Experience suggests that sustainability should be considered in the very early stages of a fresh expression of church, not when the venture is well on its journey. Far from being an afterthought, sustainability needs to be in the fresh expression's DNA. The way you begin may influence how long you continue.
Sustainability includes discipleship and worship, both of which are crucially relevant and are discussed on elsewhere (see especially Discipleship). For example, healthy disciples will take responsibility and use their gifts, grow into leadership roles, give generously (including money) and make other disciples – all of which will aid sustainability. The focus here is on some of the organisational aspects of keeping the emerging Christian community fruitful and fresh.
The definition of sustainability
Sustainability in church planting has tended to be understood in terms of the 'three selfs', which were formulated separately by the 19th century missionary strategists, Henry Venn and Rufus Anderson.
Building on the 'three selfs'
This view holds that fresh expressions should become:
- self-theologising - a fourth self that some have recently added. A sustainable venture will develop a 'local theology' that responds to its context.
This approach has a number of problems if it is applied to fresh expressions through the lens of inherited church, which has tended to be the case.
Often it is assumed that a new church will be rather like existing churches, just as many 'daughter' churches were in the past. The new church will become financially independent with its own minister, its own church council, its own representatives in the denominational structures and it may go on to plant a further church, which will take a similar form.
But if you apply the three/four selfs in a contextual way, you may end up thinking quite radically - more radically than has often happened so far with fresh expressions.
A teenage congregation might interpret 'self-financing' not as being able to pay for a full-time youth worker (which few, if any, teenage congregations can afford), but as relying on two part-time youth workers, both of whom are self-supporting because they have part-time jobs.
Self-governing might be understood not as the fresh expression being independent of its parent church, but as having responsibility for its affairs within the governance structures of the local church. Where leadership skills are limited, it might entail developing a simple form of church that was manageable with those particular skills.
Self-reproducing might involve new believers finding one or two other Christians in their work or their street, and starting a very small expression of church in the midst of their everyday lives.
If we are to use the three/four selfs criteria, we must not assume that the emerging church will be like inherited church. We must think about financial sustainability, leadership and multiplication in ways that fit the context. (See 'The 3-Self Principle – Which end of the telescope?', Anglican Church Planting Initiatives.)
Despite their possibilities the three/four selfs are still open to criticism.
The focus on 'self' downplays interdependence
The 'three selfs' principle was developed to hasten the formation of churches that could stand on their own feet, without their missionary founders. It was designed to encourage missionaries to move on. The stress was on independence to counter dependence. But applied today, this emphasis comes at a cost. Independence can be seen as a virtue while interdependence, expressed through local church, denominational or ecumenical ties, goes unmentioned. Surely mutual dependence is more God-like and in keeping with church as fellowship than heroic independence? The language of self is problematic, especially in a consumer culture.
The model may be too static for some fresh expressions
A Christian gathering on a campus may dissolve when the students graduate. A mid-sized community with a missional focus may run out of energy. In the 'benefits culture', membership and attendance may be so fluid that the venture always feels fragile. As more fresh expressions are started in the midst of daily life, maybe involving just a handful of people, a growing number will become vulnerable to one or two of their members moving away. A church in a leisure centre or workplace may last only for a season, coming to an end when a key person changes job or moves home.
So perhaps we should understand sustainability differently
As a fresh expression being:
- connected to the wider church in relationships of mutual respect and support. This will enable the fresh expression to help sustain the whole body, including in mission, as well as the body being a source of sustenance for the fresh expression.
- appropriately responsible. The degree of financial, administrative and other responsibility will vary from one context to another. Expectations about financial and other forms of responsibility will be appropriate to the context.
- viable for its life span. Some new churches will be seasonal, others longer term. The accent should be on viability while the community lasts rather than always on the goal of permanence.
- attentive to flow. Fresh expressions will manage the flow of their members to another Christian community so that individuals have a sustained church involvement. If members of a teenage congregation move away to college, they will be put in touch with Christians in the places to which they go. If a venture comes to the end of its natural life, members will receive aid in finding an alternative community. If individuals need to change church as their spirituality evolves or circumstances change, they will be helped to do so. In some contexts, sustainability will be more about flow than durability.
It will be important not to fill in these details too early
To avoid prejudging what the fresh expression will be like. The meaning of 'appropriately responsible', for example, may only become apparent as the emerging church develops. It is important not to close down possibilities by prejudging how the Spirit will lead.
Sustaining the pioneer
Whatever the size of venture, it is easy for leaders to get burnt out and put the church-start at risk. Many will also be new to the task and so will need to learn as they go along. To a significant extent, the health of the Christian community will be bound up with the well-being of its leaders.
Selecting the right people
This is an obvious first step in sustaining pioneers. How should we start? suggests that a pioneer should normally be a gatherer of people, have sufficient leadership gifts for the size of the venture, have the right cultural fit and have a robust spiritual life. Attending to their walk with God will be the pioneers' first responsibility.
Appropriate support should be available
Depending on the scale and type of venture, pioneers will need:
- someone to cry and laugh with;
- a spiritual director/companion;
- prayer support;
- appropriate training - for example, in the theology and practice of fresh expressions;
- a coach or mentor who can not only listen, but advise and warn - 'Others have done this'; 'Are you sure you are not going down the wrong track?';
- advice from others in a similar field, preferably from someone who has planted a fresh expression in a similar context (such as among homeless people) or been involved in a comparable type of venture (eg, a café church);
- peer support - by meeting up with others leading fresh expressions;
- specialist expertise - in finance, legal and other matters.
This is potentially a lot of support
Though some of the sources may overlap. That should not be surprising. We live in an ever more sophisticated world, in which complex tasks are mushrooming. Leading a fresh expression, even a simple one, requires a considerable degree of skill.
It is normally best for midwives of church to be helped to make their own arrangements - it becomes their support. But if a church or group of churches is appointing a pioneer (for example on a new housing estate), it may want to take responsibility for providing some of this support till the person has found their feet.
Size to fit the context
From the earliest days, founders of church should be asking, 'What sort of venture would be sustainable in this context?' Becoming sustainable begins with the intention to be sustainable. This will include being contextual about size.
Being contextual is specially vital in relation to financial sustainability
A good question to ask at the outset is what sort of financial commitment the people the initiative is called to serve will be able to sustain. The answer may warn against a venture that requires considerable outside financial support to get off the ground. This support may be available from charitable trusts or public bodies, but it will almost certainly be of limited duration. What will happen when the money runs out? Will there be sufficient resources from within the community to keep the new church going?
Being thoroughly realistic
This may discourage teams from starting with over-elaborate projects that can't be sustained long term, and which produce heartache and disappointment when they eventually fold. Of course, this presents an ethical dilemma. If church-starts in poor areas always accommodate themselves to what can be afforded locally, the spread of income will remain stubbornly unequal. Outside grants help in a small way to redistribute wealth. Against this must be set the advantages of starting on a sustainable basis, and scaling up step-by-step once each new stage becomes financially self-sustaining. There are no easy answers.
It may help in the early days to ask these questions
- What are the financial resources of the people we are called to serve?
- What sized initiative could they realistically sustain?
- For how long will the initial funding be available?
- Is replacement funding from outside likely?
- Are we thinking on too large a scale?
- What resources can the wider body of Christ realistically contribute?
This has much to be said for it. A simple church might comprise, for example, a weekly or fortnightly gathering round a bring-and-share meal. The latest film or the ethical dimensions of a news story might form the basis of the conversation.
One meal-based church among students in Paris started with the hors d'oeuvre, during which people caught up with each other. There was a short talk on a subject like forgiveness, which was discussed over the main course. Topics for prayer were collected over the dessert, and after prayer people had coffee.
The leader's hope was that modelling something so simple would encourage students to start similar communities when they moved away. Simple churches, with their limited demands on leadership, may be easier to reproduce than complex ones. Is this one reason why the New Testament household churches put down roots and multiplied?
Simple church also suits contexts where resources are scarce and can fit easily into time-squeezed lives – it doesn't need a great deal of time-consuming organisation. It works with the grain of our busy, busy culture.
But it has limitations
Especially if numbers are small and the convener is untrained, the range of input may be limited. New believers may be fed on quite a restricted spiritual diet. Online and other published resources can help of course, but the spiritual life of emerging Christians will be further enriched if they have the opportunity to meet with larger groups of believers. It may be that two or three small groups can 'cluster' together every few weeks to provide this wider experience.
Alternatively, or in addition, a small group might periodically worship with a bigger congregation nearby (such as its parent church, if it has one), take part in town-wide Christian events or attend a Christian festival like Greenbelt or the Walsingham Pilgrimage.
Form 'coalitions of the willing' among local churches
This can include both fresh expressions and inherited church. Pooling resources for mission and discipleship is an urgent priority for theological and practical reasons. In particular, it would help simple churches avoid being isolated. It should feature strongly in discussions about sustainability.
Might simple and connected be good words to keep together?
Transitioning from first to second generation leaders
This starts with the right mindset - not 'This is a project for other people', but 'This is a project with'. Building on that foundation then raises questions about when and how passing on of leadership should be done.
When should you transition?
About a century ago the missionary, Roland Allen, argued that missionaries should allow their converts to stand on their own feet as soon as possible. Should this be a principle for fresh expressions?
Allen used St Paul as his model
He pointed out that St Paul rarely stayed with his new congregations for more than six months. Missionaries, he claimed, should move on rapidly in a similar way. They should rely not on their continued presence to guide believers into a mature Christian life, but on Scripture and the Holy Spirit. (See for example Roland Allen, Missionary Methods – St Paul's or Ours?, Lutterworth, 2006, ch8-10).
Can this principle be applied to contemporary pioneering? Allen seems to have read Paul through rose-tinted spectacles. Time and again, Paul left his new churches quickly because of local opposition rather than through choice (eg, Acts 13.50; Acts 14.5-6, 20; 17.5-10, 13-14). Indeed, after being driven out of Thessalonica, Paul became highly anxious about the fate of his fledgling church there (1 Thessalonians 1.17-2.5). He seems to have worried that he had to leave too soon.
In Corinth and Ephesus, where he had greater freedom, he stayed for over 18 months and three years respectively. Leaving new churches quickly does not seem to have been Paul's intentional strategy. Moreover, at the core of these churches appear to have been converts from the local synagogue, where Paul typically started his missionary work (Acts 14.1).
These Jews and 'God-fearing Gentiles' were already monotheists rather than believers in several gods and at least some, it seems, knew their Scriptures – our Old Testament – well (Acts 17.11). Appointing elders from among them may not have been as much of a challenge as it is in some circumstances today, when new believers may have virtually no biblical knowledge.
Jesus provides an alternative model
His departure at the ascension left the disciples humanly responsible for the formation and expansion of the church. He intentionally delegated his leadership. Those assuming responsibility were far from being the finished spiritual article. Matthew tells us that some of the 11 disciples (it could read 'many') still doubted (28.17). Yet Jesus did not allow these doubts to derail his delegation. Rather, he embedded the principle of handing over leadership in the very origins of the church.
However, unlike Allen's account of St Paul, Jesus did not exit after only a few months. His closest disciples spent some three years with him, day after day. This was mentoring of a highly intense kind. After the resurrection came further teaching about the kingdom (Acts 1.3). The followers of Jesus needed prolonged teaching and deep immersion in the practice of discipleship before they could be entrusted with the church. The model is one of allowing new believers to be well formed spiritually before the leader moves on.
Might we learn from both Jesus and Paul?
If the Jesus picture emphasises the importance of proper formation before passing on leadership, Paul's experience – despite often being driven by necessity – suggests that in some situations the handover can be remarkably fast. The two pictures qualify each other. Paul's picture warns against raising the bar of Christian maturity too high before handing over leadership. Jesus's picture warns against being too optimistic about the time it will take church founders to accomplish their task. The timing of when to move on clearly requires discernment in context.
What criteria might you use to discern when to transition?
Both Jesus and Paul left their new churches with:
- the Holy Spirit;
- a basic understanding of the gospel;
- Scripture (our Old Testament);
- the sacraments of baptism and communion;
- leadership - Jesus left the apostles, Paul elders (Acts 14.23);
- in the case of Paul, ongoing human support - he revisited his new churches when he could (eg Acts 14. 21), sent members of his team to sort out problems (eg 2 Corinthians 7.13, 8.16ff) and wrote pastoral letters.
This may provide a framework to help pioneers decide when to hand over their leadership.
- Is the Spirit clearly at work?
- Is the gospel well understood?
- Are new believers turning to Scripture?
- Has a sacramental community formed?
- Are clear, if simple leadership arrangements recognised?
- Who will provide ongoing support and are the necessary relationships in place?
How should you transition?
Taking the principle of handing on leadership seriously will affect every aspect of a fresh expression's life.
Handing on leadership will shape the basic strategy
It is striking that St Paul set up house churches. It was not necessarily the obvious thing to do. The synagogue, which had been so central to Paul's life, offered an alternative model. As the number of Jewish (and Gentile) worshippers grew, a central building for this purpose was established.
But Paul did not follow this example. He encouraged house churches to proliferate. Was this because small units, based on the home where a head of the household already existed, made the indigenisation of leadership more straightforward? As key heads of families converted, they became church leaders in their homes. If this was Paul's intention (though we are not told), what would be the equivalents today? What would it mean for a contextual church planting strategy to be built partly round the leadership requirements of the envisaged churches? What would these communities look like?
Indigenising leadership will influence how individuals are encouraged into the faith
Will the process foster dependence on the pioneer, making it more difficult for the latter to leave? Or will it model reliance on the Spirit and the resources of the community? Will the pioneer act as an expert or a facilitator?
A pioneer convening a 'spirituality at work' group, for instance, might buy a book of Christian meditations, lead the first couple of sessions from the book and then pass the book to others in the group to lead subsequent sessions. The group would be weaned from the pioneer's leadership at an early stage.
Milestone reviews might periodically consider not just the process of evangelism, but every aspect of the emerging community's life. How far is leadership being shared? Are models being used that foster dependency?
Special sensitivity may be needed among people within the 'benefits culture'
They are so used to outsiders coming into the area from secular agencies, advancing their careers and leaving, that to see the pattern repeated in the church could leave them disillusioned. The sudden departure of someone who has brought them together into a community, however fluid and chaotic, may be profoundly painful and confirm their cynicism. So the transition to second generation leadership must be handled with particular care.
One ordained pioneer in this type of area sought to manage the transition by withdrawing gradually. She shared more and more tasks with others in her team and continued to make herself available to the person who replaced her as leader. In contrast to her predecessor who had left the year before and avoided further contact, she stayed in touch with members of the community. People felt less abandoned.
Continuing links with the pioneer who has left can make practical sense
If serious problems arise, usually the founder of the community will be better placed than others to help sort them out. He or she will have the relationships and the authority required. Encouraging a continuing link with the founder would follow the practice of St Paul, who had to intervene in some of his new churches either directly through correspondence or by sending emissaries, like Timothy (1 Corinthians 4.17).
But such intervention today will often be problematic because a pioneer's authority is normally expected to cease when they move away. The community comes under someone else's authority. The new person, however, may not have had the time to build the required relationships of trust before major difficulties occur, and may not be as well placed as the founder to facilitate a resolution.
Is this an example of how some traditional arrangements jar with what could work best in a fresh expressions context? Maybe the issues need further thought.
What are some of the other problems?
One can be professional ministers who, arguably, are more inclined than lay people to breed spiritual dependency. They see themselves as 'experts', which makes indigenising leadership more difficult. Though this is not the only consideration, might it be an argument for lay-led fresh expressions? A leader with a strong, charismatic personality is more likely to create dependency than a leader who is lower key, again making the transition to new leadership harder.
This may raise questions about deployment. Might charismatic leaders sometimes be more effectively engaged in recruiting, equipping and leading teams of church founders, who multiply fresh expressions, than heading up a single venture? Risk is always the big worry. Pioneers and others understandably fear that things may go wrong if the pioneer leaves too early. But that was the same problem that Paul faced - and things did go wrong. Think of the church in Corinth!
Leadership involves learning by experience, including mistakes. Mistakes have to be seen as the price to be paid for allowing new Christians to grow in their leadership gifts. It is a real price, but the gain is greater maturity and human flourishing.
Where does all this leave pioneers who want to settle?
Having started a church, some founders feel called to settle within it and lead it to the next phase. This might seem to be at odds with the model of leaving. However, settling may be appropriate on some occasions, especially where the founder is leading a church plant into reproduction, or where a small Christian community has formed round a person's passion or among their network of friends. The community is so much part of their life that withdrawing from it would not make sense.
In these cases, much will depend on the settler's style of leadership. A releasing style will enable leadership gifts to flourish within the community and, at its best, will encourage individuals to initiate their own fresh expressions in the contexts where they live and work. The danger of course is that settling masks the desire to retain control, which then impedes the expression of gifts and makes it harder for the community to realise its potential.
Managing other transitions
Like most organisations, as a fresh expression starts and grows there will be times when it faces the challenge of making - for it - a significant transition. Sometimes the transition will be a matter of survival. The volunteer manager on which a café church depends moves out of the area. The parent church withdraws funding. At other times the transition will involve growth, such as a cell-based expression of church expanding to two cells or a church plant starting a second plant.
The venture has to transition to a new phase either to survive or to grow. Successfully making these transitions is an important part of sustainability. They enable the community to remain fruitful or become more so.
One simple model
From the volumes that have been written about managing change in secular organisations, one simple model suggests that the process of adaptive change involves three stages:
Stage 1: initial organising
As a venture gets going, it develops a way of doing things that enables it to achieve its objectives.
Stage 2: mounting tension
There is a growing sense that things are not working as well as they might. This may be precipitated by a crisis (a key person leaves) or by an awareness of opportunities that are not being taken. Tension mounts - people ask what should be done - and, if the culture is right, there is an openness to new ideas.
Stage 3: newly emerging configuration
At the peak of the tension, some event triggers a process of transformation, such as the advice of an outside consultant or the arrival of a new leader. The organisation successfully adapts to the new situation.
(This is based on Benyamin Bergmann Lichtenstein, 'Self-Organized Transitions: A Pattern Amid the Chaos of Transformative Change' in The Academy of Management Executive [1993-2005], 14 , 2000, pp128-141).
Putting control in the hands of the organisation rather than a single manager
This has been found to help organisations move through these three stages. Rather than assume a single manager has all the required information and wisdom, the wisdom of the whole organisation is pooled. For example, one company involved all its employees in deciding what roles should be assigned to whom. In the process, senior managers discovered that far more skills existed than they had realised.
The leaders' task is to focus on the core values of the organisation, and to encourage conversations widely about whether there should be a renewed focus on these values, whether they should be expressed in different ways or whether these values should be revised.
The key process
Start with values
This gets back to fundamentals, and ensures a focus on the wood rather than the trees.
Agree the principles that will guide how these values are expressed
A cell-based church intending to grow further cells might agree four principles: each cell will have a mission focus, they will meet at least three times a month, their leaders will meet regularly in an accountability group and the cells will cluster together once a month.
Allow maximum flexibility within these principles
This freedom permits individuals to be creative within a framework that serves the organisation's purpose, and this releases energy and generates fresh thinking.
Such an approach gives expression to Paul's vision in Romans 12 and 1 Corinthians 12 of shared ministry within the body, and reflects something of the way that Christ exercises servant leadership within the kingdom.
Becoming more strategic
As they get established and bear fruit, some frseh expressions will need to become more strategic in their approach. In the early days they could 'make it up as they went along' because they were discovering what would work in their context. But having become established, they not only know what works for them, but they may also have become part of the local landscape, with links into the community and to other networks and churches.
Their experience, knowledge and connections with other people may mean that the situation feels not so totally out of their control. Depending on their size, they may be able to exert a certain amount of influence on their context. Instead of being at the mercy of events, to a small extent they may be in a position to shape local events.
This will mean that they can afford to be more strategic in their planning and thinking. 'How might we begin to bring kingdom change to our context over the next ten years? What partnerships and strategies might have an impact? How can we be an initiator ourselves rather than just be at the receiving end of everyone else's initiatives?' If the venture has grown quite large or is starting to multiply into a network of fresh expressions, the organisation itself may be more complex and demanding.
All this may require different types of leadership and different forms of leadership structure. To describe this as a shift from entrepreneurial to managerial leadership would unhelpfully polarise the two. Pioneers need to manage and church managers need to encourage innovation. The transition is better understood as involving an increased level of organisational complexity and requiring a greater emphasis on strategic thinking at the expense of ad hoc improvisation.
New skills may be required within the fresh expression to manage this transition and lead the church into the next phase of its life. Recognising that the venture has reached this stage is the first step to managing the transition effectively.
Keeping the venture fresh
There is a well-known process by which organisations become institutionalised. A magnetic leader with an inspirational vision forms a community, which stabilises in the second generation and formalises criteria for membership. In subsequent generations, much of the energy goes in maintaining and protecting established structures to ensure the community continues. Can fresh expressions avoid following this pattern?
Sucking life out
Are there tendencies that threaten to suck life out of the fresh expressions movement, if it can be called that? John Drane suggests that there are (John Drane, 'Resisting McDonaldization: Fresh Expressions of church for a new millennium' in Viggo Mortensen & Andreas Osterlund Nielsen [Editors], Walk Humbly with the Lord: Church and Mission Engaging Plurality, Eerdmans, 2011).
As part of a 'McDonaldization' process, he lists:
- the concern for efficiency, such as succumbing to the temptation to replicate a model that has worked elsewhere;
- a trend towards calculability, as demands grow to see numerical results;
- a desire for predictability – conformity to some pattern or other;
- a desire to retain some form of control by existing churches.
He suggests four values that can work in the opposite direction:
- creativity as opposed to efficiency;
- relationality instead of calculability;
- flexibility (or adaptability) rather than predictability;
- proactivity (straining forward instead of holding on to the past) in place of control.
What he does not do is to explain how these four counter-values can become the heartbeat of an emerging church. To understand this, self-organising (or complexity) theory can make a contribution. An example of the fruits of self-organising theory is the process described above - start with the values, agree the principles that will guide how these values are expressed and allow maximum flexibility within these principles.
Milestone reviews offer a device to bring this self-organising process into a fresh expression on an ongoing basis, rather than merely as part of transition management. For instance, values and principles can be regularly reviewed, involving others in the community. Questions can be asked as to whether there is enough flexibility.
The flexibility given by making this process continuous will encourage creativity, the participation involved will promote relationality, and the regular reviews of values and principles will foster proactivity.
Participation and constant small changes
This will be the likely result. The conclusions of one study of business entrepreneurs illustrate how participation, coupled with continuous small change, can keep an organisation fresh:
Testing new ideas is an important way of preventing institutionalisation, something that both the Visionary entrepreneurs [who were interviewed] do. One of them says "We always test all proposals [on the rest of the staff] and we don't see anything as stupid." This brings flexibility into the process and prevents habits. An important part in the dynamic process is to make small changes regularly and this develops the business.
Ingmari Cantzler & Svante Leijon, 'Team-oriented women entrepreneurs: a way to modern management' in Journal of Small Business and Enterprise Development, 14 (4), 2007, pp743-744
It goes without saying that caution is needed when applying research findings from the business world to church.
Creativity and flexibility may mean bringing seasonality into the heart of a fresh expression
Activities are undertaken only for a period. The pattern of worship might be changed regularly. Communities with a missional focus might have a limited life. A youth congregation might last for a time, before giving way to a differently shaped gathering. If constant flux within a fresh expression feels too unsettling – 'We'll do this for a while, then something else, then something else again' – it may be helpful to remember that seasonality can be for a season too. 'We've had a season of constant change, now let us have a season of stability before we allow God to lead us into another season of change.'
This is an important aspect of sustainability. It is a means of discerning where and how the Spirit is at work. It allows the question to be asked, as should be asked of an inherited church, whether a fresh expression is a fruitful or barren branch of the vine (John 15.1ff). If church is what happens when people encounter the risen Lord, as Archbishop Rowan Williams suggests, and signs of this encounter are growth in the UP, IN, OUT and OF relationships described in Are fresh expressions proper church?, then we may have some criteria for discerning fruitfulness.
Are members of the fresh expression growing:
- UP in their relationships with God;
- IN in their relationships together;
- OUT in their relationships of service to the world;
- and in the OF relationship to the wider church?
Healthy growth in these relationships will look different in different settings, and the various traditions of the church will understand these relationships in different ways. So UP, IN, OUT, OF is not a mechanical formula for identifying fruitfulness. Rather, it is a framework within which conversations about fruitfulness can occur. It is an aid to prayerful discernment within each context.
Fruitfulness will be at the heart of a sustainable fresh expression, whether the venture is long-lasting or not. That is why we can prayerfully hope that:
Sustaining → shared fruitfulness