A post-Alpha church on a rural housing estate in north Oxfordshire
Church Army pioneer Ian Biscoe got to know his neighbours, put on a Christmas talent show at which Alpha was advertised, ran Alpha, helped the course become a discipleship group as people continued to meet on Thursday evenings and enabled the group to be church.
Five years later there were four congregations with 100 to 120 people overall - Kidz church for any child up to age 11, HeyU for younger teenagers, and Unity church comprising two adult cells that meet on Tuesday evenings and then come together on Thursday evenings for worship and small groups, beginning with refreshments and chat.
The initial Alpha course was held in the Biscoes' home, but the Biscoes found that entering one another's homes did not come easily to residents of the estate. The four congregations now meet in a disused military chapel.
- Story: Heyford Chapel
- The UP dimension of church: Heyford Chapel
- From 'exploring' to 'church': Heyford Chapel
A café church in a semi-rural town on the Portland peninsular
The café is open on Friday mornings in part of Easton Methodist's large church building. Background Christian music accompanies the specialty drinks and simple food at waited tables. Up to a quarter of those attending come from no church background.
Team members sit at the café tables ready to chat and talk, and Christian literature is on each table. Short 'God slots' punctuate the morning, sometimes including a short printed liturgy. Everyone quietens and listens. The idea is to provide food for thought.
A chapel area alongside the café contains a candle gate, a prayer board and an open Bible. Lighting candles and pinning notes on the prayer board are non-threatening ways for people to offer prayer. Sometimes people pray for each other in twos and threes.
Reviving festivals in the parish of Tolland on the Brendon Hills, Somerset
In 2001 the parish was about to lose its church. But the new part-time minister, Margaret Armstrong, encouraged the church to try something different in terms of festivals.
They introduced Clypping, a medieval custom of hugging the church discovered by Margaret. A pet service is popular, while Christmas can be packed out. The tiny congregation focuses on seven festivals a year, which they prepare for with great care. Preparations can include making 'busy bags' for children.
Though the church is open for corporate worship only on these seven occasions, on average over half the village of 40 attend. 'Is there a city or suburban parish that has more than half its population attending church?' asks Margaret. She has noticed 'an evolving spirituality' in her one-to-one conversations.
He looked at 88 rural entries on the Fresh Expressions website and the categories they used to describe their activities. This is how their leaders described what they were doing (some respondents filled in more than one category).
|Alternative worship community||18|
|Base ecclesial community||2|
|Children's fresh expression||21|
|Church arising out of community initiatives||12|
|Fresh expressions for under 5s||11|
|Multiple and midweek congregations||20|
|School-based and school-linked congregations and churches||6|
|Traditional church plants||2|
|Traditional forms of church inspiring new interest||7|
These categories were developed before the Fresh Expressions team offered a definition of fresh expressions (in What is a fresh expression of church?) for the church to consider. On this definition, a fresh expression is:
- missional - serving (and drawing together) people outside the church;
- incarnational - listening to people it is called to serve and entering their culture;
- educational - making discipleship a priority;
- ecclesial - forming a new worshipping community (church) rather than encouraging non-churchgoers to join an existing church.
Things to keep in mind
The things to keep in mind when starting a rural fresh expression could be an endless list. So we asked David Muir, a pioneer minister helping 23 parishes in rural Devon develop fresh expressions of church, for his top ten tips. This is what he came up with.
Do some serious homework on the social realities in your particular area
The countryside has become a hugely varied place and is changing all the time. Beware of generalisations about what 'country people' are like. This is even true if you are one – question all your assumptions about who lives in the countryside and what really matters to them.
Care enough about people to ask them and to find out. And accept what you find out, rather than trying to make the countryside into something it is not any more.
Do assume that countryside people are well disposed towards the Christian faith
Mostly they are. The sparse countryside has a large proportion of 'churched' inhabitants, who can't for the life of them see the point of turning up at church on a Sunday morning, but who are pretty sure there is a God in heaven and are not looking for any other religion except Christianity. Don't treat them or talk about them as 'non-Christians', or talk about 'becoming a Christian'. At best it is meaningless, and it can be offensive. Find some different language to talk about faith.
If you are new to the countryside, get involved
Traditional countryside people are not slow to accept an in-comer as one of their own; they don't accept an in-comer as one of their own. Get real and get over it. But it will only take a couple of years to be accepted as an 'OK in-comer'. Accept the role gracefully and use the opportunities it brings.
Beware of the idolatry of nice village life
This is a temptation both for the traditional inhabitants of the countryside and for the in-comers seeking their rural idyll. A community that is centred on its own well-being is a form of corporate selfishness, which genuine Christian faith has to challenge and must not collude with in order to gain acceptance.
The church is called to be a prophetic community that is living for bigger purposes than its own interests – and which finds true life and happiness as a result.
Support the church building
It's like motherhood and apple pie – if you argue against it you will always turn out to be wrong. It's an important place for festivals and rites of passage, and for giving people a sense that they belong somewhere, that they live in a real 'place'. Treat it like that, as a social symbol that continues to have some Christian opportunities. Attend funerals and it will open some doors.
But use the 'heritage card' with care
There are gospel opportunities in tapping into people's historical interest in rural church buildings and what used to go on in them, but it will seldom give rise to a fresh expression of church. Church is about forming communities of people who are being transformed into the likeness of Christ. There is very little overlap between this and undergoing 17th century virtual reality experiences (and pray for the Victorian Society to have put all its reserves in a dodgy bank).
Accept that we have lost the battle for weekly public worship
The idea of 'public' worship was a Christendom thing and we need to let go of it. The essence of a fresh expression in the countryside will often come from accepting this and thinking about how else to give expression to a living faith community. And help everyone else accept that we have lost this particular battle by not going yourself.
But support the vicar
People don't want vicars for much, but they do want them for baptisms, wedding and (most of all) funerals. These are really significant gospel opportunities in the countryside.
Many rural vicars are discouraged that their earnest priestly ministrations fail miserably to reverse rural church decline. Offer to support them in their traditional roles and find ways to link their ministries into whatever fresh expression of church you feel called to develop. There is potential for a fruitful partnership here.
Refuse to be trapped by geography
People in the countryside travel, sometimes quite long distances, to things they really want to go to. Whatever fresh expression you start is likely to appeal to only a few people in your locality, but also to similar numbers in other localities around. Think wide, and don't be conned into doing something 'just for our little community' – that attitude is killing the countryside socially.
Think 'sustainability' rather than 'funding'
The EU and the Lottery have got rural communities trying to solve their problems by seeking funding from somewhere, but the current global financial crisis may mean that these 'somewheres' dry up. Recent 'mission funds' from central church sources will go the same way.
Evangelism by largesse is another one of these Christendom things that needs to die. It fosters dependency rather than initiative. Keep it simple, and keep it about discovering and developing a faith in a way that ordinary people find accessible. Without this, all the Christian social programmes in the world will not grow the church.
- Sally Gaze, Mission-shaped and Rural: growing churches in the countryside, CHP, 2006, 978-071514084-0;
- George Lings, Encounters on the Edge 27: The Village and Fresh Expressions - Is rural different?, Church Army, 2005;
- George Lings, Encounters on the Edge 28: Rural Cell Church - A new wayside flower, Church Army, 2005;
- Alan Smith, God-Shaped Mission: Theological and Practical Perspectives from the Rural Church, Canterbury Press Norwich, 2008, 978-185311807-4.