expressions journey?'
Many fresh expressions of church:
- begin with a period of listening to God and to the people the missional team feels called to serve;
- develop by building loving relationships and through acts of service;
- create a sense of community in which evangelism can have its proper place;
- provide opportunities for individuals to explore becoming followers of Christ;
- encourage church to take shape around those entering faith.
While the missional core may have seen this as church from the beginning, for those being drawn into faith there will be a growing understanding of what it means to be church. Authorities in the denomination or diocese will encourage and support the embryonic church from the start but properly delay permanent recognition till there is evidence of stability.
What processes are being described?
The four main circles describe not how individuals find Christ, nor how the internal life of the missional team might evolve, but the action this team might take to enable a new expression of church to emerge. 'A fresh expressions journey' is about the processes encouraged by the missional core to help people move from the edge of the circle in the diagram below to the centre.
It is helpful to distinguish between the internal and public aspects of the core team's life. The internal dimension is about what the team does to prepare for and initiate its task of enabling a new expression of church to emerge.
Like conception, what is there within the team – the church in embryo – will grow into the whole. The spiritual ethos of the team will shape the fresh expression as it develops. That is one reason why dying-to-live needs to be a way of life for the team from the start.
The public aspect of the team's life, portrayed in 'A fresh expressions journey', is about what prayerfully results as the team engages in mission.
Why overlapping circles?
The circles overlap to convey something of the messiness of real life. Some of the processes the circles describe may be present throughout the journey, but the focus shifts from one circle to the next as the journey develops. The journey can be travelled quickly or take a few years.
Perhaps a period of listening and discernment has revealed a need among ethnic women to learn English. Christians form a weekly language café in which the women are served tea and invited to discuss a topic in English while sitting at their tables.
The initial focus is on setting up the café, inviting the women and delivering this act of love and service. Once the café is launched, the focus shifts to developing relationships between the women and the core team and among the women themselves – to building community. Alongside the tea and discussion, relationships remain important for the rest of the journey.
But as the group develops its identity and individuals feel they belong, the focus shifts again: attention is now given to helping individuals explore discipleship. A small group for this purpose is formed. As its spiritual life evolves, a cell church takes shape.
How else can 'A fresh expressions journey' be described?
Phil Potter, an experienced pioneer in Liverpool, encourages lay Christians 'to share your passion, share your life, share your faith, share their journey'. This is similar to what we call 'A fresh expressions journey'.
In her study of urban fresh expressions, Eleanor Williams suggests a sequence of 'blessing, belonging, believing, behaving' (Eleanor Williams, Fresh Expressions in the Urban Context, YTC, 2007, p87).
If we replaced 'behaving' with 'being church', this would map well onto our succession of circles - blessing, belonging, believing, being church.
Barbara Glasson's book, Mixed-up Blessing, is a good Methodist example illustrating what we describe.
A New Testament example
We can discern a similar process in the ministry of Jesus. The synoptic gospels describe the start of his public ministry. Luke shows him teaching, healing and performing exorcisms. Then, while this loving and serving continues, there is a new focus on the call of the disciples. Jesus is forming community - he describes his followers as his family (Luke 8.19-21).
Building community presumably persists alongside his public ministry, but the focus now increasingly falls on the process of making disciples – for example:
- on sending out the 12 and 72;
- Mark's material on Jesus teaching his disciples in the chapters after Peter's confession;
- the accounts of the last supper.
Luke describes how church takes shape in his second volume, Acts.
Are there exceptions?
We don't want to push this sequence too far. There will be times when the circles are taken in a different order. But we think that the sequence we've described often occurs and may have something to say to some of the apparent exceptions.
Take for instance a group of university students who decide to run an Alpha course among their peers. They might seem to be starting with 'exploring discipleship'. But if Alpha is treated as an apologetics course, the basic dynamic of 'A fresh expressions journey' would still be at work. Through listening and prayer, the students may have discerned that this was the best way, in their situation, that they could love and serve their fellow students.
Perhaps they redouble their efforts to be good and generous friends to their peers. They want Alpha to spring out of a network of loving relationships and their invitations to get a favourable response. Though Christian apologetics is certainly present, during the first evening or two the focus is on building community – through the welcome, the meal, the discussion and much else. The team want people to feel at home and come back.
Later, although the community dimension remains, attention shifts to encouraging individuals to explore discipleship and make a response. The follow-up course is the context in which church begins to take shape. Understanding this process might help the students enhance the experience of Alpha. They would have some of the keys – in human terms – to making Alpha fruitful.
Might paying attention to the circles and the sequence in which they often (but not always) occur be helpful in other contexts as well?