(Rob Frost, Share Jesus International)
Essence is very much a product of the post-modern, 'spiritual' age. The emphasis is on the experiential rather than the cerebral. Not all will find it helpful but for those who do, this could be the just the resource they have longed to use.
What is it?
Essence is a six part course designed to be run off church premises. It aims to give an experiential introduction to the Christian faith in a culturally relevant way. The overriding objective is to help people who may view themselves as 'spiritual' to journey towards the Christian faith.
The course seeks to start where people are, so the concepts explored are all recognisable to those familiar with New Age spirituality. Essence seeks to help participants look at these concepts and issues from a Christian perspective. The course material is contained in a leaders' handbook and accompanying CD.
The six sessions are:
- the journey so far,
- the journey within,
- the journey to a better world,
- the journey to wholeness,
- the journey to spirituality,
- the journey to the future.
Each session contains a rich blend of Biblical material, reflection, and a great range of activities. Activities include:
- salt dough modelling,
Considerable use is made of music, poetry and symbols. Each time, participants are given simple homework tasks to do.
A particular highlight of Essence is session three, 'The Journey to a Better World'. This is a welcome recognition that Christian discipleship involves caring for God's creation – an area often overlooked in many courses. The discussion in session five of 'What is a spiritual experience?' is also very helpful.
Who has produced it?
Essence was written by Rob Frost but, as the acknowledgement page recognises, many others were involved with the development of the course. Rob utilises the creative gifts of Liz Babbs in much of the material.
Rob Frost was a Methodist Minister, the leader of Easter People and Director of Share Jesus International. Those considering using Essence may find it helpful to read his book A Closer Look at New Age Spirituality (Kingsway) and his contribution to Evangelism in a Spiritual Age (Church House Publishing).
Who is Essence for?
Essence has been produced for the unchurched in particular. However, in the introduction the author relates how 'hungry committed Christians are for something less cerebral and more experiential in their faith'. He then goes on to comment on how Christian participants have 'found Essence stimulating and refreshing'. This is part of the appeal of the course. As well as opening up Christianity to non-Christians, it would also be helpful in introducing Christians to wider, richer experiences of Christian faith and life.
Essence would be particularly good for young people and young adults. It would also make the basis of a very stimulating church or youth weekend.
The course material is suitable for a wide range of abilities although intellectuals might find it a bit lightweight.
The Marmite test
The makers of Marmite delight in pointing out that people either love or hate their product. Those who do the Essence course may not be quite so polarised in their views, but it will not be for all tastes. Many will love it, and for many of the emerging generations, this is just the kind of material that has been missing. Creative and reflective types will be particularly suited. Theorists, pragmatists and activists may not find the course as helpful.
The challenge of Essence
Essence provides a significant challenge to the church. When an unchurched person does the course, the big question could well be: 'What sort of Church will be helpful to them if this is their first experience of Christianity?' Many, if not most, established churches (including newer churches) would offer a very different approach to learning and growing in faith to that offered by Essence. The answer may well be a fresh expression.
How simple is it to use?
The course material is well presented and thorough. The technological requirements will be easily managed. The preparation of rooms and materials will be more time consuming than for other courses, but the return on this investment will be a much higher level of experiential activity.
Would it work in a fresh expression context?
Essence would work well in a variety of fresh expression contexts. Alternative worship communities and café churches could use the course. Some youth churches, and those that arise out of a concern for the community or the local environment would find Essence very helpful.
If we are serious about evangelism in a spiritual age, Essence is just the kind of resource that we need. Indeed, we could do with Essence parts two, three and four to help people continue the journey of faith.
Essence will not be for all tastes, but Rob Frost is to be congratulated for his pioneering work in seeking to make the gospel accessible to people of the post-modern 'spiritual' age.
An alternative view
Catherine Moxon ran Essence in a home group attached to a Methodist Church in Blackburn. She writes:
We were already an existing house group so everybody knew something about everybody else. It was an all female group, aged between 28 and 65. We ran the whole course as is set out in the material. At the end group members felt they had been given an experience of God rather than being told about him. They also knew each other better too.
It takes a fair bit of organising from a leader's point of view. Each week is very different and requires different resources. Also, as a leader, you have to be ready for anything and everything that the course brings up. It can get very deep, with people voicing emotional issues that they have been struggling with for years. On the whole the course was considered a success.
How to obtain the material
Essence is available as a free download from Share Jesus International.