Fresh expressions are here to stay

Monday, 15 July, 2013

Graham Cray's monthly e-xpressions column.

Fresh expressions of church have become an established feature of the UK church landscape, involving now a wide range of denominations. Many thousands attend these fresh expressions, most of whom would not otherwise be part of the life of the church.

Some of the fresh expressions are properly seasonal. They exist for a period of years while an opportunity continues, and then a new one can be begun at an appropriate moment. Many are long term congregations, developing a particular model of church for their context, while others morph, changing their approach as their context changes or as new opportunities arise. In all, this is proving to be a fruitful contribution to the re-evangelisation of our nations and the reshaping of the church for a changing context.

The Church Army's Research Unit is producing some in depth statistics about the development and impact of fresh expressions of church. Work with six Anglican dioceses, in research part-funded by the Church Commissioners, reveals fresh expressions accounting for 14.6% of total church attendance with 39% sharing Communion and 32% holding baptisms regularly.

Leaders of fresh expressions in the six dioceses reported that there are four new people involved for every existing church member in a planting team. Of every 5 people who belong, they say:

  • one is Christian;
  • two are de-churched - having some previous history of church attendance (31% of the adult population);
  • two are non-churched - having no previous connection to any church (34% of the adult population).

There's no doubt about it. Fresh expressions of church, planting new congregations through contextual mission, are here for the long term.

But, if this is the case, they require long term investment and resourcing, not start up funding, short term grants, or funding dependent on occasional or peripheral sources. This needs to be at national level, at diocesan district and synod level, and at parish, circuit and local church level.

I am quite aware of the straitened financial circumstances in which we live. However, the key question is not about the scale of our resources but the appropriate allocation of them. We are invested in many things which we cannot easily change, and some that we should not change even if we could, but we are also in danger of investing the vast proportion of our resources in a shrinking mission field. The Archbishop of Adelaide told his diocese, 'More of the same just means less of the same'. We need to invest in growth more than maintenance or the management of decline.

We also need faith combined with patience. Pioneering and breaking open new ground takes time. The church in the UK has grown apart from the culture of much of the population and reconnecting takes time, patience and committed people. It also takes faith. Either we fatalistically believe that the decline of the church in the UK is inevitable and that we have no future other than as a peripheral memorial society to western Christianity with a lot of heritage for the tourists - or we believe that God is alive in his church and that it is normal for his church to grow when we take the gospel to people and sow it into their concerns and contexts. That faith has to expressed institutionally, through the commitment of resources, as well as personally, by the growing number of pioneers and teams planting fresh expressions.

We have to choose between investing our resources according to priorities shaped by the past, by what we have already done, or investing an appropriate part of them in the future. As far as possible, local church budgets and priorities have to focus on the as yet unreached or there may be no future beyond decline. At the diocesan or district level, the same principles apply.

In terms of the allocation of resources and personnel, we should not spread diminishing resources thinner and thinner over existing work. It is a guaranteed contribution to further decline. Invest enough in the new. At national level, denominations involved in Fresh Expressions need to support those who provide much of the envisioning, training and support for the practitioners on this particular front line.

The flow of resources between inherited approaches to church and fresh expressions of church is not one way. Fresh expressions ministry has inspired several thousand new lay leaders, it has made many new disciples who are able to learn the habits of Christian stewardship. It is creating the resources for the future, but to continue to do that it needs appropriate long term support.

+Graham Cray


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