Graham Cray on sustaining a fresh expression of church

Monday, 13 August, 2012

Graham Cray discusses how to develop a fresh expression so that it is sustainable long-term and self-supporting rather than a drain on resources. Sustainability versus transience, being self-supporting, financial sustainability, moving from dependency, generous giving and cultural sustainability.

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Graham Cray: How do you develop a fresh expression so that it becomes sustainable long-term and self-supporting rather than a drain on other resources. That's a frequently asked question and it's a really important question because the fresh expressions movement has grown very rapidly and because of that we know far more about starting than we do about sustaining. And we're gathering all the good practice that we can about sustainability. But it can be a misleading question as well. Not every fresh expression is meant to be long-term sustainable. An equally important word is seasonal. Those who have experience of youth ministry will know that sometimes you catch as it were a wave of young people, a particular generational group that you get when they're early in secondary school and you grow them through until they're young adults or they move out of town for further education or something like that. And that's a hugely valuable and important piece of work. There's no automatic guarantee that there's another wave and another generation ready for you to catch just at the very moment the first one has gone. A fresh expression does not fail if it proves to be seasonal. If there are proved to be some years of opportunity and then that ministry comes to an end. But if you find yourself in that situation the question is not how can we sustain this, the question is what is the new mission opportunity that God is giving us. Have our eyes been so much on this work that we've been doing in this way that we've missed something else that God has been preparing. Perhaps there's a new fresh expression or a significant development of the one we have.

And then self-supporting - I deliberately use the language about drain of resources because I hear it around the church. Now what drain on resources is the supporting of a piece of work that sees people being drawn back into Christian discipleship or drawn to Christian discipleship for the first time through an imaginative piece of work. It may well be that that's the right prioritising of resources and we shouldn't speak about it in negative terms at all. Of course every fresh expression of church should seek to become a giver to the ministry of the church and not just a taker and I'll talk about that in just a minute. But in all the other areas of the church's work we sometimes deliberately support a piece of work that could never be sustainable because it's in a community that's poor, it's in a community that's vulnerable, it's maybe for a church or a group that's gone through some great tragedy or loss and needs support without thought of how they might give for a particular time. And if we're open to doing that in the rest of the church's ministry then for the right occasions we need to be open to do that for fresh expressions of church as well.

To talk a moment about sustainability financially, the first principle is this: that every church that plants a fresh expression should plan and budget for it. You cannot give permission for something new and simply say 'and find your own resources, we haven't got any money for it'. Well you can, but you shouldn't. If you're asking... if a church is taking a step of faith to seek the new then that church, that actual congregation through its giving and its stewardship needs to trust God for the resources and not tell the people who are going to go out on a limb to try something new that they have to find the resources themselves as well. I say that particularly because they're usually the sort of people who'll try, they'll go the extra mile, make extra sacrifice, they'll fund things themselves and therefore indirectly mislead the church about the cost, because they're afraid that if there isn't resourcing the work will stop. But planting churches - and as we talk about the mixed economy these days every church that even considers the establishing of a fresh expression is a planting church - needs to take responsibility before God to budget. Most fresh expressions are not a heavy financial involvement but there are key resources. There might be the hire of a venue, there's the regular provision of craft materials and so on if you're doing Messy Church or something like that. There should be a budget and there should be a deliberate intention to provide. And can I suggest that we get out of the habit of saying this is what it costs to maintain our church and what we've got left is what we use for mission. And we get into the habit of saying what is the mission that God calls us to, what's it going to cost us, then the rest is what we've got for maintenance. Let's put the mission first and trust God for the maintenance, not the maintenance first and trust someone else for the mission.

If I'm honest I'm not really convinced that fresh expressions of church are meant to become self-supporting unless their intended as stand-alone church plants that in the Church of England would have a Bishop's Mission Order and in other denominations would have other forms of being recognised as, if you like, equally a local church compared with the ones that exist already. Of course there should be not only... *they* should be not only self-supporting but generous. But I think when we talk about self-supporting we're talking about moving from being dependent in resources and many other things to becoming interdependent. We're talking about moving from being like a dependent child to being a sibling or a peer. So that self-supporting in the limited sense I believe in it may mean the giving of the people who come now sustains the ministry that's exercised. Of course that should happen, every congregation should be doing that and not looking to God before they look to their own stewardship and what God has already put in their hands. But it may mean that there's a longer term financial imbalance, but that interdependence means each congregation gives to the work of the whole and to the other what it has to give. It may be time, it may be gifts, it may be that there's a younger age range that's able to help one church rather than the other. I will always remember when, at St Michael's York, we planted a congregation to work in the club culture and the people who led that became really quite expert in developing electronic dance music and so on. Their willingness to turn out a few hours after they got in from the clubs on a Sunday morning to lead children's songs of a style that very definitely wasn't their first choice, because we for a short term didn't have the musicians for our children's ministry for the Sunday morning all-age service, that always strikes me. It's mutually supporting if you like, rather than self-supporting. It takes money seriously but each learns to give generously to the other what they have that both can thrive.

I think it's Martin Luther whose meant to have said that there are three conversions: the heart, the mind and the purse. And that often they happen in that order. The stewardship needs to be introduced to even a fledgling fresh expression of church as a natural part of whole-life discipleship. So in talking about what it means to be a follower of Jesus - and often a fresh expression will be gathering people who are exploring whether they really do or do not want to be a follower of Jesus and what you're doing is you're showing them what the whole of life as part of his kingdom involves, and believe it or not money is part of the whole of life, so we should sometimes unashamedly talk about money when we're talking about discipleship. What we shouldn't do I think is transfer the stereotypical appeal for the church tower into the fresh expression. The subject of money and Christian giving should not really be introduced first of all as 'to keep the church going'. I think it's totally reasonable to say what we put on today doesn't cost, come for free, and if you wish to give there is an opportunity. But I think we should teach stewardship and generosity. I suggest that there is quite early on an opportunity to give in a fresh expression, where even people who don't know much about the church expect there to be something called the collection. So if without doing a traditional collection you have another way to say you don't have to give, you're welcome here, but if you want to and you come regularly and you appreciate this, we invite you to. But I suggest you develop a culture of generosity. I suggest you might even consider, from the very beginning, always giving half of what is given in the fresh expression away to something that isn't about either the fresh expression or the parent church. Let new disciples learn to be generous, learn to regard all they have as things given them by God of which they're stewards, and along the way you'll educate them that running the church costs money as well. Don't be under pressure not to be a drain, teach people to be whole-life generous disciples.

Sustainability is also about embedding in the particular culture or group that you're engaging with. If all the time the energy is coming from people who as it were have come from outside to help this begin and it's not beginning to be owned and people are not beginning to take responsibility who've come to it locally or from within the culture you're trying to reach, then something is wrong. I think a pivotal matter of ownership, including I think key to financial ownership, is people believing that this is theirs that they're part of, rather than yours that they come to. Therefore things we've dealt with in some of the other conversations in this series like developing indigenous leadership are actually part of sustainability. Draw people into responsibility early, give them a say in shaping it. I was hearing just today of a fresh expression that's been running for about two years, that's up to about seventy, and some of the leaders are really quite young in faith and have been drawn into the faith very recently. But their leadership potential has been identified and they're already  being trusted with a part in shaping what's going on. When people own something they're going to commit themselves to it and issues of sustainability will be easier. Another way of saying that is keep the missional edge. All the time be clear that this is a community for others, that even those who come to it to be engaged with the faith are being drawn into a community that cares for people beyond themselves. And if there's one key to developing financial resources, if stewardship is a difficulty, if financially self-sustaining is hard, well the best way I know is win some new Christians and teach them to be generous disciples.


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