Keep turning the wheels

Wednesday, 23 July, 2014

'Keep turning the wheels!' I was grateful for that unsophisticated, but sincere, piece of advice from a friend a few months ago when I told him I planned to cycle from Newcastle to Edinburgh.

There was, of course, a good deal more to it than that. Challenges included pedalling through a mini Scottish heatwave whilst forgetting to top up on water, reading a map on the move and keeping the old dérailleur free from grit and dust! (For the non-cyclists reading this: a 'dérailleur' is the device that changes gears by moving the bike chain from one sprocket to another.)

Needless to say, there was a good deal of necessary multi-tasking, but actually all I seemed to be doing was cycling (yes, and sometimes pushing) along quiet country roads.

Helping something to move in a particular direction is actually quite a complex task. That's no less true for the church. Looking back over the last ten years since the Mission-shaped Church report was published, it's encouraging to see how much has changed and moved forwards. But there is a long way to go.

The vast majority of congregations are still to look at ways of engaging those with whom they currently have no contact. National and regional church leaders have difficult resourcing decisions to make. How do you keep the show on the road and yet at the same time reach brand new areas?

The Fresh Expressions partnership has done a great deal to help train and encourage local pioneers. We are in touch with thousands of people who want to try new ways of being church, who want forms of church which will be relevant places for their friends. We are championing best practice and trying to support and accompany wherever we can.

There has also been a real attempt, particularly in the Church of England and Methodist Church, to effect policy change and explore new forms of ministry and leadership. Other denominations have quickly followed suit. But sometimes it still feels as if progress, though considerable, needs further encouragement along the way.

If the UK church is serious about trying to reach those usually well off its radar, especially if it is going to go for growth, then the task is complex. Like riding a bike or operating an intricate piece of machinery, attention has to be paid to every part. We need to oil the inter-connecting cogs in order to help ease the journey.

The church finds itself in a new missional context in these days; those responsible for selecting and training both lay and ordained leaders need our support to discern the best way forward to respond to that context – as do the people holding the purse strings. How to make financial decisions that have a positive impact on mission in such difficult, economic times? It's an enormous task. Let's pray for those in the thick of those budgetary demands.

There's no doubt that missional experience (and passion!) is increasingly essential in the person specification for many of the church's key leadership roles. Do we take that into consideration enough I wonder? Accountability is a question that is often on the agenda when fresh expressions of church are discussed; let's lend a helping hand to anyone with the responsibility to implement policy changes within denominational structures – changes which involve individuals being held to account. How can such changes be embraced? How can we give support?

Of course there are challenges. Regional church leaders already have extremely lengthy 'to do' lists so who can possibly have an overview of all this? Hard-pressed local leaders often run from pillar to post just to keep up with the regular demands of church life. So, in the end, it will be those to whom God has given a passion for people who have not yet met him, and are unlikely to meet him in conventional church, who need to get those wheels turning.

That will mean pioneers taking a holistic approach, and getting involved in diocesan synods or circuit meetings. It will mean those pioneers:

  • understanding the decisions that are made and their implications for mission;
  • being willing to talk to those responsible for implementing policy, especially when things seem to be moving slowly.

It will also mean involvement with those designing courses and training schemes and helping them to contextualise what is taught – as well as feeding into discussions with leaders and treasurers as tricky financial decisions are made. It won't be easy but it is worth it!

One decade on from that report and many committed and hard-working pioneers are beginning to make a big difference to their communities and networks. The signs are good. Many people, who have never been part of church, are finding faith for the first time. But if this new movement of contextual, missional churches is to gain momentum, let's not forget to have a regular 'MOT' so that every 'cog', every aspect of our lives as churches together, is put to the test.

We can't offer short cuts and there's a steep incline ahead of us, but it's exciting to tackle it together.

About the author: 

Norman Ivison is Director of Communication and Resources for Fresh Expressions.


Thanks for this brilliant piece Norman. I like your (to me here in Canada) level-headed and clear-eyed take on the task ahead, as well as your recognition and appreciation for what has been done and learnt over the past ten years.All this will help all of us to, "Keep turning the wheels."

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