Fresh expressions reach out to post-modern society

People's lives have been changing fast. These changes are often understood as a shift from modernity to post-modernity, which is described in a variety of ways.

Some researchers speak of a 'massive subjective turn' in society

Signpost public wayPeople's lives are no longer based on external rules, duties and obligations, but on relationships and subjective experiences. 

There is less emphasis on sacrifice, discipline, or on suppressing aspects of your personality to conform to the 'oughts' of a higher authority.

 Individuals pay more attention to how they feel and to what they think makes sense – to their subjective views of the world.

In the early 2000s, a survey in Kendal, Cumbria, asked respondents to select a statement that best described their 'core beliefs about spirituality'. 

  • 40% equated spirituality with 'love' or being 'a caring or decent person';
  • 34% selected 'being in touch with subtle energies', 'healing oneself and others' or 'living life to the full';
  • just 7% agreed that spirituality was 'obeying God's will'.

The research found that spiritualities that engaged with the depths of personal experience fared much better than religions demanding conformity to higher truth (Paul Heelas & Linda Woodhead, The Spiritual Revolution. Why religion is giving way to spirituality, Blackwell, 2005, p25).

Fresh expressions seek to engage with this subjective approach to spirituality.

Other writers emphasise growing diversity

We are moving away from a mass, standardised society in which everyone was treated much the same, to one in which individual preferences are given greater weight. 

As mass consumption spread across Europe in the 1950s, companies used economies of scale to produce more and more standardised products at affordable prices. One tin of baked beans was much the same as another.

Sunday mornings may be free for some people, but others are working, and others are playing sport

But over the past 20 years, organisations have been using new forms of scale to sell goods and services that are increasingly geared to the individual or to small groups of consumers. 

A new car, with its specific combination of options and trims, may roll off the assembly line with the name of its future owner attached. Personalised health care is a priority for the British government. 

We have entered an 'it-must-fit-me' world. Lifestyles increasingly vary as they are tailored to individual needs and preferences. There is no longer a standard weekend – Sunday mornings may be free for some people, but others are working, and others are playing sport. Organisations relate to their clients and customers in more customised ways.

Fresh expressions can be seen as more personalised forms of church – Christian communities that are 'customised' to specific networks and neighbourhoods.

Still other experts emphasise the greater importance of networks

(For example, Manuel Castells, The Rise of the Network Society, Blackwell, 1996.) Networks are more to the front of people's lives than institutions.

Active involvement in traditional organisations (like trade unions, political parties and the church) has declined, but people are heavily engaged with their networks – see how much they use their mobiles!

Networks are more to the front of people's lives than institutions

Even at work, where the great majority of people are still employed in some kind of organisation, teams and networks are increasingly important. Individuals are beginning to identify more with their team or project than with the organisation that employs them.

Fresh expressions seek to respond to this 'network society' by using networks as the basis for church. Individuals may seek to form church among their friends or colleagues at work, or within networks round where they live. These new forms of church feel less like an institution and more like a set of relationships.

Fresh expressions are intentional efforts to connect with these and other developments

Instead of expecting the fragments of society to come together in a standardised form of church, fresh expressions seek to build church within the different fragments, allowing the culture of each fragment to shape the form of church (Michael Moynagh, Changing World, Changing Church, Monarch, 2001, especially chapter 7).

At their best, fresh expressions will first join the fragments of society, then seek to join these fragments up – in social events, training courses, celebrations and other activities that bring people together.

Once you start thinking about mission in terms of connecting with social fragments, all sorts of opportunities become apparent. What groupings of people exist? Where do they meet? What do they do together? 

You might think of church forming in a school, workplace, leisure centre and sheltered housing; or among children, teenagers, young adults and retired people; or within a specific ethnic group; or as a result of a campaign to support homeless people.

It seems to me that we need to keep our objectives clear when we are contemplating a piece of mission to a particular people group. Are we going in order to 'form church'? Are we going in order to 'proclaim the faith afresh'? Are they the same thing? How and where do they overlap?
Sue Hope, Priest in charge St Paul's Shipley and Adviser in Evangelism for the Bradford Diocese

Pioneers of fresh expressions are alive to the huge number of mission possibilities.

A Church Army officer moved to an estate created out of a former US air base in rural Oxfordshire. Conversations with residents led to an Alpha course, which grew into a church of cells for different ages - now called Heyford Chapel.

Children, teenagers and adults meet separately during the week. Four congregations, entirely different in style, make up a worshipping community of 100 to 120 people. The challenge now is to work out ways of meeting the different needs of the congregations while keeping a sense of being part of a whole.