Taking a holy risk in fresh expressions

Sunday, 30 June, 2013

Fresh expressions of church are now developing in many denominations and traditions and Fresh Expressions is delighted to have welcomed the Church of Scotland and The Salvation Army as its most recent partners says Bishop Graham Cray, Archbishops' Missioner and leader of the Fresh Expressions team.

At its heart, Fresh Expressions is an ecumenical, missional, movement encouraging and resourcing the rediscovery of creative, contextual mission as a norm for local churches.

It is true that official reports, senior leaders and governing bodies have endorsed and commended local initiatives and promoted them across their networks. It is also true that the Mission-shaped Church report told the stories of local projects which had the potential for national significance, but the fact is that the fresh expressions movement has grown and developed from grassroots level.

However counter-cultural it may seem in our individualistic society, the Christian faith is essentially corporate and we belong to one another in Christ.

From the beginning, the life of the early church was characterised by fellowship (koinonia) - a generous mutual sharing of lives and gifts (Acts 2.42). This generosity was not just an internal matter but was demonstrated in mission as well. Paul thanks the Philippian church for their sharing (koinonia) in the gospel, which involved prayer and sending both finance and co-workers for his pioneering missionary work.

It is this sense of partnership which is characteristic of fresh expressions and the mixed economy at its best. At the local level, churches are releasing some leaders and resources to develop fresh expressions to establish a mixed economy of outreach where each contributes to the whole church's mission by engaging people unreached by the other congregation. As one part is blessed so is the whole.

At an area level, churches can combine ecumenically or within a deanery to supplement their existing work with a new missional community, such as a network church or a youth congregation. Regionally, Fresh Expressions Area Strategy Teams (FEASTs) allow the sharing of prayer, resources and training, and ensure that we never church plant competitively – out of ignorance.

Nationally, denominations partner one another so that each can benefit from the learning of all. We are on a learning curve about contextual church and we have the privilege of learning new things for one another and all benefitting together.

In the words of the movement's first team leader, Bishop Steven Croft, we have been learning to 'join the centre to the edge'. The models of fresh expression which have proved to be 'viral', such as Messy Church, Contemplative Fire and some forms of café church, all began as local initiatives. More generally, the publication of local stories has fed the imagination and given the courage for imaginative mission in many different forms in many different contexts. Many local churches are paying new and closer attention to the work of the missionary Spirit.

The Fresh Expressions initiative came into being in response to an emerging pattern of the Holy Spirit's activity. In celebrating God's leading, we shouldn't forget that the Spirit is not only the instigator of creative mission but also the sustainer and maturer of the Church. That's why we can now see further indications of this as a movement of the Spirit - with the capacity to last - through growing interest in:

  • whole life discipleship;
  • rules or rhythms of life;
  • missional communities;
  • new monasticism.

We shouldn't be surprised by this because those who pioneer the 'new things' quickly find that they need deeper spiritual roots to sustain them. It is wonderful to hear of increasing numbers of fresh expressions but few of those fresh expressions will have grown quickly. They do not provide a quick fix to overturn years of decline but are part of the Spirit's call to long term, patient, incarnational mission. In a variety of different ways, often drawing on disciplines and traditions from previous eras of the church, the call to mission is also becoming a call to deeper discipleship. The term 'ancient future' church is evocative of much of this.

The Spirit is stirring up the same concerns in a range of denominations and traditions with the mission shaped ministry course proving to be an appropriate form of learning together ecumenically. Pioneers from different denominations easily recognise a similar DNA among their peers with stories from one tradition inspiring new imagination in another. In many places, FEASTs are simply a more formal recognition of a partnership which is already developing.

Fresh expressions are here to stay because:

  • they are now a proven part of the mission of the churches in this country. The movement is making a substantial numerical difference, and helping hundreds of local churches to engage in new ventures of creative mission. It is part of the emerging mainstream.
  • the task has hardly begun. New ecumenical partners are just starting this work. A recent study of six dioceses shows 14,000 people in fresh expressions of church, about 10% of total attendance. For every person involved, another four are drawn in - but there is a lot of work to do to help many more parishes understand the possibility.
  • networks of pioneers are forming for mutual encouragement and mutual learning, and there is now the beginnings of a learning community of dioceses.
  • the partnership of mission agencies - and the 24/7 Prayer Movement - alongside the denominations in this country is another example of this shared missionary life, which the Holy Spirit is inspiring and empowering. This is even developing internationally as fresh expressions work gets underway in various parts of the world, providing new sources of learning.

The crossing of cultural and other barriers is very much part of this generous shared life. As fresh expressions are established in communities and networks previously untouched by the church, so the church locally becomes more diverse, and in the mixed economy its unity can have more of the breadth which God intends for his Church and Kingdom.

Something which first came to the attention of the national Church through a report to the Church of England has turned out to be a rich partnership of partnerships – experiencing the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, the leader of the Church's mission. May this partnership deepen, grow and extend, for the sake of the gospel.


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