'Franchise' church? The same but different

Monday, 18 November, 2013

Graham Cray's monthly e-xpressions column.

One of the distinguishing marks of a fresh expression of church is that it is appropriate to its context. Because of this, some have questioned whether models used in many contexts are true to this value. Don't they seem to be more of a franchise approach than a contextual approach?

A primary feature of our Western context is a consumer culture. Within that, franchises are a mixed blessing as they are part of a marketing strategy designed to win our loyalty through their logos, products, reputation, and so on. As such, they are to be treated with caution by those of us who are their target markets. We always have to ask what underlying values are being carried and what worldview is being reinforced. As with much fast food franchising, do they encourage something unhealthy? But, at the same time, franchising is also a perfectly acceptable way to give a product or service identifiable identity and make it known. All 'consumers' need to develop skills of discernment: I confess a love for things Apple but I still have control of my choices.

But when all of this is applied to models of fresh expression or to resources for missional church, there are substantial limits to the appropriateness of the marketing analogy. Just because there are support organisations behind café church at Costa, Messy Church or cell church, does not make those models a Trojan horse for consumerism. Logos are not an evidence of inappropriate compromise with culture: they are one of the ways to communicate in it. That's why Fresh Expressions has one.

Faithful daily discipleship requires discernment with all brands and franchises. Equally, discernment is required about the choice of model of fresh expression of church but it is discernment of a different kind. Consumers are expected to ask, 'What would be good for me?' Pioneers of fresh expressions ask, 'What would be good for them? What model of fresh expression would most appropriately and faithfully shape a community of God's people for, and among, these people, this context?'

A major danger from our consumer society comes from our culture's liking for instant, 'off the peg' solutions. One of the most frequent mistakes made is to short circuit the process of discernment, of listening to God in - and for - a context; by taking something off the shelf or by assuming that something that worked well somewhere else will automatically work where we are.

No-one is suggesting that the shape of each fresh expression must be unique, only that it fit its context as it seeks to win unchurched people to faith. In our franchise culture it would be strange if contextual church did not include models which work in a wide variety of settings. The fact that the model may be appropriate in many other contexts is neither here nor there. The question is, 'What does God want here?' The key is always appropriateness to context and the opportunity being opened by God. So don't clone, listen to God first. Which is the group to whom God is sending you? Who is not being reached through your existing work?

Current research being conducted in various Church of England dioceses highlights 20 different models of fresh expression, and is open to discover more. The strength of many of these models is that considerable expertise has been gathered about them. Once we are clear what is appropriate to context we are not left to make it all up ourselves or reinvent the wheel - but local fine tuning will always be necessary. In an era of new missional imagination, don't short circuit the work of the Spirit by foreclosing the decision about the model of church too early.

The team that wrote Mission-Shaped Church coined the term fresh expressions of church, in part to avoid the limits of some existing 'brands'. We wanted something broader, more open to new missional imagination. Almost inevitably in our culture it has become a sort of brand itself - but its core DNA is that church must be contextual not cloned. We wrote that to begin with the church may mean that the mission is lost, but to begin with the mission can mean that the church - appropriate contextual church - is found.

Please don't begin with cell church, Messy Church or café church as your starting assumption. Begin with prayerful discernment. Follow the missionary Spirit in your setting and the appropriate model of church will be found.

+Graham Cray

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