The DNA of a fresh expression

Monday, 18 March, 2013

Graham Cray's monthly e-xpressions column.

What does it mean to be a fresh expression of church? Four major characteristics can be identified:

  • missional - created for those who have no significant contact with Christ's church;
  • contextual - taking appropriate form for its context through incarnational mission;
  • formational - growing as disciples and as a community of disciples;
  • ecclesial - a new church or congregation, rather than a bridge or pathway into an existing congregations.

These have often been described as the DNA of a fresh expression, and DNA is a fruitful analogy for a number of reasons:

Our DNA is a gift from previous generations

The DNA of a fresh expression may have been 'discovered' through pioneering mission (once it had become clear that existing forms of church left an increasing proportion of the population unreached) but it is also a rediscovery of elements of the Church's fundamental identity – those elements which have always come to the fore in new missionary situations. In following these principles the Church is being true to itself.

Our DNA is permanent

The information in DNA is held in a sequence of repeating units along the DNA chain. These are not just start up requirements or principles for planting a fresh expression of church; they are core characteristics - characteristics of a mature fresh expression of church.

We can't pick and choose the elements of our DNA

Each is given and essential:

Missional locates the fresh expression at the heart of God's mission in the world. It prevents it from becoming self serving, or closed to newcomers and keeps it perpetually open to the leading of the missionary Spirit.

Contextual keeps the fresh expression focused on the locality or community to which it is called. It is a reminder of the need for continual discernment. It prevents the fresh expression from solidifying when its context is changing, or its calling expands to reach new groups.

Formational is a reminder of the call to Christlikeness and that the church is a community of disciples. It stops the fresh expression from being reduced to a mere meeting. Disciples are formed in community, over time, through daily habits of obedience to God.

Ecclesial gives the fresh expression its identity as a community of God's people with a vocation of its own - not just a means to the planting church's ends. It creates hope that this particular community of God's people will be given the gifts it needs to grow to maturity and sustain its ministry.

The distinct elements of our DNA belong together

These characteristics interact to enable a fresh expression to take its own unique shape. Formation requires involvement in mission. Mission lacks specificity apart from a particular context. Both mission and formation involve repentance from the sins of a particular context as well as the blessing of all that is good. An ecclesial community is church, a community of missionary disciples, for that context, but linked to the whole church.

But DNA sequences can mutate. Separated from one another these vital characteristics can mutate in unhealthy ways. If missional is reduced to 'activist' the fresh expression can exhaust its team, and undermine its capacity to form disciples. If contextual is distorted to 'blinkered' and unwilling to learn from other contexts or traditions, it makes it much harder for the fresh expression to be ecclesial, truly connected to the whole church. If formational is controlling rather than freeing and transforming it replaces grace with law. If ecclesial is reduced to 'church culture' it loses its missional energy and becomes an escapist religious subculture.

Where the analogy breaks down is that we don't tend to make daily choices based on a careful analysis of our DNA, whether we understand the science or not. But as churches committed to the re-evangelisation of our nations we can recognise the DNA of fresh expressions as a gift from God which equips us for the task and can be put to use both in our praxis and in our evaluation of our work.

+Graham Cray


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