Bearing fruit in fresh expressions

Monday, 20 January, 2014

St Paul describes the gospel as 'bearing fruit and growing' (Colossians 1.6) and there is certainly little point in being involved in Christian ministry which does not bear fruit; however exciting it may seem.

For years the Fresh Expressions team has been reporting specific stories of fresh expressions of church but, with the notable exception of the Methodist national statistics, we have had limited, quantifiable reports of the scale and depth of what was being achieved. Now, courtesy of Canon Dr George Lings' research for the Church Commissioners, we have an in-depth study of nearly a quarter of all dioceses in the Church of England.

Released earlier this month, the study of these ten dioceses by Church Army's Research Unit reveals that fresh expressions account for 10% of total church attendance and 15% of church communities. Fresh expressions of church are mainly smaller and varied Christian communities. A key to further growth would seem to be the multiplication of the small. Get up to about 50 and, rather than get involved in all the complexities which come with size, plant again.

Here are some of the report's main findings.

Total attendance at fresh expressions in these ten dioceses is equivalent to planting an additional medium-sized diocese. In seven out of the ten dioceses, the numbers added equate to reversing the decline in those dioceses over 2006-2011 and in two other dioceses nearly does so. If this represents the work in ten dioceses what might be the scale for the whole Church of England?

These fresh expressions (at least 20 different recognizable models were noted) covered the full range of socio-economic settings in these dioceses and a wide spectrum of churchmanship. Appropriateness to local context is the key and different models connect better with different social groups. As the detailed report states, 'The great majority start from, and stay within, a parish'. Two fifths are network rather than neighbourhood based, addressing cultural groups unreached by existing work, but the attendance at network fresh expressions is 'mainly typical of the surrounding area'. The vast majority are all age, with 41% of attendance being under 16.

As reported by interviews with the leaders, 25% of those who attend are already members of a church, 35% are de-churched and 40% non-churched. The non-churched are the largest and fastest growing group within the population and the most significant mission field, so this is particularly encouraging. Planting teams are mainly small, most being between 3 and 12 people, showing that this is well within the reach of many more churches. On average, for every person sent as part of a team another 2.5 have been added. There is a low level of transfer growth, showing that these are not examples of 'more exciting church' for bored Christians! Encouragingly, 78% of these fresh expressions are taking intentional steps to encourage discipleship, not just attendance.

The other striking feature was the large number of lay leaders who had not had a previous formal role, or who had not previously been involved in leadership.

A large number of examples examined in these dioceses did not meet the criteria, and so have not been counted in the research results:

  • some were not missional; they were aimed at existing church people;
  • some were not ecclesial; there was no intention to plant a new congregation or church.

This was not a judgement about their value - just that they did not fit the criteria for a fresh expression of church. This confirms the need to maintain clear criteria and to continue to educate the Church about the nature of fresh expressions.

Many of these trends are also reflected in the Methodist 'Statistics for Mission' figures. In 2012, there were 46,000 people in 1,552 Methodist fresh expressions of church meeting monthly or more often - with nearly 8,000 lay volunteers supporting the work. In both denominations the greatest momentum in planting has been in the last few years. Fresh expressions are proving to be an effective means to church growth in the member churches.

These Church of England findings offer hope to all denominations and traditions engaged in this ministry. It is bearing fruit, most particularly in the many lives represented by these statistics. And for that reason, our historic denominations have every reason to give renewed priority to resourcing new forms of church, financially and in their deployment policies. There is still a long way to go.

+Graham Cray

Comments

Some were not ecclesial; there was no intention to plant a new congregation or church. - Kris Krohn

Hi Kris,

The 518 fresh expressions of church featured in the research all met ten criteria which are detailed on p10 of the report. Number 1 is:

"Was something Christian and communal brought to 'birth' that was new and further, rather than an existing group modified?"

Number 5 is:

"Is there intention to be Church? This could be from the start, or by discovery on the way."

So all 518 cases included in the research did have the intention to be church. These 518 were drawn from over 1,000 'projects' reported by the dioceses involved as possible fresh expressions of church - nearly half were excluded from the research because they didn't meet one or more of the criteria - but to labour the point, those that didn't meet all of the criteria (including the ones that tested whether there was an intention to be a new congregation or church) were not included in the research (which is not a judgement on their worth or value).

Post new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.
We use spam protection. View privacy policy.