A movement with a future

Thursday, 1 May, 2014

Martyn Atkins, General Secretary of the Methodist Church and Chair of the Fresh Expressions board, discusses the future of the fresh expressions movement.

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Transcript

Martyn Atkins: Fresh expressions is in a multiplicity of different places. If you go to the Methodist world, there are places in the Connexion where they talk of little else; where they gladly show you round a whole batch of exciting church, ecclesial experiments/expressions that we would capture under the generic direction or name of fresh expressions.

And then you can go 20 miles away and talk to another Methodist Circuit who say to me very quietly, 'I've heard there's something called fresh expressions' or even sometimes, 'We've got this idea about doing such and such, we don't whether anybody's thought of it before, do you know?' And it's linking up the stories so, like any national initiative, like everything else in the church, there are pockets of people who are ahead of the game and they're zealous and there are people who are just beginning to realise that this is a reality for them.

And, in a sense, one of the things that fresh expressions phase 3 will have to do is that canny knack of encouraging and resourcing those people who are onto the third phase of this themselves and want fresh resources because 'they've done all that' and 'what about this issue because this is now important?' And at the same time not, put all their energies into, if you like, the vanguard of this but recognise that coming, very importantly behind in a mixed economy is more and more of what you might call the middle ground of ordinary, loved and cherished denominations beginning to say, 'this is really exciting' or 'we need to change' or 'I've heard this is happening, what do we do now?'

I remember my very first church appointment and we had a kind of renewal weekend and I had a group of lovely, lifelong, deeply devoted Christians but when they were asked the question, 'Why do we need new people in this church?' their answer was, 'to keep everything that we're getting too old to do going.' And even then, as a young minister - although I understood why they should say it because they'd invested such a lot of their lives in that church - I thought to myself, 'that is an inadequate answer!' The real answer for the church is to participate in God's mission through its worship, through its fellowship, through its incarnational being - wherever God has planted it in today's world. It is to be the body of Christ, it is to be the vehicle of God's mission - partnering God, a missionary God I've often found very powerfully in my own experience.

So, in a sense, fresh expressions is that natural way of being church which, in an increasingly mission context that we find ourselves in the West, needs to be retrieved. When I look at Church history, or Christian history as I prefer to call it, Christian history is shot through with people finding innovative ways of being Christian disciples in different cultural contexts and eras. And we've got the challenge now of moving, not out of one thing and leaving it altogether, but in the words that Rowan Williams often used, a sort of a mixed economy or a mixed ecology – one size will not fit all. And so therefore a long, dominant model of being church, which has served us well for a long period of time, we need to develop fresh ways of being church and I've always felt personally that my, for whatever kind of encouragement I can have or any influence I've got, I'm the person who bangs the drum for being brave and being innovative about fresh expressions of church.

It's not that I don't believe in, or don't value, or don't love or cherish traditional ways of church. Give me a traditional hymn any time compared to modern music (I say that to my horror folks!) but I'm absolutely delighted that other people are energised by different things. It has been ever thus. And what I want to happen is the church to devote sufficient energy, time, resources, people, thought, prayer into, 'how do you begin to be a place where people can become Christians and deepen their discipleship and become mature people of faith because they belong to this kind of community?' That's where the passion comes from.

The question about whether or not the theology or the thinking, the ecclesiology I guess surrounding fresh expressions is robust, is a hot potato. My answer would be, and I guess it's a theologian's answer is, 'what do you mean by robust?' when people say that to me.  If you mean, 'are there now people doing research projects, doing deep thinking, writing proper books – if I might call it that – about what is happening in the fresh expressions movement?' All that is happening. It's happening in Britain, it's happening in different but related ways all around the world and what we're finding, as with every such movement, every such development through Christian history, we're going through a period where some people are questioning, rightly, some aspects of this and then you wait two or three years or longer than that and someone comes up and says, 'Well, you're seeing this wrongly, have you thought about this, this and this?'

There's a corpus of material, there's a growing burgeoning of interest, where people bring their gifts and their thoughts and reflections. That's how theology's always worked. You don't start off with a robust, systematic theology with all the answers before anybody's asked the questions. What you set off with is a deep, pragmatic desire to explore faithfully and prayerfully what this means and let people reflect theologically and talk backwards and forwards to them. That's happening. I think it's perfectly normal, it will continue to happen.  And what we are finding is that there are those people who don't find it easy to inhabit all that fresh expressions brings, sometimes they say it's reductionist; there's not enough about worship or grandeur in it. And other people are beginning to see through their research that actually all the subtle ingredients that have always made church 'church' in a robust way, in a rounded way through Christian history, are beginning to flower. I think that's because the Holy Spirit's in it. But I have no fear whatsoever of the proper theological task, it's necessary, it's needed and it's happening.

People are beginning to ask me and I'm beginning to actually ask the team and people within Fresh Expressions, what are the big issues that we now face because they're not the issues that six/seven years ago even in this were faced? I mean for partner denominations - and actually this is a stunning example of ecumenical work - there is a growing number of people now in different churches and their official authorities, whatever those authorities might be, that are putting resources into it and taking a deep interest in participating in fresh expressions. So, one of the main challenges is this, 'how do you continue to keep it ecumenical in a live way rather than kind of more stultified way?'  How do you allow it, fresh expressions; what is happening in fresh expressions to continue to both resource and embed itself in those denominations but do that in such a way that the denominations themselves are transformed through the embedding?

What we don't want is an ecumenical movement where all the historic apparatus remains the same and what is new and what is vital and what is Spirit-led in fresh expressions simply gets assimilated into it. What we want is a genuine, more integrative approach whereby the way ordained ministry and lay ministry is trained, the way in which churches understand their mission, the way in which they deploy ministry; all that needs to be, if you like, shot through with a natural assumption that being a fresh expression of church is just as valid as being a more inherited model of church. Now, the combination of being prophetic and changing and embedding in a pluriform ecumenical context, that's the biggie for me and it will take many, many forms really.

People say you know, 'you go 20 miles down the road and nobody's heard of fresh expressions' so what would you say to them, to excite them or encourage them? I mean really you've got to listen to what they're saying to you first of all. I think one of the hard things I've learned is that if there is no genuine spark of interest, or spark of challenge, or what I call 'divine disquiet' in a congregation of people, it's pretty pointless going and battering them over the head and telling them that they really ought to develop three fresh expressions so, in some senses, using the old maxim of the church growth movement, that you go where your intervention is most likely to make a difference because you can't do everything all the time, I think I wouldn't look to try and change people's mind in a kind of manipulative or bombastic way but, I think what we're finding is that more and more small and large, rural and inner city, suburban and urban congregations all over the United Kingdom are basically turning round and - either because they've heard or they've seen or simply because in their own environment, their local community or parish - they're beginning to say, 'these are the challenges and somehow or other we must respond to them more completely or  more wholeheartedly than we currently seem to do in the life of our local church. What's out there? What are the basic lessons? What are the basic resources that we need?'  And I think you have a very different conversation with that church and what I've tended to do is say to them, 'God is putting in you this divine disquiet, the Holy Spirit is making you unsettled because the Holy Spirit wants to lead you in to greater and more exciting possibilities.'  And although it sounds a very poor theological category, I rate 'excitement' pretty highly. In my life in the church over nearly 35 years I have met so many faithful people who, to put it rather crudely, are pretty bored with being Christians in the way that they're being Christians. Their loyalty astounds me but once you begin to say to them, 'it doesn't need to be like this because to engage your communities, body and soul with genuine, incarnational missional, Christianity actually excites and thrills you too. That's a natural bi-product of it, I think that's not a bad deal; I'm quite enthusiastic about telling people about that!

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