New shoots in the United Reformed Church (Linda Rayner)

Tuesday, 5 August, 2014

Linda Rayner reflects on progress in the United Reformed Church.

Four years ago, I took up the half-time post as Fresh Expressions Coordinator for the United Reformed Church after the denomination had become a partner in the movement.

My original remit was to discover where fresh expressions of church were already happening, but the mapping exercise didn't quite happen as first planned and the bulk of the job has seen me acting as an advocate of fresh expressions and pioneering at all levels of the church - and I just love it!

Since then, I've witnessed quite a few changes but have always been delighted when local churches suddenly 'get' fresh expressions and embrace what God is doing through fresh expressions of church. It's wonderful to see them making mission their top priority and starting to discern what's going on as they join the movement of the Holy Spirit in their own communities.

It has also been a blessing to be invited to various ministers' summer/winter schools, where discussions about new ways of being church are lively and thought-provoking – with some of those gatherings leading to local invitation to facilitate further discussions. It's great to know that some of those ministers go home to share fresh ideas with their churches across the UK, building enthusiasm for mission and new ways of being church.

At the recent URC General Assembly, it was good to hear the term 'fresh expressions' used in many of the discussions; in some respects it's becoming part of the URC language. However, at the same General Assembly, Fresh Expressions team leader Phil Potter addressed a very-well attended fringe meeting and it became clear that there are wide variations in levels of understanding, so there is plenty of work to be done!

At congregation and ministerial level, there is still a fear of change; I don't think this is any different in the URC to any other denomination. We are witnessing something new, which is very scary for a lot of churches - and many church members find it difficult to accept that there are two or three generations who have never heard of Jesus Christ and never set foot inside a church. These churches don't understand why others won't just come to church 'like we did when we were young' and they don't realise that cultural change means that people (not just young people) don't feel obliged to accept the 'hymn sandwich' approach to worship when society expects interaction.

Yet they see the age of their own members increase, and numbers fall, and cannot bring themselves to try something new. It's not that they stubbornly insist on staying the same, it's more a case of them not knowing where - or how - to turn, and anyway, their own church is providing sufficient spiritual nourishment for them, so why should they change?

That's where the message of the mixed economy is so, so important. When I talk to these congregations and leadership teams, I always start by reassuring them that any fresh expression of church, inspired by the promptings of the Holy Spirit, will run alongside their current church and definitely not replace it. Mind you, I do get them to examine what it really means to be a welcoming church - and that can cause a few uncomfortable moments. It's also important to explain that the new expression of church will never be a bridge into their current Sunday service, which again can cause a few murmurs.

Interestingly I've noticed that the churches that are currently in vacancy are often the ones that respond most quickly to the message of fresh expressions. In the URC, the vacancy period is normally at least two years, meaning that these churches have been forced into close self-inspection and started to realise that they need to adapt to new ways of thinking as they work together without a minister.

Like other denominations, during the last two years, the URC has forged ahead in introducing pioneer ministers into some of the Synods (regions). These ministers are discerning the way forward, looking and listening for ways to set up fresh expressions of church in their own areas. This has led to some important discussions in the church about the nature of ministry, ordination and church leadership. I think the URC is unique in that we have a recognised ministry called Church Related Community Worker (CRCW). These ministers are commissioned to help the church live out its calling to serve as Christ in the community; this can lead to some confusion, because CRCW ministry can look similar to Pioneer ministry. CRCWs make a huge difference as they encourage churches to engage with their communities, and bring the Gospel message to those who may not otherwise hear. Their remit is to enrich the community, whilst the pioneer remit is to develop a new worshipping community.

The URC is working hard to embed fresh expressions into its everyday life, and I believe we're now starting to see the difference in our denomination.

About the author: 

Linda Rayner is URC Coordinator for Fresh Expressions.


Hi Linda,
Having read your August "new shoots" article, in preparation for our FE meeting at St ANNE'S next Tuesday and as always looking for new idea, could you keep me informed of any new initiatives that you come across.
Also, in my browsing, I see references to interdenominational links, do we have any within ns synod that you may be aware of.
With Very Best Wishes

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