Too big for fresh expressions?

Monday, 19 July, 2010

Graham Cray's monthly e-xpressions column.

It is sometimes assumed that big (for the UK) churches have no need to engage with fresh expressions. But that is not the case for a number of reasons.

Some large churches are already very ably involved in fresh expressions. My old parish, St Michael le Belfrey York, has both Visions and G2 (very different models) in addition to its range of Sunday congregations.

We need to recognize that big does not necessarily mean growing or missional. Large churches can have plateaued or can be in substantial decline, or just be recycling Christians from other churches. Size can cloak decline, reasonable Sunday numbers can make the church seem healthier than it really is, and a demanding program of activities can so consume a congregation's energies and attention, that no one notices that the congregation is ageing and no longer reaching new people.

In recent years some larger churches have realized that their well established patterns of mission and evangelism were no longer fruitful. As a result they have transitioned to new models of ministry – often a cell approach or mid-size communities (sometimes called missional clusters) which are fresh expressions strategies being used on a larger scale.

Many larger churches have targeted congregations anyway. Different services are geared to different age groups or sections of society. The idea is not to segment the congregation, but to make its ministry available to a wider range of people.

It is only a short step to realize that fresh expressions can further expand that range. Appropriate fresh expressions planted in different locations and meeting at different times can help a church to reach people it would not otherwise reach.

Leaders of large churches know that part of their task is to break larger congregations down into smaller pastoral units, so why not make the core structure smaller mission focused units instead?

The real challenge is the same for large churches as for small. The question is who would we never reach by just doing things the way we do? And do we have a gospel responsibility to those who are never likely to be part of our church as it is now? Large churches are used to persuading people to come, but the command of Jesus is still to go, and more and more people will remain unreached if we only use an attractional approach.

When large churches get full they often multiply or duplicate services, but instead of doing two or more the same, why not plant a whole range of fresh expressions. In this way large churches are uniquely equipped to embody the mixed economy.

But there is a bigger and potentially more strategic challenge. Large churches can either become a drain on the ministry of the churches around them, because they draw in such a substantial proportion of local or commuting Christians, or they can be resource churches, helping smaller churches around them to plant fresh expressions as well.

Fresh expressions is a way of bringing the gospel to communities and networks we are other wise failing to reach – size of church has little to do with it – the missionary challenge remains the same for us all.



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