Don't be so defensive! (Ben Norton)

Monday, 25 February, 2013

Ben Norton lays down a challenge to not be so defensive.

Reflecting on the developing fresh expression of church that I was part of in Bridlington, one thing has struck me recently - and that has been that when it comes to fresh expressions of church we should not be so quick to defend and justify them.

It is an easy trap to fall into, especially for the pioneer who will have ploughed a lot of blood, sweat and tears into birthing a new community. Of course everyone wants newly formed fresh expressions of church to be successful in reaching those who have no connection with either faith or church. We want them to look good, but it is easy to miss the reality of authentic markers of church. There is also the fact that at times we might want to measure how well they are doing by comparing them to other inherited forms of church to see how well they are getting on.

One of the hardest things I find when it comes to critiquing fresh expressions of church is that the only yardstick we have got is one that seems rather inadequate for the job. The tools no longer fit the situation, tools such as critiquing new communities using orthodoxy and doctrine as a way of interpreting what is going on. Whilst these issues are important they might not always be easily recognisable in the way we might want to understand them.

For example, one of the comments of the fresh expression in Bridlington was that it seemed that we never actively preached the gospel, in so much as there was no recognised reading and expounding of the scriptures. I believe the question therefore is one that can be found in the Psalms, at a time when God's people found themselves in an unfamiliar place, with no recognisable markers to order their sense of God. In Psalm 137.4, we read,

How shall we sing the Lord's song in a foreign land?

The ‘foreign land’ for us is cultural rather than geographical.

What we did do is take a hermeneutical approach to exploring issues in the news. Exploring, sharing and debating the topics that everyone was facing. It was through this way of engaging with each other that conversations of faith, ethical, moral, and spiritual ideas were put forward and critiqued and pondered by those who did not profess a faith-based worldview. Viewpoints were aired and language used that some people may feel shocked or offended by. Indeed I often asked myself the question 'what would people say if they thought this was church?'

Of course this was an environment in which everyone was welcome and all views were encouraged to be shared. They would be challenged at times and although there were never any serious consequences the debates would get heated. It was messy and I, as the pioneer, constantly felt vulnerable about what it was we were doing. With questions like 'Is this church?', 'Are these men seeing and hearing the teachings of Jesus?', 'Can we see authentic signs of the Kingdom here?' and always in the back of my mind were the voices of those who would criticise no matter what we did.

But on reflection, I believe that if a fresh expression of church is authentically engaging with and creating disciples then it will look most of the time anything but successful - just like the disciples, and the early church. In fact I would go so far as saying that a mark of authenticity would be that the community would be very fragile - and most of the time in crisis. I say this not only from my own experience but also reading Paul's letters to the early church (1 Corinthians 1.10-17) in which he sorted out the issues arising as new disciples worked out their faith in a messy and uneasy way.

There is an album by the band Dubh called 'Fractured, broken and beautiful'. I believe that this sums up the church in every place and not just fresh expression communities, but this is what we want. A church reliant upon the saving grace of God though the continued work of the Holy Spirit.

About the author: 

Ben Norton is a pioneer minister based in Teeside.


Hi Ben,

Great article with insights that concur with my own experiences and those of pioneers I work with.

In the Diocese of London we are consulting with The Transformational Index - - a group of consultants who help organisations, quickly identify their intended social impact and to measure progress in a way which balances a commitment to values with a focus on results.

You may find them helpful too as a FX but also in communicating across the Diocese.

Contact Andy Schofield if you are interested.

Annie Kirke
Pioneer Priest of Missional Communities, Diocese of London

Thanks for a really helpful article. I'm not a pioneer ordinand nor a part of a fresh expression but am very inspired and encouraged by the movement.

I think the culture of justification and going on the defensive is something I see a lot of, in many spheres of life, perhaps particularly politics and increasingly it feels more and more unappealing and more of a turn off.

I loved the idea of honesty and of the fractured, broken and beautiful and how there seems to be more and more of a need and a cry for this honesty and for this to be lived out with integrity

You are a gifted leader and a person who I believe God is using in profound ways to help us all re-think our cultural views of what the Church is and how it functions. Thanks for helping lead the way to asking difficult questions!

Hi Ben, and thanks for this. Reading it has helped straighten my head my head about somethings and also given me some strength to keep going and most importantly to live in love :)

Thanks for this

I was encouraged by a recent talk about the parable of the sower and that God wants the harvest to be great and we may not be able to tell from our perspective the harvest God sees.

I work (as a lay worker) in a Methodist project which combines social action stuff - community education, lunch clubs and foodbank with school assemblies, praying around troubled flats, messy church, puzzling questions etc and we have about 50 volunteers many of whom need our support through periods of drinking to excess, the voices in their heads getting louder etc etc and whilst i dont call this a fresh expression of Church we are church to some of our people. It is difficult to assess our "success" and fortunately for me my earthly boss, the minister, doesn't require this - although i have many "secular" funders to whom I report

I am trying to write a dissertation on a type of measurement - public policy is keen on social capital, businesses are keen on spiritual capital and I have a vision of our project facilitating "Christian Spiritual capital" but in order to tease out what it is I need to look beyond ourselves to other projects and am looking for help from people who recognise the issue and would be willing to be interviewed.
My email is and my phone no is 07905683634 if you would be willing to help.

What I miss in the above, I'm afraid, is the sense of joy that Jesus and Paul both emphasised as a fruit of the spirit or of the gospel (which of course means the good news). The early Christians (before Christianity was approved by Constantine) believed that if they faithfully followed the teaching and example of Jesus they would obtain the eternal life which he so frequently promised. It was their conduct, which distinguished them from the majority of the citizens of the Roman Empire, which attracted converts.

Remember the letter which St Cyprian wrote to his friend Donatus in the middle of the 3rd century, but just as relevant to-day:

"This seems a cheerful world, Donatus, when I view it from this fair garden, under the shadow of these vines. But if I climbed some great mountain and looked out over the wide lands, you know very well what I would see. Brigands on the high road, pirates on the seas, in the amphitheatres men murdered to please the applauding crowds, under all roofs misery and selfishness. It is really a bad world, Donatus, an incredibly bad world. Yet in the midst of it I have found a quiet and holy people. They have discovered a joy which is a thousand times better than any pleasure of this sinful life. They are despised and persecuted, but they care not. They have overcome the world. These people, Donatus, are the Christians ... and I am one of them."

The joy and the other fruits of the spirit listed by Paul in Galatians 5.22-23 are among the hallmarks of Christianity. Do those who attend Ben's fresh expressions find them in the Christians who are taking part?

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