'How can we navigate uncharted waters?' is about envisaging the journey ahead by making sense of the journey already travelled. It avoids predict-and-plan in favour of reflect-and-envisage. It involves prayerful learning through experience and using that learning to imagine the pathway ahead. As with all the 'threads' described in Starting and growing, it is not a stage but a process that overlaps with the other threads. It should occur throughout a fresh expression's life.
This entails imagining 'a fresh expressions journey'. In How do fresh expressions develop?, we suggest that at the simplest level many are likely to emerge as follows:
This is an outline description to provide an overall sense of direction, though in practice the pathway may look different according to the context (and should become circular). Looking forward involves envisaging the next stages of the journey and asking what you have to do to travel well.
It enables you in the early stages to implant in the venture a DNA with the potential to flower into a full expression of church. How you begin is likely to determine the sort of venture that emerges.
In particular, prayerfully looking forward is important:
To discern the Spirit
Looking forward means asking, 'What pathway is the Holy Spirit laying down for us?' The kingdom comes to us from the future. It is like seeing through the mist the faint outline of a distant city. Some way ahead out of the mist appears a runner calling with news about what the city is like, shouting out suggestions about which path to take and pointing to the help he has provided en route. Looking forward entails straining to catch the runner's words and to see where he is pointing.
To look for the next horizon and maintain the mission focus
Fresh expressions can plateau and cease to be missional if the community gets too cosy.
To prepare adequately
For instance, if you expect people to make financial donations, you may want to register yourself as a charity to claim the tax back. Registering can take a while, so you would need to give yourself plenty of time. One fresh expression missed out on tax rebates worth several thousand pounds because it had not allowed enough time to create a charity.
To avoid pitfalls
Imagine you look ahead to how you will encourage people into faith. You expect to provide a form of 'missional worship' as part of the group's mainstream activities. Have you signalled this in the initial publicity? Otherwise you may face complaints: 'You never said it would include this.' A particular risk is that Christians will flood into the new venture, change the atmosphere unintentionally and reset the agenda. This has brought some fresh expressions to a halt. Looking forward would help you to think of ways to prevent this.
To build in sustainability
In How can we grow something sustainable? we suggest that sustainability should be factored in from an early stage - in the scale at which you start, for instance, and in the steps you take to share the leadership. Sustainability should not be something you think about later; it should be in the fresh expression's genetic code.
In the initial stages
Looking forward may involve asking questions like:
- how might people experience community as the venture develops?
- how would we put Jesus on to the agenda?
- how would we help people to explore discipleship?
- how will the way we introduce people to the faith affect their subsequent growth in the faith?
- as church begins to take shape, what might discipleship (including worship) look like for these people?
- are we starting in ways that will help the fresh expression to be sustainable?
- how will we stay missional and avoid the glass ceiling?
You won't necessarily be able to answer all these questions at the beginning, but asking them will help you to address the bigger one: 'Can we imagine this venture becoming church?' This is the really important question. Your response may be:
- 'Yes, we can imagine the journey, even if we can't see the details. We are launching out on that basis.'
- 'No, we can't imagine at all how we would move from one circle in "a fresh expressions journey" to the next.' This may ring warning bells: 'Perhaps we are not on the right track and should think again.' Or you may decide that you are engaged in a community project rather than a fresh expression of church. This would be an entirely valid contribution to the kingdom, but why not make this explicit? Then people won't expect a new church to appear at some stage.
- 'No, we can't yet imagine how we would move from one circle to another, but we are going to start on a step-by-step basis. We shall try such-and-such, see what doors open and then discern what next.' This approach would involve a risk - that you start in an unfruitful way, stall and never complete the journey. Equally, you might see it as a walk of faith, an expression of trust that the Spirit will guide.
Later on in the venture's life
You will focus on questions like:
- how to travel to the next stage of the journey;
- how to maintain critical mass;
- how to form the next fresh expression - 'Do it again' (see God grows church through reproduction);
- how to manage a key transition, such as from one leader to the next;
- how to adapt to changes in the context;
- how to keep the venture fresh, and much else.
Looking forward should be a continuous activity
It will help you to avoid becoming so preoccupied with 'keeping the show on the road' that you settle into comfortable routines, which allow your fresh expression to grow stale. It will help you to keep on the move, hurrying after the Spirit.
This becomes important as the venture begins to develop. It focuses on how God has led you in recent months and over a longer period. This provides a perspective from which to look forward.
It is about learning
'What is the Holy Spirit teaching us through our experience?' It can be approached by means of the 'pastoral cycle', which is a way of prayerfully reflecting on experience - in four stages (see Paul Ballard and John Pritchard, Practical Theology in Action, SPCK, 2006, ch6).
- Experience - what have we experienced on our journey, and how do our perceptions of what we have experienced differ?
- Exploration - so what's been going on? In particular, what's been going on behind what's been going on? What factors have shaped our experience?
- Reflection - how does God see this? What would make him thrilled? What would make him weep? What would Jesus do in the light of the journey so far?
- Action - what do we need to do as a result of our exploration and reflection?
This cycle should be a continuous process. When you take action, you begin to change the situation. New dynamics come into play which you experience, explore, reflect on and act upon, and these again change the situation. Over time, you become changed.
Looking back will enable you to review the fresh expression's values
The missional community will of course have its own mission values, which will shape its shared life and how it goes about its task. (see How should we start?)
Many struggle with the concept of values. I have had extended conversations with church planters trying to express their values who constantly revert to statements about activities or purposes. Values express our deepest convictions and passions, how we want to be known, how we expect to behave or, as church planter Ralph Moore suggests, what we want as our epitaph.
Stuart Murray Williams, Urban Expression
The fresh expression's values are different to these mission values. The fresh expression's values are distinctive values, specific to this particular expression of church. They are values that mark the venture out from the genre - just as the values of the Northumbria Community, for example, differ to those of the Franciscans and other intentional communities. Mission values, on the other hand, are core values that could be expressed in a variety of situations. They are determined before the fresh expression's values emerge.
Sometimes leadership groups get core and distinctive values confused. At the start of their work they ask, 'What values should shape this venture?' They hope for values that will be specific to the new community, but find these hard to discern. The community has not yet formed, so the values particular to it remain unclear. Necessarily, values at the outset have to be rather general. They tend to be values that could apply to any number of ventures. Members of the group may be disappointed. The values seem rather obvious. They are too general to have much bite.
The group would have done better to have recognised that the values it was talking about at the beginning were core values, mission values, not values that would be distinctive to the venture. These mission values are inevitably general. They have to be applicable to a variety of communities because it is unclear what this particular one will look like. Their purpose is to guide the team's life and actions, and to have bite they should be identified with this purpose in mind.
Only as the community takes shape, and perhaps church within it, will the values that reflect the life of this specific body of people become apparent. These values can be seen as gifts from God. They are charisms that give the community its special flavour - gifts that bless members of the community and people outside.
Core values, distinctive values, objectives, methods and strategy are different things:
- Core values steer the mission team/community in its task - for example, 'We'll pray together as a team every time we meet.'
- Distinctive values mark the fresh expression out from others - each person served by the venture knows that they are prayed for by the team.
- Objectives of the venture are goals that the team sets well before distinctive values emerge. One goal might be that people served by the venture have opportunities to encounter Christ.
- Methods are the means used to achieve objectives. To create opportunities to encounter Christ, for example, people served by the venture can post prayer requests on to a prayer board.
- Strategy is the combination of methods being used to start and grow the fresh expression. The prayer board is just one of several methods designed to help the fresh expression on its journey.
Here are some examples of distinctive values
- Safe Space, Telford: Community, Pilgrimage, Mission.
- Sanctus 1, Manchester: Missional, Welcoming, Serving, Rooted.
- The Net, Huddersfield: God-centred, Bible-based, Open to change, Creating relevant faith, Seeker-focused, Desiring authentic relationships, Developing discipleship (Dave Male, Church Unplugged, Authentic Media, 2008, p57).
- Potters House, Stoke-on-Trent: Spirit-filled, Prayerful, Creative, Friendly and welcoming, Young at heart, Inclusive and compassionate, Having high standards, Culturally relevant, Relational and collaborative.
Distinctive values are most naturally discerned in retrospect
By looking back on the community's journey and asking, 'What are the special characteristics that God has given to us - things that seem to be a blessing to others and to us?' They may be things that visitors or outsiders remark on: 'People always seem to be laughing', 'You are such a generous group', 'You are all so laid back' or 'You really do practice your faith.' Or they may be things that new members of the community have noticed.
These values may emerge gradually and take time to discern. You may be wise not to hasten to a definitive list. Perhaps periodically, as part of looking back, you could ask whether any distinctive values can yet be recognised, and prayerfully compile what might be a provisional list. At an appropriate time, you might ask the community as a whole, and perhaps one or two people outside, whether they can identify features that make this particular venture stand out. Over a period, you might distil these suggestions, try the list out on people and see if a consensus emerges. Might you ask a critical friend to say whether your espoused values are also your operative values?
The aim should not be to have a long or comprehensive list, but just a few items that seem to capture what is unique to the community. A good test might be whether there is an 'aha' moment, when people say, 'Yes! That's us. That's really important!' These values should not then be put in a drawer! They should be used to strengthen and build up the fresh expression. Newcomers should be introduced to them and leaders should keep talking about them.
Notices (if you have them) are a great opportunity. Wherever possible, you might link a notice to a particular value. If you can't make a connection you might ask, 'Why are we doing this?' If the activity is important to the community, maybe it reflects a value no one had spotted. It is no bad thing to modify your values in the light of experience - another reminder that the 'Looking forward / Looking back' process should be an ongoing part of the community's life. Adjusting your values could be a sign that your fresh expression is evolving - it's alive!
Whilst working out hopes and vision together before embarking on a fresh expression is useful, I wonder whether values are things that develop in the life of a community and take time to decipher. Surely values express something of the reality of what is already present in the community as well as being inspirational.
Beth Keith, The Sheffield Centre
For very small fresh expressions, such as a tiny church among friends or in the workplace, core and distinctive values may be similar. Two friends who set up a spirituality at work group, which grows to six people, may find that their core values shape the group to such an extent that they are largely reflected in the distinctive values that eventually emerge. Fresh expressions are extremely varied, so that neat distinctions in one context often blur in another. Categories should be used with an eye for their exceptions.
'Looking back' and 'Looking forward' can be done in the context of milestone reviews. These are opportunities to take stock and envisage the road ahead. They may involve the whole community or the leadership team. They can be done informally by two friends chatting over coffee or formally as an agenda item in a team meeting.
The important thing is to do them regularly and take them seriously
They build discipline into your learning
'Looking forward' and 'Looking back' involves learning from experience and applying this learning to the future. But this learning can be uncomfortable. It may involve giving up something you thought you knew or an established pattern of thinking. Letting go or starting to think in a different way can be difficult. It may take time - time you would rather use for something else. Groups sometimes collude with the status quo to avoid the discomfort involved in learning. If you find yourself putting off milestone reviews or doing them superficially, you might ask why! Are there realities the team would prefer not to face?
They help you adapt to changes in the context
Both the outside environment and within the community. A new team member, a different meeting place or a change in the leadership of the sponsoring church may affect the venture considerably. Regular reviews provide a systematic way to reflect on such changes, and this reflection will help the community adapt to them. If you don't have reviews, members of the core group may have no forum in which to express concerns or explore new opportunities. Issues may get buried and be addressed too late.
They help you to manage important transitions
Such as the beginnings of church within the community, the arrival of a new leader or the decision to form another fresh expression, as an offshoot. In How can we grow something sustainable? we suggest that transitions often follow a sequence: initial organisation, mounting tension, new configuration. Some studies in entrepreneurship suggest that how well these transitions are managed depends considerably on the quality of conversations about them. Milestone reviews are a good context in which to start those conversations.
Milestone reviews have something of a eucharistic feel to them
They are a corporate activity of looking forward and looking back, analogous to what happens at communion - the community looks back to what Jesus has done and looks forward to his return. Might milestone reviews be undertaken within the context of an informal communion or agape supper? This would combine worship, reflection and planning. It would insert the story of your fresh expression into the heart of the Christian story.
PEDALS might be a helpful framework for milestone reviews
(It is adapted from Geoff Mulgan, The Art of Public Strategy, OUP, 2009, p76). Each review might cover:
- purposes - What are we trying to achieve? Are we shifting from our original goals?
- environment - Are we learning new things about the environment (or the context) in which we are working?
- direction - What was our original vision? What priorities did we set out to achieve it? Are we still travelling in that direction? Are we getting the necessary support?
- actions - Have we taken the actions we agreed at our last milestone review? What have we done that we didn't expect?
- learning - What have we learnt as a result of this review? Should we modify our purpose and priorities in the light of this? Do we need additional support? Can we start to discern distinctive values?
- so what? - In the light of this review, what specific steps should we take between now and the next review? Does this require an updated Mission Action Plan (see below)? When shall we hold our next review?
Milestones will become millstones if you you apply this framework too mechanically. But having a framework, even if on occasion you pass through some items quickly, will provide pegs on which members of the missional community can hang their reflections. PEDALS could be used by a couple of friends or a larger group.
Planning not plans
Dwight Eisenhower, the World War II general and later US President, once said,
In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.
The same could be said for new forms of church.
'Plans are useless' may be a slight exaggeration
But the thought captures the experience of many pioneers, 'We're making it up as we go along.' This is largely because the world is complex and fast changing, and teams who lead fresh expressions are not in control of outside events. They have to watch out for opportunities, which may crop up unexpectedly, and seize them as they occur.
Carefully prepared plans may be blown off course by changes in the context. 'We were all set to hold a children's Saturday club in the school. Then the new head teacher arrived and withdrew permission.'
In a world of flux, leadership by strategic plan should give way to leadership by discernment. Missional communities should go with what presents rather than with what members thought was going to happen. 'Push when it moves' might be a good motto. Milestone reviews provide an opportunity to detect the Spirit's activity in a changing landscape.
'Planning is indispensable'
For two reasons. First, long-term planning is a means of learning. The team says, 'Given what we know, this is what we expect to do.' Being explicit about these expectations is an opportunity for a conversation within the team. It is through talking that the missional community learns. Knowledge and insights are shared. Members can ask whether they are seeing the situation in a similar way and drawing the same conclusions.
At a later milestone review, the community can prayerfully revise its expectations in the light of new knowledge, which permits a further conversation. Members can ask, 'If we thought we were going to do this but we didn't, what happened? What can we learn? How do things look now?' Again, team members can explore whether they are drawing similar conclusions and learn from each other's perspectives.
Secondly, short-term planning is necessary for the missional community to know what to do next. 'What are we going to do in the coming few months, and how?' Agreed next steps are essential, but seeing them from a planning-not-plans perspective allows members to be reasonably relaxed if they have to adjust the steps in the light of circumstances. At the next milestone review, members can hold each other to account for making any changes.
Mission Action Plans
A Mission Action Plan - a MAP - is one way to express these next steps, perhaps in the context of the team's longer term hopes. MAPs will vary according to the context. Larger ventures may develop quite sophisticated MAPs, while smaller ones may use something very simple. There is no one way to write a MAP.
Stuart P. Robinson, in Starting Mission-Shaped Churches, Gospel Outreach Ministries, 2007, chapters 8-13, has a detailed discussion of MAPs and so does Mike Chew & Mark Ireland, How to do Mission Action Planning. A Vision-Centred Approach, SPCK, 2009.
One possibility would be for your MAP to answer four questions
- What do we plan to do between now and when we next meet?
- How will we do it?
- Who will do it?
- When will it be done by?
Another possibility would be to have four sections:
- A summary of your vision.
- A statement of the team's core values and any distinctive values that are starting to emerge.
- A short list of goals - what you hope to have achieved by a specified date.
- A description of the tasks, by whom and by when, to achieve these goals.
The task descriptions can form the basis of a simple statement of 'ministry expectations' for each team member (and any other volunteers), so that everyone is clear about what they are being asked to do and their boundaries. These 'ministry expectations' can be revised as necessary through subsequent milestone reviews.
This should be another part of the milestone review process. It is a way of discerning where and how the Spirit has been at work so that you can envisage how the Spirit might be leading you in future.
Measurement and target-setting
These have had a bad press in the secular world, often because the targets are imposed from outside, are not owned by those involved and privilege some stakeholders (such as funders) over others (frequently clients). Surely we do not want the same culture creeping into church? Yet within much of the secular world, efforts are being made to devise measurements that help managers to do a better job - that give them information which they can use to improve services. Feedback from clients and staff is being welcomed, while in some cases externally-imposed targets are being kept to a minimum.
A 'feedback' rather than 'target' approach to measurement can make a lot of sense within fresh expressions. Feedback can be a means of evaluating what the Holy Spirit has been doing. Where has the Spirit been blessing the venture, and in what ways?
The first step is to decide what you need to know
You can select from a variety of approaches - for example:
- Natural Church Development has developed eight criteria for measuring the health of a local church. There is a lot to commend Natural Church Development, but eight criteria may feel a bit 'heavy' for a small fresh expression.
- The five marks of mission used by the Anglican and United Reformed Churches could offer criteria for evaluating a fresh expression. But the marks are all about mission, which means that other aspects of a fresh expression's life - such as fellowship and worship - would be ignored. The same applies to the British Methodist Church's Marks of Mission.
- The UP, IN, OUT, OF relationships of church might be a possibility (see Are fresh expressions proper church?). They would provide a relational framework within which to devise criteria for assessing the health of your venture.
- Your objectives might be an obvious starting point. What criteria would enable you to judge whether the objectives the team has set are being achieved?
A second step would be to decide how to assess what you need to know
For this you might need to identify:
Depending on the initiative's size, these may include 'hard outcomes', such as the numbers being served by the venture and the number coming into faith, and 'softer outcomes', like the impact on participants' lives and on the community outside. Indicators may also include 'process measurements', such as evidence that the mission team is learning from experience.
Ways of measuring these indicators
For instance, feedback from those concerned - through a simple questionnaire, or a focus group, or the enquiries of a 'mystery visitor' - might be a way of assessing impact. Charities often use quite sophisticated tools to evaluate softer outcomes - see, for example, Homeless Outcomes - and these might be adapted in some cases. Both qualitative and quantitative tools may have a place. But the tools need to be as simple as possible.
A third step would be to decide how you intend to use the results
- to inform the team's thinking, as part of milestone reviews?
- to aid reflection within the emerging community as a whole, perhaps through discussion during a gathering?
- to inform others with a stake in the venture, such as those providing formal and informal support and those to whom the initiative is accountable?
- a combination of these?
The key thing is to be as light-touch as possible and to ensure that your evaluation is appropriate to the context.
A final word
The suggestions here, as with other pages, are not meant to be prescriptive. They are intended to stimulate thoughts about how you might navigate uncharted waters, as you steer between no planning on the one hand and too much planning on the other.
Using milestone reviews to look back, look forward, engage in planning and discern where the Spirit has been working will help team members to envisage the direction the Spirit is leading. They will walk the path together.
Envisaging → shared pathway