A new call

Thursday, 23 October, 2014

Last November, the Church of Scotland formally launched its partnership with the Fresh Expressions movement with a vision day in Edinburgh. A year on, David McCarthy reports on the impact of the initiative which is already charting new territory within the Church of Scotland.

If a week is a long time in politics what is a year in the life of the church? It's both short when we consider the 'Big Story' of which we are a part and long when we think about our part in this story. So, what has a year brought for the Church of Scotland's partnership with Fresh Expressions and the development of fresh expressions of church within the Church of Scotland? Well, the long and the short of it is, it's been a very good year. Good because:

  • there is a developing openness to fresh expressions of church;
  • this year's General Assembly deliverance on a Decade of Ministry encourages this development;
  • we have a coherent strategy to advocate, encourage and support the development of fresh expressions of church;
  • innovative fresh expressions of church are developing in Scotland.

Respect, honesty and putting ourselves in the shoes of others are core to good relationships. This we know is not always easy and has not always characterised our discussion about fresh expressions of church. So what has helped relationships deepen so that this openness is developing?

One important factor is a deepening understanding within the church: there is a growing understanding that:

  • traditional or inherited expressions of church and fresh expressions of church are equally valid, so long as they are truly being church;
  • church is fundamentally focused on relationships from which practices develop, not the other way round;
  • church is a communal, relational, space where individuals, in community, meet the risen Jesus and are transformed by Him. It is (or should be) a community of love, acceptance, accountability, discipleship and worship;
  • a 'one-size' expression of church will not 'fit all'. Scotland is a mosaic of communities: geographical, cultural and generational; Part of the adventure of faith is to share in developing church in all these communities, not only so that all may have an equal opportunity to meet the risen, transforming Jesus, but so that the worship of God in Scotland may be expressed through the kaleidoscope of this mosaic;
  • we can honestly air both our enthusiasm for fresh expressions of church and our doubts and concerns about it and be listened to and respected.

Concerns, which are expressed, generally come within three broad categories: relational, experiential and theological. Some examples which we must take seriously:

  • previous bad experiences of emerging ministries/church initiatives;
  • weariness: individual and corporate (particularly given current changes within the church);
  • suspicion: Fresh Expressions is perceived as too evangelical, too liberal, too English or too influenced by other denominations;
  • a negative reaction to yet another initiative from a central body within the church;
  • concerns about governance and how fresh expressions of church relate to parishes, presbyteries and the story of the Church of Scotland;
  • we do not understand the present cultural kaleidoscope of Scotland, or we want these cultures to reconfigure to our preferred culture;
  • fresh expressions of church are church and theology lite; they might better be described as ‘froth’ expressions of church;
  • fresh expressions of church take the easy option: they are too stratified and not representative.

The 2014 General Assembly agreed a 'Decade of Ministry', which encourages us to be open to the love, imagination and creativity of God and to be open to our call, as a church, to be pioneers. It called us to committed action in the encouraging and equipping of the whole church to share in this ministry. The resources provided by Fresh Expressions, in particular the mission shaped ministry (msm) course, were highlighted as core to the realising of this exciting and challenging deliverance. One of the inevitable consequences of the outworking of this deliverance will be the development of fresh expressions of church.

At this point it's important to remember what we are developing: fresh expressions of church. This is different from developing a fresh expression of mission, community engagement or worship. Any of the latter may develop into a fresh expression of church, but of themselves they are something different and could equally be forms of outreach, which engage people with the church which initiated the action.

The peculiarity of a fresh expression of church is that it not only identifies and goes to a community (geographical, cultural or generational) that has no meaningful engagement with a church community, it also identifies with that community and stays within it. It listens, it serves as an insider, not an outsider, it disciples, it develops worship that is appropriate for the community within which it is being church and then it sends pioneers from that community to another new community.

As a church our strategy to advocate fresh expressions of church resonates with the Fresh Expressions ethos of 'going': over the next three years we plan to give every presbytery and parish in Scotland the opportunity to engage with the nuts and bolts of fresh expressions of church. There will be regional opportunities for those who have presbytery responsibilities and for those who have local responsibilities. These will be times to:

  • speak and to listen;
  • be encouraged and to discuss fears, disappointments and reservations;
  • think about first steps and about how we help fresh expressions thrive;
  • discover ways to develop ongoing support and to share stories, so that others may be inspired and helped.

As well as these sessions, which we are calling 'Going for Growth' and which will happen in the autumn, we are planning Fresh Expression vision days in the spring (contact the Church of Scotland Mission and Discipleship team for details). Then in June we are organising a Going for Growth Summer School. This will be eligible for parish minister's study leave funding; Phil Potter (Fresh Expressions Team Leader) and George Lings (Church Army Research) will be among the key contributors.

Undergirding this strategy is the intentional aim to change our church culture so that we will understand more clearly our call to be pioneers, so that we will embrace this call and so that when we think of mission we will automatically consider developing a fresh expression of church.

When we think of fresh expressions of church we may be tempted to think only about communities that focus on children, teenagers or younger adults, but the reality is much more diverse. As well as initiatives such as Fridays in Faith in Annan there is Neither Young Nor Old (NYNO) in Aberdeen: a fresh expression of church centred around a sheltered accommodation community.

This is an exciting and challenging time and in such times we must ensure that our motivation is right and honourable: love of God and love of our neighbour must fire us; not a drive to bolster the status quo or keep church membership numbers at a level that allow us to be financially viable in our present form. Something much more important is at stake and we know what it is.

As mentioned earlier there are concerns, perceptions and reactions which we must not minimise, arrogantly dismiss or ignore; everyone has lessons to learn, but, I firmly believe, we also have an adventure to share and fresh expressions of church are a part of this. If this is a work of the Holy Spirit then we must not step back; together God calls us to forward the conversation and the action.

Serious reflection doesn't and mustn't mean that we ask the Spirit to submit to our insecurities and anxious double and treble checking. If I'm going on a long journey my fear could so devour attention and energy that, in checking my luggage and if the house I am leaving is secure, I lose track of time and literally miss the boat. We don't want to do the same. As a church we have taken decisions to explore and develop pioneer ministry and to develop fresh expressions of church; to hesitate or falter would be to bow the knee to fear rather than follow where we have discerned Christ and faith are calling us.

David McCarthy

About the author: 

David McCarthy is Church of Scotland Fresh Expressions Development Worker.


If Fresh Expressions is perceived as too evangelical and too liberal, maybe it's getting something right!

Great to hear the progress in Scotland. If any support is needed with. Messy Churches, we have an excellent Scottish team of Regional Coordinators to help out. Details on www.messychurch.org.uk under Regional Coordinators

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