Keeping the focus on fresh expressions of church (Ian Mobsby)

Tuesday, 7 July, 2009

Ian MobsbyIan Mobsby wonders how we can keep the focus on fresh expressions of church.

One of the most useful chapters that came out of the new book Ancient Faith, Future Mission: fresh expressions in the sacramental tradition, was by the now Bishop Steven Croft. In his chapter (where he critiques the development and resistance to fresh expressions in the Church of England), he reminds us that the key focus of fresh expressions is to build ecclesial communities out of contextual mission. Steve reminds us that in the end all labels such as 'emerging church', 'fresh expressions' and 'alternative worship' are about contextualisation, and about the important refocusing on mission in our increasingly post-Christendom, post-modern and post-secular culture.

Often the term 'fresh expressions' can be confusing. This is why it is so important that the focus is on building church and not as some people seem to think, 'it's all about worship'. One of the strengths of the Fresh Expressions initiatives is that it draws on deep missiology. From the start it has drawn on the work of Vincent Donovan and Roland Allen, both accomplished missionaries who have written comprehensively about the process of mission as growing the church in particular contexts. It is for this reason that Fresh Expressions in its second phase of five years is focused on the process of listening, responding in loving service, building community, discipleship/catechesis, and finally, the development of contextual forms of worship.

This process is key if mission is to be focused on the 'unchurched', the largest growing missional need. As we increasingly become a post-Christendom culture, it is expected that the numbers of 'dechurched' will fall. The dechurched were a much easier group to do mission to in some ways; the unchurched are a greater challenge because of the socio-cultural challenge of engaging with people who have no understanding of the Christian faith at all, and some of the ways we express it can be deeply anachronistic. However, if we are to be committed to 'proclaiming the gospel afresh to every generation', this missional focus on the unchurched is crucial.

Fresh Expressions journey

We know from research that traditional church planting models are good at engaging with the open dechurched and recycling Christians, but not good at engaging with the unchurched in general terms. The other great problem with traditional church planting is that it tends to set up attractional rather than missional models of church. Attractional models of church tend to over-focus on a strong Christian subculture that makes it hard for contextual forms of church to develop. So we must not lose the focus on building ecclesial communities out of contextual mission. After all, this is the focus and definition of fresh expressions, of seeking 'to build church with people who are not yet members of any church'.

So how do practitioners engage with proper cultural, missional, theological and I would argue Trinitarian thinking to assist good practice? Well, one good book that has come out that I really think hits the mark is Pete Ward's Participation and Mediation: A practical theology for liquid church. This book is about keeping focused on building ecclesial communities out of contextual mission. The strange thing is that many of us, including me, are quite shocked by how well Pete articulates a method and process out of experience, which is pretty much spot on the journey that many of us practitioners have been making. Pete therefore has drawn together a book out of his great experience which I can only say would have made my life a lot easier if it was around 15 years ago! Further, Pete's work takes contemporary approaches to mission by culturally listening and engaging where people are as a bedrock to then engage with practical theology. As Pete says, I am convinced that practical theology and engagement with it, is crucial as a form of prayer and discernment. Or as Pete puts it:

The Challenge I faced as a youth minister required the ability to reflect both theologically and culturally... The style of relational ministry... I set myself [was] the task of journeying into the world of young people and meeting them in situations where they felt at home. The idea was that I went to their territory. This means that I was a visitor in a context where they were in control and they set the rules. Needless to say this was not at all easy, but interestingly almost from the start I felt that this kind of ministry was a deeply spiritual practice. Going to young people, rather than asking them to come to me, gave me a strong sense that I was in some way sharing in God's love and concern for the world. In fact more than that, I was struck by the conviction that the Holy Spirit was there with the young people even before I arrived. (Pete Ward, Participation and Mediation, SCM Press, 2008, pp 13,27.)

Commitment to reflection of the cycle of need, cultural analysis, mission, theology, God as Trinity, and building ecclesial community has to be the central craft of any committed pioneer minister. So, enjoy the journey, because at the end, it is about thinking and acting in our attempt to catch up with what God is already doing in people's lives, and this is what I believe fresh expressions of church is all about.

About the author: 

Ian Mobsby is an author, priest missioner, Fresh Expressions Associate Missioner and associate lecturer in theological education.


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