'Fresh expressions' is one name for innovative forms of church that have a strong mission focus. They are springing up in parts of Europe, North America, Australasia and elsewhere. 

Other labels have been used, such as emerging church, new forms of church, new ways of being church and church plants. In the UK, the 2004 Methodist Conference Priority statement included 'encouraging fresh ways of being church'.

Fresh expressions is not necessarily a better term than the others, but it has gained widespread currency within the Church of England and in some other denominations.

History of the definition

'Fresh expressions of church' was a term used in Mission-shaped Church, an influential Church of England report published in 2004. The phrase echoes the Declaration of Assent made by Church of England clergy:

The Church of England... professes the faith uniquely revealed in the Holy Scriptures and set forth in the catholic creeds, which faith the church is called upon to proclaim afresh in each generation

Declaration of Assent; preface in Common Worship, Church House Publishing, 2000, p xi

Mission-shaped Church used 'fresh expressions' to cover a wide range of new and different ways of being church.

The term has been defined more precisely since then by the Fresh Expressions team, which has been set up by the Archbishops of Canterbury and York and the Methodist Council to encourage innovative types of church that are appropriate for people in today's culture. The team offers this as a definition:

A definition

A fresh expression is a form of church for our changing culture, established primarily for the benefit of people who are not yet members of any church.

  • It will come into being through listening, service, incarnational mission and making disciples.
  • It will have the potential to become a mature expression of church shaped by the gospel and the enduring marks of the church and for its cultural context.

This definition is provisional, offered as a contribution to an ongoing debate about how fresh expressions should be understood.

Some people, for example, would want to define fresh expressions as communities that at first comprise mainly non-churchgoers, with a core of Christians. Others want to include expressions made up largely of churchgoers, who are exploring a different way of being church so that they can serve more effectively friends, neighbourhoods and wider society.

There is a danger the term 'fresh expressions' will be defined so loosely that anything fits

Giving 'fresh expressions' precise meaning is a challenge. There is a danger the term will be defined so loosely that anything fits – that churches will describe things they have done for years as fresh expressions. On the other hand, defining fresh expressions too tightly risks excluding creative forms of church that have a real mission thrust. 

The definition above aims to strike a balance between the two. But it raises a number of questions.

Is there a distinction between fresh expressions and church planting?

Mission-shaped Church, for example, referred to 'church planting and fresh expressions'. Is there a difference between the two? The short answer is 'No'. Fresh expressions involve church planting. They are about planting forms of church that are appropriate for groups of people who do not currently attend church.

However, some people prefer the term 'fresh expressions' to church planting - for several reasons:

'Church planting' can conjure up the idea of parachuting a team of Christians into a group or neighbourhood

Allotment - shootChurch is brought into the situation from outside. Unintentionally, it can feel rather imperialistic. 'You may not have invited us, but we are doing this anyway.' Fresh expressions (and church planting at its best) is about encouraging church to emerge out of the group. Lots of time is spent listening to people. The accent is on serving them with love. Nothing is done without their permission. Church - if it develops - is created with the people involved.

Quite a lot of church planting in the 1990s was not culturally sensitive

(Sadly, that can still be true today). Often, clones of existing church were started in schools or on housing estates. Planters formed a gathering round worship and hoped non-churchgoers would come. Instead, Christians came from other churches, attracted by something new and more lively. (If you start with worship, who do you expect to come?) Some lapsed churchgoers returned, but by and large relatively few people came to faith (see George Lings and Stuart Murray, Church Planting: Past, Present and Future, Grove Books, 2003).

Fresh expressions (and again church planting at its best) has a mindset that imagines not a worship service as the automatic way to start, but loving service. The hope is that community will form round acts of love and become the context for sensitive evangelism. Individuals can be invited to journey into God's love, forming - if they wish - an expression of church suited to their culture.

'Church planting' can be associated with a specific approach

Sanctus flatsSending a large-ish church planting team to a particular area. In practice, church planting is more varied than that, and it is this multiplicity of approaches that the term 'fresh expressions' seeks to capture. Fresh expressions can be started by a large team or a couple of people. They can emerge on a housing estate or in a block of flats, in the workplace or among friends, in a leisure centre or as an extension of a reading club.

What is meant by the definition's emphasis on non-churchgoers?

'A fresh expression is a form of church... established primarily for the benefit of people who are not yet members of any church.' What does 'for the benefit of' exactly mean?

We envisage that fresh expressions will benefit people currently outside church by working actively with them, in order to serve them and help church form among them, if they want. Examples range from starting an after-school club and encouraging it to become church, to forming church among homeless people, to helping a 'third age' group be a stepping stone into a new form of church for its members.

Developing describes the process normally involved. It entails walking with people on a fresh expressions journey if they wish. Usually the journey will look something like this:

A fresh expressions journey

This diagram is described more fully in A fresh expressions journey - fuller description.

In theory a Christian aid agency, for example, might gather people in an area who are concerned about world poverty, assist them in finding ways to express their concern, help them to become an informal community, encourage them to explore how the Christian faith spurs social action, and in time - hopefully - support the emergence of a radical faith community among them.

A Christian group that was actively serving other people but did not expect church to form in their midst would not normally be a fresh expression, as we understand the term.

Must a fresh expression always contain non-churchgoers

The Bridge - groupMust a fresh expression contain people who weren't attending church before joining the venture? Say a church planting team had 30 members, all of whom were Christians. Would it be a fresh expression?

The answer would depend on the group's intentions. If it was committed to listening to the people it felt called to serve, to finding practical ways of serving them, to journeying with them into the heart of God's love and to encouraging an expression of church to emerge among them, then they could certainly call themselves a fresh expression.

They would be a fresh expression starting on a journey.

What do you mean by 'intentions'?

Imagine an alternative worship congregation, consisting mainly of Christians so disillusioned with inherited church that they were about to leave. Its immediate focus is on members' spiritual lives, but there is a long-term intention to serve people who are currently outside church. Would that count as a fresh expression?

Perhaps the answer would depend on the strength of the intention, at least as far as the leaders are concerned. How strongly are they committed to listening to people not attending church, serving them and helping a form of church to emerge among them, appropriate to their context and with the existing Christian gathering at its core?

The definition of 'fresh expressions' is not dependent on the outcome, but on the intention

A situation might arise where the leaders are really committed to all this as a long-term goal, but their intentions are not realistic - it is never going to happen. Would that still be a fresh expression?

We would suggest that the definition is not dependent on the outcome, but on the intention. So as long as the leaders are determined to help the group become a fresh expression by working with non-members on the lines we have described, we would see the group as a fresh expression at the very beginning of a journey.

But surely the definition must imply some sort of achievement?

The project must reach its goal - a new church among people who didn't previously attend church. If this didn't happen, how could it be 'a fresh expression of church'? For example, a church planting team might have toiled for several years. Very few non-churchgoers have shown interest in the faith, even though the team has been faithful in serving them. If this state of affairs continued, wouldn't the time come when you would have to conclude that it was no longer a fresh expression?

We would respond that it is not always helpful for other people to make that judgement. Those involved, however, might eventually conclude that the venture started out with the intention of becoming a fresh expression of church, but their hopes had not been realised. It had not born the fruit they anticipated.

There is a provisional dimension to 'fresh expressions'

There is a provisional dimension to 'fresh expressions'. The term is widely used in the expectation that ventures will become church - that projects will evolve into Christian communities with all the marks of church. When this fails to happen, we might say that the fresh expression has not been fruitful, or has not been as fruitful as its initiators hoped. In saying that, we would be true to the original intention while being honest about the outcome.

It is worth adding that being unfruitful in terms of the original aims does not mean that the venture was unfruitful overall. Even if a project had only one meeting but people had a good time and left feeling positive about themselves, it would still have been valuable. Making sure that each step is worthwhile in itself may be more healthy than being obsessed about completing the entire journey.

What do you mean by 'church'?

It will have the potential to become a mature expression of church

In Are fresh expressions proper church? we suggest that church is what happens when people gather round Jesus. There is growth UP towards God, OUT in mission, IN in fellowship and growth in people's sense of being part OF the whole body of Christ. Some people wonder whether many fresh expressions are too small ever to be fully church. How could half a dozen people in sheltered accommodation display all the marks of church? They would be unlikely to host a baptism, for example.

Tas Valley - churchSmallness can be true not only of fresh expressions, but of many congregations in inherited churches - Sunday 8 o'clock congregations in the Church of England, for instance. They can be very small and never celebrate a baptism, but we still think of them as 'church'. Individual gatherings don't need all the elements of church to be church. They can share what it means to be church with other congregations or groups. A Church of England 8 o'clock congregation is church because it is part of the parish church, which is itself linked to the wider church.

If a small gathering is well connected to the whole body, it becomes fully church by sharing the characteristics of church with the larger whole.

Can we put it like this? A small piece of John's hair contains his full DNA – his 'John-ness'. You can't say the hair is John, but neither can you say it is not! All churches, large, small, inherited, fresh, are part of one Body, the Body of Jesus, and authenticated by his DNA. See the apostle Paul's brilliant imagery of The Body in 1 Corinthians 12f.
Sue Hope, Priest in charge St Paul's Shipley and Adviser in Evangelism for the Bradford Diocese

In summary

  • 'Fresh expressions' includes church planting among people who do not currently attend church, taking seriously the culture and context of the people being served.
  • It refers to a process, which we describe as the fresh expressions journey.
  • The term is appropriate when leaders of a venture intend to make that journey.
  • The term has a provisional ring. We might describe something as a fresh expression because we expect it to travel the distance.
  • Even a tiny fresh expression can be church if it is well connected to the whole body of Christ.