Fresh expressions among other faiths

Examples

Stay and play

A small group of mums at St Christopher's, Springfield, Birmingham, thought that their church should make a difference to the surrounding community. As with so many churches, a commitment to serve was translated initially into the setting up of a stay-and-play session for local parents. What makes St Christopher's different, though, is that the local parish is predominantly Muslim and other-faith.

The church's determination to see the Christian faith distinctively shape its outreach in a multi-faith context has not led to inter-religious tension and suspicion. Rather, Muslims, Sikhs and Hindus have respected the church all the more.

Finding sanctuary

SanctuaryThe Sanctuary Fellowship in Birmingham is a small community that offers a place for worship and prayer, particularly for those from Asian backgrounds. The worship is clearly Christian but fuses elements of east and west culture. It thus appeals to many second- and third-generation Britons from immigrant backgrounds - people who stand often in two worlds. Team leader, Pall Singh, refers to their demographic as the 'Goodness Gracious Me' generation!

The worship services, which are the main form of outreach, are simple acts of worship with no singing. Music is played, images shown, meditations read. Much of the prayer takes the form of responsive actions that can be undertaken, such as lighting a candle or eating an Asian sweet. These sensual and mystical acts would be very familiar to those from Asian-background cultures. The 'western' elements include the projection of video images, comfortable sofas, and music that fuses Indian and western sounds.

The Sanctuary name speaks of it being a safe space, and there is a huge emphasis on inclusion and hospitality. Regularly, Muslims, Sikhs and Hindus come to the worship services, 'belonging before believing', as they experience and share in the time. No demands are made of those who are seeking beyond their tradition and finding something that resonates with their search in the Sanctuary community. An important focus of each act of worship is the breaking of bread and sharing of wine, which become the key delineator of those who wish to make a decisive step into the Christian faith. Communion is celebrated by invitation and welcome at different stations within the worship space.

An inspiration for Sanctuary has been the writings of the celebrated Sikh Christian guru, Sadhu Sundar Singh, who, after becoming a Christian, continued in the clothing and pattern of a Sikh holy man, travelling round India talking about Jesus. Sundar Singh speaks of church being a place where Christians do not judge other faiths but rather emphasise the appeal of Jesus. Instead of dampening the flame of someone else's faith, people are encouraged to open up to the force of the one true light. Sanctuary is a place where a continuing journey of faith to Jesus is made possible.

A brief theological rationale

One of the underlying premises of the fresh expressions movement is a grasp of the missio dei: the mission of God. God is not confined to the church. He is at work in the world, speaking and active in welcoming love. This means that when we consider people of other faiths, one of the questions we ought to be asking is: 'Where is God already in this person's life and journey?'

Too much thinking about other faiths falls into one of two errors

One error is that the entirety of another's faith is godless, even demonic. The second is that all faiths are essentially the same and all roads lead to God. A more biblical understanding - one that accords with the traditions of the church and was particularly demonstrated in the seminal Roman Catholic documents of Vatican II - gives us a more nuanced picture.

Jesus is central to salvation. He is the pivotal figure in history revealing the full nature of God. God continues to bring his purposes to fruition under Christ through the Holy Spirit. He is active in the world, beyond the church.

We might say that other faiths are 'preparatory' to the gospel

Other faiths offer insights into the fullness of God we see in Jesus. Such a theological framework allows us to see the genuine explorations of Sikhs, Muslims, Hindus and others as potential stages on the way to discovering who Jesus is and the hope that the church offers. Rather than rejecting other faiths in their entirety, we are invited to discern what is of God and what is not. Someone in another faith may even be encountering something of the Christian story from the texts and prayers of their own tradition.

Naturally, rejecting the pluralist option that 'all roads lead to God', our own prayer and hope is that those intimations of the Christian story come to real fruition. The missionary task then is to shed light on where God might be at work already and to sensitively provide opportunities for further and deeper encounter.

Types

Smiles of joy

Some types of fresh expressions among other faiths might include:

A church community project

A natural way of generating relationship and credibility with other faiths is through practical service for justice and social transformation. A multi-faith context should allow the church to be unashamed about its Christian roots and to see its mission in integral terms: holistic 'good news' in every way.

St Christopher's (above) reputation is based on being a model of transformation in a context of Christian-Muslim division and by being exemplary in the quality of what it does. There are no shortcuts in community projects and there should be an aspiration to give of our best and to be utterly professional.

This means, too, that practical service should not be a 'means to another end'. We must be ethical, especially in work with vulnerable people. Being confident and public about the Christian faith should not slide into manipulation.

Catering for spiritual seekers from other faiths

Sanctuary (above) is an example of this - a safe and secure place where east and west can discover Christ without losing their cultural identity.

Local church as hub of culturally specific congregations

St Christopher's (above) is what we might term a multicultural church; there are Christians from very different cultural and faith backgrounds in a single congregation. Another approach involves the deliberate separation and development of some of the significant social and ethnic blocks within a church.

We are familiar with 'youth congregations' as a way of easing the cultural transition to church of young people who are alienated by the language and focus of wider, more traditionally mixed forms of church. People from another faith background may face similar cultural and language hurdles, which demand the provision of a smaller unit for worship and teaching.

A number of churches around the country, for example, have employed a pastoral and mission worker from an Indian or Pakistani background and host Sunday afternoon worship meetings that are exclusively in Punjabi or Urdu. A Punjabi meeting becomes effectively a distinct congregation within a church that has several congregations.

Cultural practices that may be an obstacle to South Asian background seekers or new converts in a traditional church setting can be adapted. Discipleship can occur in the 'heart language' of the particular congregation.

This approach differs from Sanctuary (above) in acknowledging that for many of those from other faith backgrounds, there is still a deep cultural connection with what is non-western and a struggle to engage with western practices.

One of the challenges, however, is to maintain the sense of a diverse church community - how can the local congregation remain connected to the other congregations and the wider church, and thus embody an essential element of church: catholicity? Such connections also provide opportunities for mutual learning, which is especially important for the younger generation who will more strongly fuse east and west cultures.

Monocultural church planting

Many will be familiar with the idea of planting churches into and from within a specific demographic group which may not be represented in mainstream churches. Monocultural church planting takes the previous model a step further. It seeks to grow a new local church as an independent unit.

This seems to be especially helpful for the large numbers of Iranian background Muslims becoming Christians in our larger urban centres. Across Britain, there are an increasing number of Persian fellowships, catering for the specific cultural and religious needs of this community. Where people have experienced persecution, the weight of numbers coming from a shared background of experience can allow a supportive structure and give freedom for culturally appropriate patterns of spirituality to emerge.

Again, there is the challenge of identifying with the wider church family, and links between different groups are important in fostering openness and vision.

House group bible study

Many becoming Christians from other faith backgrounds face massive obstacles of rejection from family, and even persecution. Non-western cultures are often far more communitarian than mainstream churches in the UK. So appreciating the costs and demands of a journey to Christ is very important.

Many small communities in the UK offer a discreet and sensitive church structure built around intensive relationships in a domestic setting. This permits safety and discretion for seekers, inquirers and emerging disciples. It also allows for the development of a genuinely alternative strong community - a vital need for those who will lose a degree of community if they become Christians.

In a small group, bible studies and worship practices can be fostered in culturally-appropriate ways, the genuineness of Christians welcoming those of other faiths can be tested by inquirers, and someone's attendance is less likely to come to the notice of their family than if they went to a larger gathering.

This model requires patience and a huge amount of personal commitment, as well as an understanding that 'small is beautiful'.

Things to keep in mind

Richard J Sudworth, pioneer ordinand at the Queen's Foundation and based in an Anglican parish church in inner city Birmingham, suggest the following:

Make efforts to learn about other faiths and cultures

Both academically through books, but also, importantly, in conversation and immersion. Most people like to be asked about what they believe or what they do at their religious festivals; be prepared to ask and don't be afraid to appear ignorant!

Beware of preconceptions

There is a great deal of diversity in all religions and traditions. Pay attention to these, and always make efforts to see beyond the labels and cultural covering to the heart and the realities.

Love covers a multitude of faux pas!

We all make mistakes when we cross cultures, and there are practices and traditions in other faiths that can mean we sometimes cause offense unintentionally. (For example, many Muslims are offended by disrespectful treatment of a Bible by writing in it or putting it on the floor.) Goodwill, love and an inquiring heart go a long way. So do not be paralysed by fear.

Be prepared to be self-critical about western culture

it is all too easy to conflate western Christianity with western culture. Many eastern cultures have encountered a negative history of the church and western imperialism. We need to acknowledge that and be humble. Doing this will help us to have a more sympathetic attitude to the mixed stories of other faiths, too

Remember that many people from other faiths are very spiritual

It's not necessarily about logical arguments but about community, authenticity and encounter with God

Many second generation Asians are becoming increasingly secularised

We can glamourise the faiths of others in Britain, forgetting that they too face challenges about the response to materialism and secularism

Other faith groups have a stronger sense of community than many western Christians

This is a rebuke to the individualism of much of the church, but it also reminds us not to be glib about the costs facing many of those who choose to become Christians. Are we prepared to provide an alternative community of at least equivalent potency?

Food, food and more food!

Hospitality is vital. Many of the examples I know that reflect the models described above provide shared meals as an integral part of community worship.

Resources

  • Distinctly Welcoming: Christian presence in a multifaith society
    Richard Sudworth, Scripture Union, 2007, 978-184427317-1
  • The Bible and Other Faiths: What Does the Lord Require of Us?
    Ida Glaser, IVP, 2005, 978-184474080-2
  • The Faith to Faith Forum of Global Connections
    An excellent hub of resources, training materials and conferences that provide help for a wide range of encounters with those of other faiths
  • Presence & Engagement
    Encourages and supports the mission and ministry of parishes and other Anglican communities in multi religious contexts