David Muir asks where we are, ten years on from the end of the decade of evangelism.
We are already ten years into the new millennium, ten years since the end of the Decade of Evangelism in which church attendance declined at an even faster rate than in the previous decade, ten years since we tried to turn all that around. Fresh Expressions has been a central plank in that, embraced extensively by the mainstream church. So where are we up to?
We seem to have made headway in the debate about 'bums on seats', although the numbers game continues with mid-week attendance figures (as well as Sundays) now coming under the spotlight. But the people being counted are, in many quarters, simply vehicles for counting something else – money, or at least the potential for it.
How can we keep funding the big post-Christendom ship we call The Church, without a humiliating 'restructuring' that radically reappraises what a 21st century British Christian community needs to look like? We in the Anglican Church still have bishops with chauffeurs and clergy in big houses, and there is no appetite for changing much of that. Some of the enthusiasm for fresh expressions of church comes from anxiety about the church's present finances. If we are struggling for money and our present membership is dying out, perhaps we can grow ourselves out of trouble...
The truth is that the 21st Century church has inherited a very expensive model of church life. When the rich and powerful of our land put their money where their mouth was (and they did), this model served us rather well. But with its paid professional leadership and thousands of historic buildings in every corner of the land, it has been creaking at its financial seams for a century and more. We need to explore some very different models, ones that don't rely on the idea of 'Christendom' for their financial viability. Fresh expressions of church must not be regarded as 'saviour siblings'. We must not create them to resolve the sickness of unviable Christendom assumptions about how to be the church. They are new children in the Christian family, and it is not their responsibility to balance the overall family finances.
The institution of the church is very aware that the whole Fresh Expressions movement continues to be subsidised by inherited forms of church which themselves are struggling to survive. It is important to ask hard economic questions of our newest expressions of corporate Christian faith. In particular, are they significantly 'leaner' than our inherited models and assumptions, and so can they survive without Christendom styles of funding? We could learn lessons from the secular charitable and campaigning sector. The Avaaz movement for instance is a web campaigning community which aims to 'bring people-powered politics to decision-making worldwide'. It has a global membership of 6.6m and is funded through modest online donations with no corporate sponsor or government backer.
The ongoing funding for the British Fresh Expressions movement will be back up for grabs in the next few years. We may not feel ready for it, but perhaps it's time to grow up, leave some of the comforts of home behind, and find independent ways to survive. In campaigning for parity of ministry provision with the rest of the church, we can easily lumber ourselves with the same Christendom assumptions about funding the church that is presently dragging the Titanic down. The danger is that the Fresh Expressions ship will also go down.