Constant change is here to stay

Monday, 21 September, 2015

Phil Potter explores the constancy of change.

A revised version of my book The Challenge of Change has just been published under the new title of Pioneering a new future.

The world of fresh expressions is all about embracing change and this is an exciting time to be championing and facilitating it in the Church, but I am increasingly aware that even for those of us who consider ourselves to be pioneers in this area, the challenge to change has never been greater.

The scale of change

When the phrase 'mixed economy' was first helpfully introduced, I remember being concerned about the danger of interpreting this as simply an opportunity to add a 'flavour' of fresh expressions into the overall mix when the reality of half the population with no experience of church suggested strongly that the scale of change required was on a far greater scale. I was a parish vicar at the time and we had already begun to pioneer new forms of church but, as we began to see the amazing impact of fresh expressions in the community, we were compelled to create a vision for a mixed economy church that was 50/50 and prune some of our tired ministries that had failed to change in order to release a new future made up of several pioneer plants.

Today, it is a privilege to see some of our institutions genuinely grappling with change and beginning to release their rules and structures to make it happen, but I want us to consider too the sheer scale on which it needs to happen - and happen sooner rather than later.

The scope of change

Studies of successful growing and innovative organisations have shown that they do so because they have looked beyond the immediate vision of the single project that they are working on. They ask what - or who - else needs to be included in the process to ensure both the success of the project itself and its further impact on increasing innovation elsewhere.

Similarly, the Church is learning that innovation in mission is the responsibility of all; not simply those on the front line who are doing the planting. For a fresh expression to thrive, it needs the practical support and advocacy of the local church it is part of, or the blessing of other Christian communities it relates to. On the wider scale, for pioneer ministry to increase across a denomination, there needs to be as much investment in thinking about how we successfully - and increasingly - deploy and support people as to how we select and train them. And, on an even greater scale, we are rightly beginning to ask questions about the scope of change required in our understanding of church membership and belonging.

In a 'pick and mix' world of many networks, the very definition of loyalty and commitment is slowly being reconfigured to allow for the fact that more and more people feel genuinely called to belong to more than one community. Today a Christian may, for instance, be part of an Order or wider missional network whilst still being a loyal member of their local church where their attendance is prayerfully divided between a fresh expression and more traditional congregation. Several years ago this would have been impossible (and may still be frowned upon by some), but a new future calls us to embrace a whole new scope for change.

The speed of change

Every day we are made aware of not only the speed with which our world changes but also how the speed of that change is actually accelerating. In that context, our challenge goes far beyond a willingness to change and now requires the ability to respond and act swiftly as the need arises. Again, at the local level, the Holy Spirit gives us many windows of opportunity for change as we reorder our buildings, re-appoint new leaders and respond to local needs, but the opportunities are time-limited and often need a speedy and courageous response. At the same time, the mission landscape is ever-changing as new housing, new work patterns and new social initiatives change the very shape of our communities. Currently, a great wave of change is sweeping our way as we face the challenge of a compassionate and innovative response to the mass movement of migrants and refugees. If the Church as a whole is rightly being challenged by the sheer scale, scope and speed of what is happening, so too there will be challenges for a movement that wants to champion and pioneer new ways of doing church. 

The challenging 'how to' of change

As we wrestle increasingly with 'shaping change and changing the shape of church', let's as always allow Jesus to have the first and last word. Faced with the need to change people's thinking on a massive scale, he kept his teaching profoundly simple, challenged them with the absolute priority of humility, and used the image of a child to make the point:

I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

Matthew 18.3

About the author: 

Phil Potter is Archbishops' Missioner and Team Leader of Fresh Expressions. His revised book, Pioneering a New Future: a guide to shaping church and changing the shape of church, is available now.


Change appears to be the constant in life. Grow and development cannot happen without change - every cell in our bodies in constantly undergoing subtle changes as we grow and develop. So in that sense, change is never anything new, although perhaps our perception of change varies.
Having said all that, I feel that we are undergoing significant and fundamental changes in our culture and self-understanding at the moment. The phrase mixed economy is a helpful one as it enables us to focus upon a time of transition in which different forms of community life and mission will operate alongside each other. However, because the transition from the old or existing pattern of church life (based on a Christendom model) to a new and emerging pattern (based on fewer certainties...insert you favourite 'post' prefex here) is so fundamental for everyone and all that we have experienced previously, it is dangerous to see Fresh Expressions as just an alternative provision in a twin tracked system. The new and emerging is so significant that Fresh Expressions, along with other missional movements, belong to a pattern of community life and mission experience that provide a R & D function for all of the Church. If the old is passing away and such change is inevitable...which I believe it is, then we should value this R & D function as helping the whole of the Church to prepare for the new emerging mission landscape.

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