Claire Dalpra on fresh expressions research

Wednesday, 2 January, 2013

Claire Dalpra unpacks the latest Church Army research into fresh expressions of church and shares some exciting findings.

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Claire Dalpra: We're working in partnership with the Church Commissioners, we're working in partnership with the national church through the Archbishops' Council and we're working in partnership with the dioceses that have kindly agreed to be our representative dioceses for this particular bit of research.

The aim in gathering quantitative data on these pioneering communities, whether large or small, is to gain a depth and a wealth of information that can give us a clearer understanding of what is happening, in the longer term what differences fresh expressions of church is making to our church's life and to our church's future.

We're aiming to get 12-15 dioceses, we won't get round them all, we have chosen deliberately dioceses that are in the north province, some in the south province, some that are urban predominantly and some that are rural predominantly. We are also keen to collect research on dioceses that are pro-fresh-expressions-of-church but also collect data for dioceses that would say they're sceptical of the fresh expressions of church strategy.

We take very seriously what is included under the definition of a fresh expression of church and whether or not something is intended to be ecclesial or not. We work with ten definitional criteria and all of those are trying to get to the heart of whether something is intended to be church. There are easy questions like frequency of meeting and does something have a name that gives it an identity, but there are other questions, tougher questions such as was something new and further planted, is what is planted intended to be a distinctive worshipping community rather than a bridge back to existing church. Then there are questions such as is there recognised leadership of that fresh expression from within them, from without, and the question of do those people that come see it as church. And then of course there are the discipleship and the sacramental questions and the four marks and the three selfs that also come into play. So we do work quite hard to make sure only the things that are ecclesial, that are intended to be ecclesial in the long term are included in our database and we leave out those things that are intended to be a bridge. It's no value judgement, we're just trying to be clear about what we're including under our definition. In terms of average attendance size, we're delighted to find that the average attendance is 40.

One of the many questions we ask is who is the main group a fresh expression of church is trying to connect with. Is it existing Christians, is it the de-churched - those who have had some connection with church in the past but have drifted away, or is it the non-churched - people that have never had any meaningful contact with church. And then we ask what has the result been so far and compare the two. On the whole, with the data we've collected so far, we're finding that the trend is there are slightly more Christians and slightly more de-churched than was originally intended for, and there are slightly less non-churched people reached than was originally hoped for. But, overall, we are pleasantly surprised at how many non-churched people are being connected with through fresh expressions of church. The proportions work out that for every five people involved in a fresh expression of church, one is a Christian, two are de-churched and two are non-churched. Connecting with the non-churched is still a significant and long-term challenge but our research shows that important inroads are being made.

In terms of geographical area planted into, we're finding a wide variety. We've listed eleven different categories on our  questionnaire, from city centre all the way down to rural and everything in between. And each has fresh expressions of church planted in their context. So it would seem that fresh expressions of church can put roots down in any geographical context. What surprised us the most is how many fresh expressions of church are being planted in urban areas and in deprived urban areas. When you consider that historically, very broadly speaking, the church has found it difficult to reach out in mission, plant new churches, see those churches flourish in deprived urban areas, our research is incredibly encouraging.

Fresh expressions of church are making a marked difference to the overall statistics of each diocese we've looked at so far. There are two calculations we've made in our research. The first one is to count up how many fresh expressions of church there are: overall so far, 201, and then we compare that figure with the number of churches in each diocese added together. When we do that, we find that equates to 20% of the number of churches in the dioceses.

The other calculation we make is based on attendance. We look at the number of people attending fresh expressions of church and then compare that with the average weekly attendance of the churches in the diocese. It depends on how you calculate it, whether a sending church collects the attendance figure for their fresh expression of church - or churches, but either way results are encouraging. It's something like 9.5% if churches to collect their fresh expressions attendance and 11% if they don't. So, this is encouraging. Fresh expressions of church are a significant slice in the life of a diocese.

Well over half of leaders of fresh expressions of church are lay. What surprised us is how many fresh expressions are being led by local lay leaders without any historical Anglican ecclesial badge or training. So a very precious thing is happening: local lay people are feeling empowered, envisioned, to birth churches and develop them when they never thought they would. And it's a great privilege to talk to these leaders in the phone conversations we have with them.

Frequency of meeting is something we've paid close attention to. In our definitional criteria that helps us decide what we include and what we exclude for this particular bit of research, frequency of meeting has to be at least monthly. If it's not monthly, if it's twice a year, termly, quarterly... it's less easy to build a credible argument that what is growing is a regular worshipping community. So everything we've collected data for meets monthly, the surprise is that 59% of fresh expressions of church meet weekly.

The vast majority of fresh expressions are engaging in some sort of discipleship and by that we mean the leaders are taking their members on a journey of discipleship beyond mere attendance, learning what it is to become followers of Christ. Perhaps it's not surprising that there is such a high percentage of fresh expressions engaging in discipleship, it is one of the things we ask when we talk to leaders initially to decide whether they should be included in our database or not. If discipleship is not on the agenda at all or if a fresh expression is leaving their sending church to respond to that challenge then that sends us a signal that perhaps the particular project we're talking to isn't intending to be ecclesial and therefore perhaps we wouldn't include it in this particular research. And we'll ask followup questions to verify that. But, over 80% of fresh expressions of church are engaging in discipleship, that might be through small group work, one-to-one, courses or participating in serving teams, say. Some said it's too early to really say but that is our intended trajectory.

Discipleship is the issue that appears to keep fresh expressions of church leaders up at night. Certainly in talking to them over the phone, it is one of the most difficult challenges. There are no easy solutions and it's easier to say what doesn't work than what does work. You get the impression from talking to these leaders that finding ways through the traditional assumptions of what works in discipleship is genuinely difficult. But the fact that they are wrestling with what it is to make disciples of Christ in their fresh expressions of church is hugely encouraging.

The question about church tradition on our questionnaire is one of our most contentious. People don't like being put in church tradition boxes. Fair enough! Some wonder why on earth it matter. We as a team have kept the question in because we think it is important to know from which church traditions we're seeing fresh expressions of church planted. And the surprise is there are 37% of teams of leaders who would identify an element of Anglo-Catholic or central churchmanship in their fresh expression of church.

We as a team believe that sacraments aren't the only, nor the best indicator of whether something is church, but being dominical we believe they must be included at some point as a fresh expression of church grows to maturity. It's something we ask about in depth when we're talking to leaders on the phone to work out whether we include a fresh expression of church under our particular criteria or not. We do honour long-term intention, for some it's just too soon to be thinking about sacraments, and we do realise that some fresh expressions types develop their sacramental life sooner than others. But bearing all this in mind, and considering how many fresh expressions of church have been begun in the last three years, we're delighted to find that 47% of fresh expressions of church have celebrated communion and 28% have held a baptism.

Our research spans three seven-year cohorts stretching as far back as 1992 up to the present day. Perhaps unsurprisingly the majority of planting fresh expressions of church has occurred in the last of these three cohorts, from 2006 onwards. What is really surprising is how many churches have begun in the last three years: in one diocese it was 52% of their fresh expressions of church. Furthermore, when we speak to people on the phone, there are things that we don't include in our research because it's too soon, it's too soon to take data for, they're not quite sure yet where God is leading them but it may be down a fresh expressions of church journey. They may not meet monthly yet. So there are a lot of things that we know about that we've not collected data for that in a few years' time will be bearing significant fruit. So watch this space.


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