In a word (Phil Potter)

Monday, 4 January, 2010

Phil PotterPhil Potter explores the importance of the words we use.

As I move across churches to encourage, teach and discuss the vision for fresh expressions, I'm increasingly aware of the importance of the words we use and how we use them when describing what we're trying to achieve.

According to the Oxford Dictionary, the 500 most used words in the English language each have an average of 23 different meanings. Hardly surprising then that phrases like 'fresh expressions' and 'mixed economy' come to mean very different things to people, depending on their involvement and level of understanding.

The development of anything new will always demand, in time, a new kind of language to clarify it. We need to welcome that new vocabulary, whilst working hard to explain it and, where possible, improve on it. So how are we doing so far?

'Fresh expressions'

When this phrase was first introduced, the broadest interpretation of its meaning was encouraged, so that as many as possible felt able to include themselves in a movement that was seeking to do mission in new ways. As the phrase took hold, however, anything from a full church plant to tea after the service was considered to be a 'fresh expression', and for some this began to devalue the phrase itself. The definition was then helpfully tightened up, emphasising the process from new beginnings to something mature and established. However, I still find that people want to define more clearly exactly where they are in that process, and who still ask the question of their project: 'Is this a fresh expression of church?' The simplest answer may be yes, but how might we extend the vocabulary to reflect the process? 

One way is to break down the three key components of church, namely worship, community and mission, and to identify which of the three is our starting point. A new project, for instance, may simply begin as a fresh expression of community, and may look as though it is a long way from being fully 'church'. Add the other two components, however, and the fully grown 'fresh expression' of church will begin to emerge. On the other hand, a fresh expression may never move beyond the first component, and its value then must be measured in terms of its connection to the wider church.

'Mixed economy'

This phrase has been helpful in communicating the importance of embracing both inherited and emerging models of church. Stand up in front of an ordinary congregation, however, and mention 'mixed economy' and eyes glaze over and ears may become deaf to the vision of a new future for the church. No wonder, then, that for many, 'mixed economy' means a smattering of the new, with 95% of the way we've always done it (hardly a mixed economy!).

Let's ensure that our vocabulary communicates that the church is very much on the move

In my own setting, I was anxious that the whole church should not only understand a 'mixed economy' strategy, but come to embrace it as an exciting and viable vision. Eventually, we developed and adapted the language and imagery of lake and river, emphasising both the contrast and connectedness between the two, and my own church now calls itself 'the Lake and River Church'.

Whatever words we use, let's ensure that our vocabulary communicates that the church is very much on the move and is pioneering a new future!

About the author: 

Canon Phil Potter is Director of Pioneer Ministry in the Diocese of Liverpool. He is author of The Challenge of Cell Church and The Challenge of Change, published 2009 by BRF.

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