Discernment always trumps routine

Monday, 17 March, 2014

Graham Cray explores the place of discernment in a fresh expression of church.

At the heart of the fresh expressions' praxis lies discernment - following the missionary Spirit: seeing what God is doing and joining in etc. However, that is easier to do when a fresh expression is being established, its shape and focus not yet clear, than when it has settled into a routine.

Routine is good, because fresh expressions of church need contextually appropriate patterns of worship and community life. Pattern gives people a security and helpful repetition. It frees us to attend to God and to one another because we are not wondering what on earth is going to happen next BUT routine can also blind us to the need for change. My favourite Australian road sign reads, 'Choose your rut carefully. You will be in it for the next 200 miles'.

Sometimes, routine is merely the way things have developed and it needs regular checks against the original vision. It is only too easy to start out missional, and end up with all the energies being taken up with the pastoral care of those who have been drawn in by the first phase of mission. The very success of the mission creates a context where the missional focus is crowded out, or a key component of the original vision is overlooked.

For example, The Point in Burgess Hill was planted in 2004. They report,

In the early days it was very much 'café church' and low key in its style, focusing mainly on families and young children. What happened over the years was that a lot of what we were seen to be doing focused on a Sunday morning gathering with modern, contemporary worship. The result was as more and more people came, we struggled to maintain our original vision to reach the unchurched, and the majority of those we were reaching were 'de-churched' and some transferring from other churches.

This led to a new attentiveness to the Spirit through a review and a congregational vision process, out of which 'Church in a Pub' has been birthed. A regular health check against the founding vision is always worthwhile.

But vision bearers also need to be open to change because some fresh expressions are seasonal. They flourish during a particular time of opportunity and then need to transition - unless it is time for honourable closure because the task has been completed.

Sometimes transitions are natural developments. In Bradford, Sorted 1 began as a youth ministry but now is a young adult fresh expression – they grow up! Sorted 2 is based in a different school while Sorted 3 has been established in the original secondary school in order to maintain the vision for young people and reach the next cohort.

Change can also come because God opens up something new. Adrian McCartney of Boring Wells in Belfast puts it this way:

One of our Wells [network of mission shaped faith communities] was in a little commuter village called Moneyrea. We'd been there seven or eight years and it had grown and developed in a way but wasn't making the impact in the local community that we had hoped for.

What happened next? Adrian explained,

One day someone gave us a prophetic word, saying, 'I think God is telling us to put the wheels back on the wagons' so we had had a feeling of wanting to do some inner city work as well. We were looking for an opportunity and when we approached the Rector of what was an enormous inner city parish (three parishes had been brought together); he – without any hesitation at all – offered us the use of the buildings.

God is the God of surprises. The missionary Spirit tends to act first and invite us to follow afterwards! Develop patterns, but don't be blinded by doing the same thing time and time again. Discernment always trumps routine.

+Graham Cray


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