Matt Stone asks whether fresh expressions of church are fishing nets or safety nets.
A key question for fresh expressions is: who comes? Are fresh expressions actually being fishing nets and reaching the unchurched, or are they merely safety nets, picking up disenchanted and bored churchgoers? As part of my MA dissertation, published this month by Grove Books, I looked at six varied fresh expressions in the south-east of England and asked exactly these questions. Here's a snapshot of some of my findings.
In keeping with Tearfund's 2007 Report 'Churchgoing in the UK', which suggest that 19% of women attend church at least monthly, compared with only 11% of men, the majority of those who attended the surveyed fresh expressions were female. Considering that women are much more likely to be 'open dechurched' and men 'closed unchurched', it is clear that there is still a serious missional challenge in reaching men for Christ.
The age profile of those attending the fresh expressions was mixed. One might expect a higher proportion of under 30s, but with the exception of the two fresh expressions intentionally aimed at these age groups, this did not appear to be the case. The largest age cohorts were 30-44 and 45-59, and the smallest was 75+. This is in contrast to Tearfund's wider church attendance figures which suggest that one in four over sixties go to church regularly, whilst only one in eight 35-44 year-olds do so.
The overwhelming majority attended at least monthly. At each of the expressions there were between one and three people who were there for the first time, making up 5-33% of attendance. There are no comparable figures for general churchgoing, but given the size of most of the expressions studied, they probably had a much higher proportion of first time visitors than an average church. In terms of length of attendance, respondents' results were mixed.
Over 87% of those surveyed in every expression, and 100% in three of the expressions, had attended a church before. Hence, they were primarily churched or dechurched, rather than unchurched. However, it should be noted that at one fresh expression in particular, first time attendees were not encouraged to complete questionnaires, and only three did so. One of the leaders there counted nine completely new attendees, and 35 individuals who were not from that church. Whilst some of these may be from other churches, or are dechurched, we cannot ignore the possibility that a proportion were previously unchurched.
Nonetheless, whilst this fresh expression had the highest proportion of unchurched, all but two (11%) of its other respondents did attend another church too. In contrast, 30-43% of churched/dechurched respondents at all of the other expressions except one did not. Consequently, for a significant minority of those who attend, it is their only contact with a church.
Overall, the research threw up a mixture of good news and challenging news. It became clear that the fresh expressions surveyed were performing an important role for those who attended: whether they were bored churchgoers, dechurched or unchurched. However, it also became clear that very few unchurched people were being reached by some of the fresh expressions, raising further questions for how fresh expressions can reach those still untouched by a Christian community.