Death by the attendance of well-meaning people

Monday, 15 August, 2011

Graham Cray's monthly e-xpressions column.

I frequently say that 'a fresh expression is not "church lite", but "deep church" (C.S.Lewis' equivalent of mere Christianity) in the right place, at the right time, at a price – the comfort and convenience of those who plant it.'

Those who plant fresh expressions can find it a very fulfilling, as well as very demanding, experience. But their fulfilment is indirect, it comes through the people for whom they are planting finding Christ, and growing as his disciples. There is always the temptation to do something for ourselves rather than for others, and thus to welcome others at our convenience not theirs.

But there is another way that a fresh expression can go off course. The primary purpose of fresh expressions is to create church for those untouched by existing church. But if it is attended by too many bored church people, or church folk looking for a change, it can develop too churchy a culture. Equally, if it is attended by too many people who are struggling with church and perhaps giving church one last chance, it may be shaped by these concerns, rather than those of the unchurched. It is very difficult to reach people who are on a journey into church through a community shaped by those who may be on the way out!

Or the differences may be cultural. When Chris Russell and team arrived to establish St Lawrence Reading, with the stated purpose of 'living to see non-churched young people come to faith and creating new forms of church with them,' the team had to lock the doors of the church when they met to worship and pray, so that they would not be joined by the young people from lively local churches. If that had happened a middle class youth church culture would have been established, which would have been impenetrable to the young people they were called to reach. The locked door was for a positive purpose: to ensure the time and space for the long term work of making relationships with non-churched young people. Then, as their statement of purpose goes, 'to create new forms of church with them', not just for them.

This was possible because this fresh expression did not begin with a public act of worship designed to attract young people. It began with relational youth work in their schools. It is still too common a mistake to start with a public worship event rather than with incarnational ministry. If you can find the way to enter the world of those you are trying to reach and, within the limits of Christian discipleship, to take it as seriously as they do, then you have a real chance to help them find Christ and follow him there. Then you create the form of church with them.

How can a fresh expression protect itself from death by the attendance of well-meaning people? First, as we have seen, be careful how you start! But then establish a contract with any who wish to come who already attend church. You are not looking for attenders, you are looking for a mission team. The doors of St Lawrence are no longer locked to keep worshippers out. But anyone who wishes to join, whatever their age or background, is told that they are joining a church which exists to win non-churched young people, and that contributing to that is the condition of joining.

Fresh expressions need Christians who make a 'second commitment' to the mission of their fresh expression. God may use someone's frustration with existing church as a means of calling them to commit to this mission. He may use previous bad experience as a springboard for getting it right this time. But this commitment to the fresh expression's mission to others must take priority over all personal agendas.



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