'How should we start?' is about exploring what God might be calling you to do - both individually and as a missional community/team. It describes a process, which we call 'Exploring', that can result in a sense of shared call.
Some people address the elements involved - mission heart, mission team, mission values and mission focus - before they do anything else. But the experience of many midwives of church is that starting a fresh expression does not happen logically and sequentially. Often the venture is unplanned or emerges in a rather chaotic way.
So the 'thread' described here may be tangled up with all sorts of other processes. The elements involved may be addressed at different times or throughout the gestation of the new church. Even so, experience suggests that it is important to address these elements - usually, sooner rather than later.
A mission heart
This is a gift from God and is important for all involved in founding a fresh expression.
Being excited is clearly vital
You will be unlikely to have a heart for a particular mission if you are not enthused by the possibilities. Passion may take time to grow, but it needs to be there at some stage. If a church or group of churches is appointing someone to start a fresh expression, selecting the right person will be crucial. The person appointed should be:
- spiritually robust. Attending to their walk with God is pioneers' first responsibility.
- a gatherer of people. They will need to form a team - a 'missional community' - if it does not already exist and they will need to help gather people round the community. Paul was a superb gatherer - look at the mission teams he formed! Pioneers need something of the same gift.
- gifted in leadership to an appropriate extent. The larger the venture, the greater the leadership skills required. If the leadership gifts available are modest, you will need to have realistic expectations about the scale of the venture.
- the right cultural fit. The person should fit the context, either because they come from the same or a similar culture to the one the fresh expression will serve, or because they are gifted in cross-cultural mission.
Midwives of church must think people, not models
Often they know that church must be different but have only half the story. Because it can be hard to imagine what being different means, they hold on to an example they have seen or heard about: 'Let's do café church'. The example speaks to them because it is exciting and vivid. Part of the process of being called to fresh expressions is to let the Holy Spirit complete the story. The Spirit takes you beyond your initial understanding that church must be different, to seeing how church can be different for people you are called to serve. Your imagination expands from 'this is how church could be fresh' to 'this is how it could be fresh for them (or for us)'.
Travelling this journey won't necessarily mean abandoning your original idea
The Spirit may keep alive your vision for café church, but help the café to emerge in ways you never expected. But it could be that the Spirit wants your vision to die so that something completely different can come alive. Maybe the Spirit wants to replace your love for an idea ('Café church would be great') with an even greater love for the people you seek to reach ('Their real need is for...').
The key is a dying-to-live attitude
This is a gift to be prayed for and nurtured. It involves being willing to give up your preferences, hopes and visions in favour of the desires, longings and aspirations of the people you are connecting with. Imagining, pondering and wrestling with the Good Friday-Easter experience of Jesus may be a help here. You could read Philippians 2.5-11 regularly and perhaps even commit it to memory. You could ask the Spirit to give you a self-emptying mindset as you monitor your thoughts during the day: 'Was that a self-emptying reaction?'
A mission team (or community)
This is vital. God's comment:
It is not good that the man should be alone
applies as much to growing new churches as to any human activity. In some of the entrepreneurial literature, there have been calls to think less about entrepreneurs and more about entrepreneurial teams.
A venture may have several teams
Depending on its size. At the core may be a small or larger team of leaders. Around them may be a number of helpers, possibly comprising several task-based teams. And around them may be the people the venture seeks to serve. Keeping the boundaries between the circles as porous as possible, consistent with the spiritual integrity of the project, will encourage the venture to be:
- a partnership between leaders and helpers. ('We're doing this with you' rather than 'for you').
- owned by those it connects with. The more people can help, the more they will have a stake in it. ‘Pioneering ministry cannot be done to a community by someone who knows what they need, it can only be done with a community by someone who shares their need.’ (Angela Shier Jones, Pioneer Ministry and Fresh Expressions of Church, London: SPCK, 2009, p123).
- sustainable. Tasks will be widely shared, easing the burden on any one person.
The missional community is the leadership group at the core.
Missional communities can mean different things in different contexts
- two or three friends who want to serve people in their neighbourhood, leisure centre or workplace;
- an interest group or prayer group that finds itself serving others and becoming unexpectedly a fresh expression;
- the leadership of a sizable planting team called out from a local church;
- a pioneer who gathers a close-knit team as their work develops;
- a pioneer who creates a dispersed network of support - a prayer group; a practical support group with financial and other expertise; some friends to cry and laugh with; membership of a worshipping community; a coach/mentor and a spiritual director; and as the work gathers pace, leaders of mums and toddlers, a neighbourhood football team and other groups the pioneer has helped to start.
Key things to bear in mind when selecting a missional community
The size of the community
A large core with several paid staff, surrounded by an even larger planting community, has the potential to scale up quickly. One model is for the community to draw in people from members' networks so that it grows from perhaps 50 worshippers to around 200. The inflow of new cash and other resources supports the further development of mission.
Growth depends crucially on the community being well-networked to individuals who are open to returning to a lively church with 'their sort of people'. If these conditions are absent, rapid scale-up may not occur, the plant may struggle to sustain its complex model (a high quality worship band, for example, extensive children's work and so on) and members may become inward looking as the impetus to mission fades.
A small missional community is simpler to manage, may contain fewer people with pastoral problems and agendas that divert from its mission focus, and members may find it easier to adapt their corporate life to newcomers (fewer people have to agree the changes needed). But scaling up is much harder and takes far longer.
The ideal, where feasible, may sometimes be a combination of large and small. An initial largish core and wider planting community would grow quickly and spawn smaller missional communities that would found contextually-based micro churches in the cultures nearby. There are one or two examples of this starting to happen, for example in London.
The interests and background of community members
These will determine the sort of fresh expression that emerges. So if the missional community comprises people who have recently left church, a fresh expression among the 'de-churched' will be more likely than one among people who have never been to church.
A pioneer who feels called to a specific neighbourhood or network should pray for a community with members well connected to the people concerned. A community of professional Asians may struggle to work effectively with Asians in social housing, for instance.
A networker - 'a person of peace' (Luke 10.6) who has lots of contacts, can open doors and draw in people - will be invaluable. If the community does not have one, it should pray that God will bring them such a person. Whether part of the team or not, networkers are key. Who else will bring people to your activity group when it has started?
The cohesion of the community
This doesn't mean that everyone has to agree with each other! But when friends and contacts of the community are the initial focus of its mission, members should come from the same or similar networks. Otherwise, when people invited from the different networks gather together they may have too little in common to gel as a group.
Pastoral problems in the missional community can be a distraction. Some pioneers have had their focus diverted by community members' emotional problems, which have consumed time that should have been spent on people the team was called to bless.
Likewise, a missional community with malcontents or misfits from other churches may be disrupted by agendas that have little to do with the team's mission focus.
'Who' before 'what' may be good advice
Is God bringing you someone with a mission heart, who can be a reliable colleague and who shares your vision for the people you are called to? These qualities may be more important than having the specific gift you were hoping for.
Someone with the right gifts but not the right qualities may be unable to exercise their gifts fully because of their character flaws. On the other hand, God may use a person with the right qualities but unsought gifts to take the team in a surprising, yet fruitful direction.
Instead of saying, 'We want to do this sort of a project. What sort of missional community do we need?', sometimes it may be wiser to ask, 'These gifts are available. What is God calling us to do with the gifts we have been given?'
Pioneers and teams may want to look for colleagues who are:
- faithful - passionate about their faith and inspired by the Great Commission (Matthew 29.19-20).
- available - they can offer time. Available people know that pioneering can be hard work and discouraging, but despite that they make it a priority.
- conscientious - they work hard, they are reliable, they don't let others down, they attend carefully to their role in the team. Often they are unsung heroes - 'She always puts out the chairs'.
- teachable - willing to learn from Scripture, the pioneer context and others in the team.
- servant-hearted - willingness to serve the people the community is called to bless is the basis of a mission heart, as we have seen.
(This list is adapted from Stuart P Robinson, Starting Mission-Shaped Churches, St Paul's Chatswood, 2007, pp42,46).
Going your separate ways could be a wise move
Paul and Barnabas parted company after what seems to have been an acrimonious dispute (Acts 15.39). They can be a good example to follow! Two friends may decide they wouldn't work well together; someone may leave the community after a trial period - 'It's not for me'; there may be disagreements about strategy and someone pulls out. These are not failures; they are part of discerning God's call for each person. What is the right thing for each individual to do and in what context? Not serving in one situation releases the person to serve in another.
It is important to have the courage to say 'no' to someone who asks to join the missional community, or to accept that the group is not right for someone who has joined. This can be especially hard for pioneers who are starting out on their own and perhaps after a year still haven't formed a team. 'Dare I turn down this offer of help?' Yet the missional community is the human core of the venture. Who is in the community will shape much else. Getting the right team involves the most important decisions a church midwife will make.
Eagles Wings provides an example of being willing to bless team members when they leave.
Forming team into community is an essential task
The quality of relationships in the missional community will comprise part of the fresh expression's DNA. God exists in relationship and is revealed through healthy human relationships. People are attracted to such relationships in their own right. So forming community is a mission activity, and is discussed further in How can we be a great team?
More than community may be involved, however. Members may initially come together round a common interest or a shared desire to start a fresh expression. But as they discover their call from God, they may find that are being summoned to be not just a team with a sense of community, but an embryonic form of church. Something comes into existence that was not present before: the desire to be church.
These are not the same as a fresh expression's values. The latter emerge as the venture develops. (See How can we navigate uncharted waters?) Mission values are present from the outset and belong to the missional community.
They are 'emotional rudders'
They guide how the community operates. They are 'emotional' because members feel strongly about them. These feelings may be based on reason, but these reasons have emotional power and it is this power that gives values their influence. Agreeing core values will provide a framework for interpreting the group's experiences. Reality is not simply 'out there', planting itself on our minds. Rather, to a significant extent our minds plant reality on to the world because 'reality' is shaped by our assumptions.
Individuals have different takes on reality because they come to it with different beliefs. These beliefs shape their reactions to the world - whether they find an episode attractive, hostile or strange, for instance. There is an interaction between the world 'out there' and our interpretation of it. Being explicit about the community's values will help determine the interpretation members impose on their experiences and observations.
If an idol is what you think about in your idle moments, values are the 'whys' and 'hows' of life that are most valuable to you. Each person has their own values. Part of the 'Exploring' process is to discover what values God is calling the missional community as a whole to share.
Values are like an iceberg
Mostly they lie beneath the surface. We take them for granted. They are assumed rather than articulated. Making them explicit allows them to be critiqued rather than hidden from criticism.
The first step in identifying mission values is to have conversations about what community members value, perhaps as warm-up activities when the group meets. Members might describe an ideal community meeting, for example, aspects of church life that they would die for or run from, or what they would most like to celebrate in a church they had helped to start.
One possibility might be for members to discuss What is a fresh expression of church? and which values they most warm to in What Christian principles lie behind fresh expressions?
You might create a list of important things that people seem to agree with
These might concern:
- how the missional community functions;
- your spiritual boundaries;
- hopes for the fresh expression.
When they meet, a couple of friends might bring up the list on their laptop or a larger missional community might pin up the list on a board. The list will remind the group what it has in common, suggest topics for prayer and prompt members to add (or subtract) items.
After a while the missional community can begin to look back on its life and ask, 'What has God given to us that seems to be special?' and 'What are the particularly good things about our life together?' These can be the basis for a more stable set of values.
In the early days, however, and especially as members join, a fluid list is probably more realistic than a rigid one. It allows for growth in understanding and ensures that new members have space to shape the community's outlook.
Different approaches among community members may also need to be addressed
- vulnerable sharing in the group vs a task-centred approach;
- conservative vs open theologies;
- overt vs implicit evangelism.
Recognising bottom lines, discerning how far differences will affect the workings of the group and being prepared to go separate ways may all be necessary. These are more likely to safeguard relationships than burying differences, only to find that they disrupt the missional community later.
There are many ways for communities to identify their mission values - some more formal than others. But it is vital that teams do this, even if they are small (perhaps two or three friends). It can avoid misunderstanding later.
A mission focus
This comes from discerning whom you are called to serve. You can't connect with everyone, obviously.
The more focused you are, normally the easier it is to love and serve the people concerned in depth. You can concentrate resources and develop specialist expertise. If you are working with children, for instance, you might use a limited budget to set up a toy library. But if you are working with children and older people, you might have to split the money between toys and subsiding a coach trip, without being able to do either well. Jesus came to Israel, to a specific people, to start a movement that would reach beyond the nation's boundaries. Your hopes for your mission focus might have a similar flavour.
Things to bear in mind
As you prayerfully discern your focus, you should bear in mind:
It helps in a liquid world to work in centres of stability
Such as schools, and community and leisure centres serving relatively stable populations. If people are passing through, you may not have time to build community, nor serve them in depth, nor walk with them into the Christian faith.
It helps to work with a cohesive group of people
People who share a common interest or come from a similar background. It will be easier to form community among them, serve the whole group and provide ways of helping them to journey into faith. All-age fresh expressions, for example, face the challenge of how to disciple children and adults, whose needs will be very different. (See Is it right or biblical to form congregations made up of the same kind of people?)
It may be worth considering latent groups
People who would like to meet together, but don't have a chance to do so. Potentially, there are a large number of these groups, but often they don't form because no suitable person has provided the catalyst to do so. Might team members have a passion they can share, such as a love of classical music, walking in the countryside or watching old movies? Forming groups round an interest, perhaps with an explicit spiritual dimension (eg 'walking with a difference'), can help to build 'social capital' (in the jargon) by connecting people together.
What about marginal groups?
Being pragmatic in selecting a mission focus will often make sense - 'This is the easiest group to serve.' But you may want to think carefully about serving marginal groups, where the needs and challenges are greater.
You may want to be open to surprises
Some pioneer teams have set out to serve a particular group, only to end up working with a completely different people. God may bring across your path individuals you least expect.
If it is not clear whom you are called to serve
You might try:
- to find 'a person of peace' - a networker. As noted above, networkers are people who can open doors to others. In a local church context, a congregation might have one or two networkers who can draw together friends and contacts outside church. Might a networker take you to the people you are called to bless?
- to provide an activity that brings you into contact with people you might serve, such as a barbecue for the neighbourhood, a big screen to watch a high-profile sports event or a holiday club for children. You could see who turns up and what relationships you build. Could the people involved in these relationships be the beginnings of your mission focus?
- to concentrate on discovering what pastoral needs exist round you. There are terrific mission opportunities. The church is called to serve above all those in need.
'What would be realistic expectations for working with this group?'
This is a helpful question to ask. The type of people you work with will have implications for the length of time it will take to establish the fresh expression and the type of venture that will emerge.
Praying through these implications will help you and others in support to have a realistic timescale in mind. If the project is going to take a long time and you need financial backing, it is important for funders to have an accurate sense of the time required.
You might ask:
- are the people we feel called to serve in the same or a different culture to us? If the culture is different, building relationships may take longer.
- are they close to the gospel or further away? If the latter, encouraging them into the kingdom may take more time.
- does the group contain natural leaders or heavily dependent people? If the latter, establishing a venture that is self-sustaining with its own leaders will be a greater challenge.
- is the group stable or fluid? If people will find it difficult to come to meetings regularly, this will affect the nature of the community that forms. Might the community be more dispersed than gathered, relying heavily on Twitter, text-messaging or bumping into one another at the school gates, for example?
As you pray through issues surrounding your mission heart, mission team, mission values and mission focus, God will show you whether you have a heart for fresh expressions, who else might share your heart, what values might guide you as you work together and whom you should serve. As these are clarified, the nature of your call will become more apparent.
Exploring → shared call