How do we really start church?

Monday, 17 June, 2013

Graham Cray's monthly e-xpressions column.

The whole point of fresh expressions is to extend the missionary reach of the church by planting new congregations to reach those untouched by our existing ones, for the sake of the kingdom of God. Bridge projects, designed as a half-way house to 'real' church, are a perfectly proper mission strategy, but, by definition they are not fresh expressions of church.

But planting a new congregation can be easier said than done!

Because the whole point of the fresh expression is that it is for 'unreached' people, the process to planting one has to begin with prayerful listening and building relationships. It is not possible to create church for a context without knowing the people and listening to God in and about the context. So the fresh expressions journey advises beginning with listening and loving service. But practitioners often find it difficult to get beyond that stage.

Do you tell people you hope to plant a church? Yes, normally you do. It is vital to be honest and transparent. Any sense of deception or being partial with the truth undermines the work before it has really begun. But equally vital is that you don't give the impression that you are only serving the community because we want something, or that we have an ulterior motive. We love and serve because it is what Christians do, irrespective of people's response. We seek the wellbeing of people in the light of the kingdom of God anyway. We don't want any sort of church in their context. We want a Christian community which proves itself to be the best news the people of that context have. Just as God has put his love in our hearts for this neighbourhood, network or locality, so we want a Christian community from the locality, which is motivated by the same love. There needs to be a kingdom perspective to the whole thing from day one.

The shift from loving and serving to forming community and exploring discipleship has twin elements. It involves both what we do – serving the kingdom of God in the locality to which God has sent us, and why we do it – because we have encountered the love of God in Jesus. So community can form to notch up the service and draw others into it, while offering opportunities to explore the faith that motivates us to live in this way. A fresh expression of church is above all a community of disciples, making disciples as they serve Jesus in a particular context. So as the serving continues we invite people to join our journey of discipleship. We are not the ones who know, telling the ones who don't know what they need to know! We are people who have been surprised by Jesus, and have responded to his call, sharing the little we know; inviting others to responds to that call, and to join the journey of discovery.

The fresh expressions journey paces the forming of community and exploration of discipleship ahead of church taking shape. This also has twin elements. In part it means church taking public shape. A fresh expression will often be church before it stages public worship events. As soon as there is a community of disciples engaged in mission in a place, there is church in that place. But the shape of that church, including its public worship, comes out of the interaction of the traditions and practices of the Christian faith which the planting team bear, and the relationships which they form in the locality. Church is shaped with others not just for others.

The transition from stage to stage in planting a fresh expression of church is not easy or automatic. It has to be intentional. It should always be transparent. Above all it is for the sake of the kingdom, of all that God intends in Christ for the locality to which we are called.

+Graham Cray

You can read more about moving from 'loving' to 'exploring' in the Guide.


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