How can we sustain our fresh expression?

SustainabilityMuch has been written about fresh expressions – what they are, and how to start them up. But not so much has been written about sustainability. Having started a fresh expression, how do we keep it going?

Lots of prayer, thought and energy goes into starting something new – but what happens when energy fades, when hurdles are faced, when enthusiasm and best intentions dissipate, when money runs out and when people stop praying? You probably know of lots of worthy projects that started well, but withered away through weariness and other reasons.

So, how do we build sustainability into our fresh expressions? That is what this section is about. Arguably it is one of the most important sections of the guide, although it is one of the shortest.

Fresh expressions should be sustainable from the very beginning. In fact, they should also be started in a sustainable fashion because this creates a precedent and opens the possibility for multiplication down the road. Simplicity rules. Observe the ant (Proverbs 6.6) and its emergent behaviour that allows sustainability on every level and through every stage of development.
Andrew Jones (tallskinnykiwi)

Three selfs

Ideally, a sustainable venture would satisfy three 'selfs' (which were coined by Henry Venn, a great 19th century missionary thinker). It would become self-financing, self-governing and self-reproducing – giving birth to another fresh expression. These characteristics would exist in the context of inter-dependent relationships with the wider church.

We still have much to learn about sustainability - perhaps in this area more than any other. But enough fresh expressions have proved durable for us to have some idea of the principles involved, and we can learn from church plants that have been more short-lived. We also have the experience of the wider church over 2,000 years.

Realism may be a helpful start. Not every fresh expression needs to achieve the three selfs:

  • a venture can be short-lived and still be an authentic expression of church – a fresh expression in an after-school club, for example;
  • more and more churches recognise that it is not reasonable to expect youth work to be self-financing and are appointing paid youth workers;
  • some ventures may not be fully self-governing - oversight and administration may be shared with their mother church - the finances of a church plant, for example, may be looked after in the 'main' church's office.
It is important that expectations about self-governance are clear and agreed at the outset. Too often in church planting situations the mother church expects continuing governance, but the emerging church wants freedom to make its own decisions (though not always to be financially self-sufficient!). This can cause serious conflict and fractured relationships.
Stuart Murray Williams, Urban Expression

Yet there will also be many cases where it is hoped that a fully sustainable venture will be established, with the vitality to start another fresh expression.

We suspect that thinking ahead about sustainability would entail a discussion about:

I'd like to add another here: 'attending to building the core community'. A strong core, as the carrier of the vision, is vital. Time spent building core community is time well spent!
Sue Hope, Priest in charge St Paul's Shipley and Adviser in Evangelism for the Bradford Diocese