This page is about discerning God's vision for how your mission team can best serve the people in your mission context. Discovering is our one-word summary of what's involved.
Whether the venture is among friends or in a different culture to yours, the process is vital and should continue throughout the fresh expression's life. It will weave in and out of the other threads described in Starting and growing.
'Discovering' involves learning prayerfully what opportunities exist, what can be done with the resources available to us and how the two can be brought together. Listening is absolutely key to the process.
- Listening enables you to discern God's guidance. The Spirit will reveal how best you can love your mission context through the information you gather and the loving and trusting networks you establish.
- Listening is an act of love. A psychologist has said, 'The experience of being listened to is so close to the experience of being loved as to be indistinguishable' (Sara Savage, Beta Course, Session 2). The longer you spend listening to people, the more love you will show them. That is why listening is the most important part of growing a fresh expression. If you don't know the people well, listening can be the means by which you fall in love with them.
- Listening builds trust. It gives others a chance to see you in action, to evaluate your motives, to discover whether your objectives fit in with theirs and to make a judgement about your character. Trust is the currency pioneers and their teams trade in. The more of it you have the better.
- Listening helps you to make contacts and extend your networks. You will be in touch with more people who can suggest opportunities and help you respond to them. (See How can we get support?)
- Listening enables you to gather information. About what makes the people you are called to serve tick, who's available to help, what works and doesn't, and much else.
Listening imitates Jesus
Luke 2.41-52 describes how the twelve-year-old Jesus listened to the Temple authorities in Jerusalem.
- Listening was the first thing we read he did. It was that important! It was part of how Jesus equipped himself for his ministry of love.
- He entered another culture - an adult culture, the Temple as opposed to the synagogue and Jerusalem rather than Nazareth. Even close friends will have parts of their lives that are different to ours - different tastes in film or music, for example. Getting to know them well will involve entering these 'cultures'.
- He established a relationship - he sat respectfully among the religious leaders, meeting them face-to-face.
- He asked questions (Luke 2.46) - drawing people out with good questions is at the heart of effective listening.
- He engaged in dialogue - everyone was amazed at his answers (Luke 2.47).
- He took time - he was there for three days (Luke 2.46).
- He ran a risk - would he incur his parents' anger? How would he get home? How would the religious leaders receive him?
I can't imagine the twelve-year-old Jesus sitting and listening all the time. I realise the point here is: if Jesus listened then why should anyone feel they know it all? But in emphasising listening are we perhaps in danger of becoming 'listeners' rather than people who interact, who belong in a community?
Beth Keith, The Sheffield Centre
Who should you listen to?
The Mission-shaped Church report (pp104-105) called for double listening - to the people the pioneering team is called to bless and to the living tradition of the church. To unpack what this involves, we use the phrase '360 degrees listening'. This is listening in the round - getting your bearings from all four points of the compass, as it were. It entails listening to the people in the diagram to the right.
Listening to God through prayer and study
Of course God will speak to you as you listen in the other three directions, but spending time in prayer and Bible study will also be vital.
Listening to the people you are called to serve
If you are praying for a fresh expression among your friends or colleagues, listening may involve discovering more about their lives and trying out some ideas on them. If you are called to people you know less well, it may entail talking to:
- networkers - individuals with lots of contacts. They are roughly equivalent to the 'person of peace' in Luke 10.6, someone who opens the door to God's messengers. They will tell you about the network and put you in touch with others. They are great people to start with.
- professional and voluntary agencies, such as the local head teacher, health visitors, police and voluntary groups. They will have a fund of wisdom, knowledge and experience, and could prove invaluable allies and sources of help.
- providers of commercial services, such as a corner shop or the local hairdresser. They will have useful insights into people's lifestyles.
Some teams look for a 'person of peace' (Luke 10.6) as they enter a community – someone who will welcome them and help them to make links in the community. Others look for 'gatekeepers' – people, especially in longer established communities, whose support or antagonism can significantly impact the outcome of the initiative.
Stuart Murray Williams, Urban Expression
You will be wise to avoid a rescue-mission mentality - 'We're here to help you.' Such a mindset puts you in a superior position: 'We have something you don't.' Taking seriously Jesus's statement in Matthew 25.40, 'Whatever you did for the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me', might encourage you to ask: 'If Jesus is already present in the people we are called to serve, how might they be a blessing to us?' Listening should open the door to relationships of mutuality.
Do we need a further development here, the movement from listening to conversation? Listening can be more passive than dialogue or conversation. Conversers are involved, participating and connecting with others. Conversers can put themselves on an equal footing by being open, real and vulnerable and risking the unpredictability of authentic dialogue with others.
Beth Keith, The Sheffield Centre
Listening to your local church or circle of Christian friends
This is easily forgotten, but is a vital part of the discovering process.
They are potential prayer partners
Fresh expressions is far too important to be done without prayer support. If your church or friends are praying for you, God may speak through them to help your discernment. So it is important to share with them what you are learning and how your ideas are evolving, and then to attend carefully to their reactions.
They may be potential sources of support
They may have time, wisdom, skills or money to offer as your venture develops. Listening intently to them at every stage will help to engage them and perhaps secure their commitment.
They may be potential givers of permission
Especially if you are acting on behalf of a local church or group of churches, it will be important to refer back regularly to those who have authorised you. In a local church context for example, each time the leaders meet you might provide them with a written description of whom you have met and what you have learnt. This may seem rather frequent, but remember that you are on a journey and you need others to travel with you. Your ideas may change substantially during the discovery process. If you want people to whom you are accountable on board, you need to keep them in touch with your learning, listen to their feedback and take their responses into account.
Some pioneers find that one of their biggest headaches is their relationships with the wider church. They encounter misunderstanding, unrealistic expectations and often suspicion. Managing these responses is helped by explaining constantly what you are doing, listening to the reaction and then showing that you have listened. Trust grows when people feel that they have been heard and understood. Suspicion is overcome through trust. Listening builds up the body of Christ.
Listening to the wider church
Again this is easily overlooked. But in the church at large there is much wisdom and experience that can be tapped through conversations, visits, podcasts, websites, books and so on. You might learn from:
- others who have started a fresh expression. No one context is exactly the same, so it would be unwise just to copy what others have done; your approach should be tailor-made to your situation. But the experience of others can enthuse you, spark thoughts, give you confidence, legitimise your ideas ('Someone else has done something crazy'), illustrate good practice and alert you to pitfalls.
- the experience of church planting in other traditions or contexts - perhaps overseas or in church history. What can be learnt from church planting in Africa, for example, or from the eighteenth century Wesley revival?
- the wealth of resources in the wider church. These may suggest, for instance, ways of introducing people to the gospel or ideas for worship that will be helpful at some stage.
Listening in these four directions will express some of the fullness of church since the directions equate roughly to the the OUT, IN, OF and UP relationships of church described in Are fresh expressions proper church? 360 degrees listening will help the missional community, however small, to be a thorough expression of church.
What should you listen for?
This will partly depend on whether you have a vision to start with
If you feel called to a specific vision - to convene a 'messy church' for instance (see the Examples pages for some ideas) - you will be listening for whether God wants you to pursue the vision with this particular group of people.
In 'Mission focus' in How should we start?, we have suggested that normally one's prime calling should be to serve a group of people rather than to follow slavishly a single model of fresh expressions. But there are some midwives of church who feel called to and equipped for a particular type of ministry, and have a vision for it. For them, listening will be about whether this is the best situation in which to pursue their vision, and if so how the vision should be adapted to the context.
Questions will centre on whether other people own the vision, how they would like to shape it and how they can make it happen. The process will involve giving the vision away - to those who will be blessed by it and develop it. This is crucial if it is to become their vision.
For missional communities who are less clear about what they are called to do and, indeed, may start with a blank piece of paper, questions will centre on opportunities and available resources: 'How can we best serve people with the resources we've got?'
In either case, discernment should be grounded on a deep understanding of the people the group is called to work with. This will include questions about their culture, their spirituality and their attitudes to church.
Acknowledging what you know already is an obvious beginning
If you are hoping to form a fresh expression among your friends or work colleagues, for example, you are likely to know a great deal about them. Even if your 'mission focus' comprises people you know less well, you may be surprised by the amount of knowledge in the missional community.
Pooling what you know, perhaps using the questions below, will help you to identify gaps and these can provide an initial focus to the discovering process. The bigger the gaps, obviously, the longer the process will take. Being realistic about this will help you to have appropriate expectations. In some cases, discovering may take quite a long time.
Helpful questions to ask
- What are the joys and pleasures, hardships and difficulties in people's lives?
- What do people value and what do they put a low value on?
- What works and what doesn't work round here?
- Who is most effectively solving problems faced by these people, and why?
- Who can lead us to other people - who are the key networkers?
- How would the gospel connect with these people?
- How would it challenge them?
- Who is most likely to be open to the gospel?
- What do people think about church and God?
- What sort of spirituality do they have? Do they pray?
- What needs are crying out to be met?
- What resources can we call on?
You may want to keep a record of what you are learning
A couple of friends might do this informally ('in the back of a diary'), or a larger missional community might be more structured, using Post-it notes, flip charts and the like. The record can be used in the group's prayers and to inform praying friends or the local church.
How might you listen?
The methods suggested here extend the excellent ideas in Stuart Murray, Planting Churches (Paternoster, 2008, pp86-94).
This involves trying something to see what you learn through it. You might throw a street party and see what relationships are established. You might open a stall in a farmer's market and give the other stallholders free refreshments during the day. As you build relationships, it may become apparent that church is unlikely to take shape among the stallholders, who come from far and wide.
But chatting to customers might suggest that some would welcome lunch in the local café with a discussion about spirituality. So might you give this a try? It's a second experiment. If this works, perhaps in time you might offer a Christianity discovery course, and this becomes a third experiment.
American Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove (in New Monasticism, Brazos Press, 2008, p87) describes how he and a friend invited local Christians to study Mark's gospel with a group of homeless people. At first the people in the hostel were slow to join in.
'What would it take to get more people?' they asked. 'Fried chicken' one man quipped. Next week there were 50 pieces of chicken. By the time they finished Mark's gospel, 20 people were involved - half from local churches and half from the hostel.
- allows activist types to get on and do something.
- involves learning by doing, which can be highly effective.
- fits a step-by-step approach - 'We're making it up as we go along'.
- avoids wasteful research. You can't learn everything before you do anything - you'd never get started. Effective pioneers often do only enough research to justify the next step. They proceed by research, action, more research and then more action.
But experimentation is not without risks:
- If the experiment goes badly wrong, will people be hurt and the missional group's reputation suffer?
- If the experiment goes well, will the group in its enthusiasm hurry on to the next step, short-circuiting the process of deep and extensive listening?
This entails joining in some of the activities undertaken by the people you seek to bless. You immerse yourself in people's lives like Jesus did. You might attend one of the courses run in a leisure centre, for example, observe how it works and who comes, and see if it sparks any ideas for what you might do.
If people on your housing estate throw 'healing parties' with a paid faith healer, as some do in Kent, you might attend regularly and ask the clientele whether this is the sort of thing a church should do. Joining the social committee at work or the residents' association on a housing estate might be a 'no brainer'. If you don't already do so, deciding to live in the area you are called to connect with is the best form of participation. You become part of the culture.
Participation makes you dependent in some way on the people you seek to serve. The 72 sent out by Jesus were to take nothing with them (Luke 10.4). They were to depend utterly on the hospitality of the village they entered. This dependence would have drawn them into the village's life as they were fed, given shelter and made welcome. When you make yourself dependent, you give the other person permission to draw you into their life. This is an important step to identifying with them.
As an alternative, instead of joining in what others are doing, you could invite others to join in what you are doing. If you have a passion for films, why not form a film club with an emphasis on the morality and spirituality of films?
One woman started a fresh expression based on her hobby, which was making greeting cards. Eventually, up to 50 people met regularly. Whenever New Creations made cards connected with a season in the church's year (Advent, Christmas, Mothering Sunday and so on), the woman would explain what the season meant to her as a Christian. In time, she began a group for those who wanted to explore Christianity further, the start of church for them.
Church of England Canon Phil Potter encourages Christians
to share your passion, share your life, share your faith, share their journey.
Here is a way for participation to become a form of experimentation - a reminder that many of the approaches we describe overlap.
Another form of participation is to spend time in a fresh expression elsewhere among similar people to those you are called to serve. Extended visits or a placement alongside a gifted pioneer is a brilliant way to learn.
This allows you to listen to people's stories, ask probing but non-intrustive questions and develop mutually enriching relationships. Stuart Murray (Planting Churches, Paternoster, 2008, p89) lists some ways of listening through conversation, which include:
- invite people to complete a questionnaire about their lives or their neighbourhood. This can lead into a conversation.
- convene a focus group - invite people to someone's home, give them a warm welcome and a drink and ask them, for example, to talk about community issues.
- interview a range of people in your mission context to understand the situation from different perspectives.
- use the 'snowball' approach, whereby initial conversation partners suggest other significant people for you to approach.
- chat to the key networkers ('people of peace'), who know many other people and have their finger on their network's pulse.
If you are engaged in 360 degrees listening, conversations will include people who are praying for you or the church leaders to whom you are accountable, and perhaps people in the wider church who have wisdom and experience to share.
This can tell you a great deal about a neighbourhood or network - what people do, where they gather, what they value, who relates to whom and lots more. Before starting her now famous 'bread church', Somewhere Else, Methodist minister Barbara Glasson spent a whole year walking the streets of central Liverpool, at all times of the day and night, observing the city's rhythms of life. She discovered some of the places where God was ahead of her (Barbara Glasson, Mixed-up Blessing, Inspire, 2006, pp1-34).
- Story: Somewhere Else
You might observe by:
- walking round the area alone or with others in the team, at different times of day and night, perhaps praying as you go.
- sitting watchfully in public spaces, parks or cafés.
- using a camera to record significant places, buildings, people or activities.
- spending a day in a local community project or with a professional, such as the local police officer, if they are up for it.
Stuart Murray writes,
Being attentive to what is known as 'spatial symbolism' is important - discerning the historical, cultural and spiritual messages conveyed by buildings and locations...
Planting Churches, Paternoster, 2008, p88
It is also worth looking at how people themselves are solving their own problems, making the assumption that they are 'competent interpreters' of their own lives. In particular, you might learn from people in the community or elsewhere who are solving problems against the odds, such as ex-prisoners who don't re-offend. 'What are they doing that we can learn from?'
Observation will also include looking at other fresh expressions of church by:
- watching some of the Fresh Expressions DVDs;
- attending a Fresh Expressions vision day to hear stories of what others have done;
- reading stories in the Encounters on the Edge series;
- visiting a fresh expression, perhaps in a similar mission context to yours.
This involves researching relevant issues in more depth. It includes finding out more about the people you are called to serve, and also learning from the experience of the wider church. You might want to read some books about contextual church planting, such as those referred to on this page.
If you want to start a tiny expression of church among your friends and acquaintances, you might read up on the cultural influences shaping their lives. How has technology impacted the 'digital generation', for instance? Or how are 'baby boomers' approaching retirement?
If you are thinking of beginning a church in a geographical community, you might visit council offices, the local library and websites to learn more about demographic trends, building development plans, social needs, types of employment, local history and much else.
The local newsagent will tell you what newspapers and magazines people read, and these can be a valuable source of insight too.
To avoid being swamped by too much information, it is wise to focus on key issues that have emerged from the other modes of listening.
This helps you to process all that you are learning from these different forms of discovery. It involves trying out possibilities in your mind. 'What would happen if we did...?' 'Quite a few of the mums stay chatting after dropping off their children at the playgroup. What would happen if we started a parenting support group at this time of day?'
Imagination allows you to be as off-the-wall as you like. If an idea lingers, you can test it on other people. It is the reflective part of listening, whereas all the other methods - from 'Experimentation' to 'Investigation' - are activities to a greater or lesser extent. You need reflection to get the most out of more active ways of listening.
In a cross-cultural context, where you may have to swap your cultural clothes for a rather different set, you can use your imagination to ask questions like: 'What would it mean for me to behave appropriately in this situation?'
Observing other fresh expressions, by watching the available DVDs for instance or attending events at which stories are told, can help to expand your imagination. Stories can also legitimise your wild ideas. 'They thought she was off the planet, but look what happened!' 'It worked for them.' They can give you confidence to turn dreams into reality.
What should you do as a result?
At some point you will need to draw together what you are learning and prayerfully consider what God is calling you to do. Are you beginning to see opportunities to serve with the resources you have available? Has your initial vision (if you had one) been confirmed and how has it been reshaped?
If you are one of a couple of friends starting church on a small scale, for example, this part of the discovering process will probably occur in a gradual way, as part of your day-to-day conversations. Maybe there will be a 'eureka' moment when a vision for what you could do emerges clearly, or perhaps the vision will form more slowly.
Or like many practitioners, your experience could be that a fresh expression just seems to happen. You tried something, it worked and other things fell into place.
Or you may be part of a more formal group, which puts aside time - perhaps in a quiet day or retreat - to pool what's been learnt and draw conclusions.
These four questions may help you turn the fruits of listening into a vision
(They are based on Martin Robinson, Planting Mission-Shaped Churches Today, Monarch, 2006, p98).
- What's going on here?
- What shall we do in response?
- How can we make it happen?
- What will be the result?
It will be important to share your emerging thoughts with others
Not least, obviously, with:
- the people you seek to serve. Are they beginning to own your emerging vision?
- those to whom you are accountable and have been praying for you.
- people whom you have consulted and whose advice you value. Do they think you are on the right track?
'How can we be sure this represents God's call?'
This will be a natural question to ask as a vision starts to form. These questions may help the process of discernment:
- Is the vision consistent with the 'mission values' we identified as part of the 'Mission values' section of How should we start?
- Does it fit with all that we have heard?
- How well would it serve people?
- Who has confirmed this may be right?
- Have any Scriptures come to life for us, and does our emerging vision fit with them?
- Have we sensed God speaking to us in prayer, and is our vision consistent with what we have heard?
- Have we examined our motives?
- Have we counted the cost of seeing this through?
- Do we have a sense of something being given to us - 'We didn't think this up?' (This is not always a test of a Godly call but is sometimes).
- Is there a sense of inner peace and gentle encouragement from God?
- Will going forward increase the faith of others and ourselves, even if it is tough?
The result of the discovering process
This will be a vision for how, with the resources available, you can respond to your 'shared call' and best serve your context with a fresh expression of church.
Discovering → shared vision
The vision will be shared because it is widely owned. Leadership is not about imposing a vision on others; it's about creating an environment in which the Spirit can work through others to reveal a vision.
You should also have been changed by the discovering process
You will see things in a new way and possibly identify with people to an extent you hadn't before. Listening changes the listener. This is perhaps a good test of how well you have listened.
Is listening now over?
As the vision becomes clear and begins to take shape, the discovering process will be far from finished. You will need to keep listening at every point of the ensuing journey - to the people you are called to serve, to the people to whom you are accountable, to the wider church and to God directly in prayer and Bible study.
Through this listening, the Spirit will lead you to the next stage, and as your fresh expression unfolds step by step the vision will evolve. The discovering process will become enmeshed increasingly with How can we get support? and How can we navigate uncharted waters?