Fresh expressions: time for a revolution? (Michael Volland)

Monday, 5 November, 2012

Michael VollandMichael Volland asks whether it's time for a revolution.

The trailblazing Fresh Expressions initiative coming out of the UK... has generated some wonderfully creative new forms (of church) but it seems to have had only marginal impact on its organisations. Wholesale renewal has not come about through its efforts precisely because it is a skunk works project - operating far from the centre of the organization... Unless these experimental forums are heartily owned by the broader system, their paradigmatic change remains a pipedream.

Alan Hirsch and Tim Catchim, The Permament Revolution, Jossey-Bass, 2012, p172

That quote comes from chapter 8 of The Permanent Revolution by Alan Hirsch and Tim Catchim. The statement was tucked away at the foot of page 172 but I thought it was worth sharing on a Facebook mission forum. My post - on the page for the Missional Communities, Orders and Project Hub at CMS - generated 67 comments, including several from Hirsch himself. It has since prompted me to provoke further (constructive) thought and discussion around the question of the impact of the Fresh Expressions initiative on the DNA of its partner denominations.

Hirsch and Catchim argue that - after 1700 years of Christendom - the Church needs to re-establish the fivefold ministries of apostle, prophet, evangelist, shepherd, and teacher. They:

  • focus especially on the Church's need to recover apostolic imagination and practice;
  • point out the need for a reformulation of '…the ways that we think about church and the ways that we envision ministry and leadership';
  • articulate their desire to liberate minds and vocations;
  • highlight the need to change the game.

They are also unapologetic about their provocative vision and, although their work is scholarly and highly nuanced, no one would expect a book with the word ‘revolution’ in the title to be awash with gentle suggestions or to shy away from confrontation with established institutions.

Hirsch and Catchim's analysis of the missional situation in the West rightly propels their writing forward with the sort of urgency that generates straight talking. 'Straight talking' by human beings can never come from a place of absolute understanding but it is useful when it emerges out of reflection on long experience and it can be just what is needed to generate a serious re-appraisal of a given situation. Few who are concerned about the way in which the UK Church is to engage in the mission of Jesus would dismiss Hirsch and Catchim's straight talking out of hand. Of course, having said all of this, it is still right to question whether their comment about the impact of Fresh Expressions on partner denominations is entirely fair. And we cannot ignore the fact that they are writing from the United States and are therefore not fully immersed in the UK scene. However, the relative fairness of a comment from across the Pond shouldn't keep us from hearing something that might be important!

Some UK-based contributors to the Facebook comment stream viewed Hirsch and Catchim as making an unfair and under-informed critique of the state of play here. They emphasised the huge number of new initiatives that have occurred in the wake of the Mission-shaped Church report (2004) and to evidence of significant changes at the centre that would have been unimaginable a few years ago, including lay and ordained Pioneer Ministry, Bishop's Mission Orders, FEASTs, mission shaped ministry, Pioneer curacies and incumbencies, partnerships with the other denominations and para-church agencies.

Clearly the Fresh Expressions initiative has had a hugely positive impact in the UK and further afield. We can already see significant fruit and there is much more to come as various initiatives grow into maturity and as those who have come to faith via various fresh expressions inhabit their denominations and begin to have a say in shaping them.

Hirsch and Catchim do not contest any of this. In fact they celebrate it (read the quote again!) Rather, their view is that the missional mindset at the heart of the Fresh Expressions initiative does not appear to have been heartily owned across the UK system. This means that the sort of wholesale paradigmatic change that they believe should result from the activities of an apostolic church has not occurred - and indeed will not occur. They say it is all well and good to point to the progress that has been made but there are still significant changes required at the very heart of the denominations. This is not to diminish the work already done or to knock the denominations for the sake of it. It is rather to challenge us to take more seriously the need for a fundamental shift of perception and imagination at the core of the denominations as well as at the cutting edges.

Becoming defensive is one response to Hirsch and Catchim. This might involve pointing to the fundamentally incarnational (and therefore theoretically missional) nature of Anglican ecclesiology or drawing up a long list of success stories. I suggest that defensiveness is a waste of precious time. Challenges like Hirsch and Catchim's are helpful because they provoke us to look beyond our progress (actual or imagined) at what has remained untouched and which might require wise and courageous fresh attention.

Hirsch and Catchim go on to say,

If entrepreneurial effort is only sporadic, then serous systemic missional change is unlikely.

In North East England (I'm aware it may be a very different story elsewhere) an entrepreneurial or apostolic approach to mission has, in my opinion, been sporadic. I know this because I work with clergy and churches across the region. While I love the Church and trust the God who is able to breathe life into barren places, I also see the need for 'experimental forms being heartily owned by the broader system'. In this sense (and in my context) I think Hirsch and Catchim's work is a useful spur to ongoing efforts in the direction of paradigmatic change.

About the author: 

Michael Volland is Director of Mission and Tutor in Pioneering at Cranmer Hall, Durham.


I've been pondering on this since the Facebook conversation. Perhaps how we feel about it depends how we interpret 'sporadic' on a spectrum from no movement towards mission to a place of serious momentum?

I agree, its not paradigmantic, and much much more is required, but we are in a culture that at all the times when the rest of the world has been in political revolution - for example in the 17th and 18th c - we have not. Instead we as a country have made measured change that was enough to head off diaster - maybe we are a much more evolutionary, incremental culture in terms of national characteristic, and the behaviours of the national church?

Given the complex and broad nature of the Church of England, I wonder what you would like to see happen that would get us to where we need to get to, based on the reality of where we are starting from here and now? (I'm not being adversarial btw - I really want to know what that might look like and how it could happen - what are the key changes and actions, from your perspective?)

I guess I really believe that sacramental incarnational ministry is the real place of change, of us, those we lead, of the institution and the society around us, and that by its very nature is slow, hard and incremental.


Thanks for the post with reference to the book.

I just wanted your readers to be aware that I am no critic of FX. On the contrary, I continue to love, respect, and pray for further system-wide, impact through it. In fact, in the context of the chapter where I mention it, I was simply highlighting the intrinsically entrepreneurial, culturally generative, nature of true apostolic movements, and that what we call "apostolic entrepreneurialism", needs to be owned as a core (central) function of the organization itself if it is to have lasting, and system-wide, impact.

As the name itself suggeste (smelly "skunky" activities are kept far from the normal centers of social power and discourse) "skunk works" projects are intentionally isolated from the center in order that they might provide some R+D without the usual operational strictures and parameters that the standard departments must work with. They can be very useful in generating innovations, but because they operate far from the center of power, they seldom change the culture of the organization itself.

Also, I put my own tribe Forge Australia in this same camp. We were always the freaks at the edge. :) (see full quote below). However, what I am now beginning to experience in the US is when innovation and experimentation are adopted as core practices of the organization itself. Its different! You can see cultural change as a result. the organization itself becomes apostolic...i.e. missional.

I don't want to be used as a bullet in any gun aimed at my comrades in arms--not that I think this is what you are saying, but I want to be clear with your readers.

Whatever, I am a friend and don't want to be misunderstood as seeking to undermine the brilliant work of FX. I do mean to challenge the host organizations (Anglican, Methodist, etc.( to be willing to allow the learnings gained at the fringes to increasingly inform who we do church and ministry at the center.

So, just to put the above quote in context, I have included the fuller context as well....

"There are more sporadic types of entrepreneurial activity within the evangelical wings of mainline churches. They are beginning to take risks and think creatively, but they tend to lack the policy framework to keep the levels of frequency up or locate entrepreneurialism at the heart of the organization.

Perhaps one such endeavor is the trailblazing Fresh Expressions initiative coming out of the United Kingdom.14 This is a deliberate effort of mainline British denominations (predominantly Anglican and Methodist) to develop new expressions of church— a kind of skunk works created to operate far from the epicenter of the organization of the church. It has generated some wonderfully creative new forms (for example, Sanctus 1, Bolton Network Church, and Sports Village Church), but it seems to have had only a marginal impact on its host organizations. Wholesale renewal has not come about through its efforts precisely because it is a skunk works project—operating far from the center of the organization.

In many ways, this was a similar problem experienced by the Australian wing of Forge Mission Training Network, the organization I (Alan) founded to develop missional leaders and experiment with new forms. Unless these experimental forums are heartily owned by the broader system, paradigmatic change remains a pipedream. (172-3)

I am now a student Methodist presbyter, but spent some time seriously considering the Methodist Pioneer Ministry / Venture FX program as it holds many aspirations I am passionate about.

However, one of the things I kept noticing about existing projects was their 'arms length' ness from the core/existing congregations / buildings, etc. I wish I had thought of the term 'skunk project' because it's a very apt term!

I was apprehensive about the notion of building up worshiping communities where there was little or no integration or contact with the core church from which the project had been spawned, and which (in many cases) desperately needs some of the new life and sense of re-connecting with the wider community that would be the lifeblood of the project. Thus the FX initiative (hopefully, over time) builds while the main supporting structures and congregations that provides the means for the FX slowly dies and fossilizes! This is why I could never quite align myself with the Pioneer Ministry / Venture FX framework as it seemed to be implemented. If you operate anything at 'arms length' then by its very nature it will exert little influence on the core body.

Thanks for the follow up blog/article to the facebook discussion.

Tim, I can understand what you are saying, But in saying that are you then saying that any new expression/new church is not really true church or real church?

I know some great new forms of church that would be deeply hurt by what is implied.

A few years back there was a book called 'A Churchless Faith' and the growth of people saying they were rejecting church but not faith.

Surely the pioneer/FX/New forms of church are a great progression from that, people wanting to be a part of community?

For me FX etc is not the only answer. The 'established' church has a massive role to play in inspiring, empowering and releasing the laity to be a fresh expression of a disciple in every sphere of life. Now for me that's a valuable fresh expression just as a new form of church is.

Tim - your view of FX' primary responsibility to bring new life to the core body made me think right away of those families who 'genetically modify' a baby in order to take some of its cells/organs to bring healing to an existing child who is ill! A grisly metpahor, and not perhaps what you really had in mind.

The new projects have often sprung up themslves, generated by the Holy Spirit rather than created by a management decision in the instiution, and so not all are so closely connected just by their nature/birth. Of course they are always connected in the bigger sense of being a part of the body of Christ, but the connectedness to local parishes is better, in my view,if it grows organically and collaboratively over time, so mutual trust and understanding can develop and both can learn from and enliven each other equally and respectfully.

A fascinating blog that's got me thinking (and led me to order the book which I've not yet read). I was privileged to be involved in quite a lot of the developments mentioned in the discussion as part of the Methodist hierarchy. As I look back, my feelings are very mixed about the whole process.

If I try to put them in some sort of order, there's a bit of theological reflection, a bit of change theory and some final musings:

Theological reflection:
It was never about the Church! If the hope is that Venture FX will 'save' the Methodist Church, then we're aiming way too low. It has to be about the Kingdom of God. Parts of the historic church are trying to be agents of the KIngdom and will be blessed by and drawn into the new thing that God is doing. Parts of the church have become so institutionalised that they're only interested in self preservation (despite the often good-hearted people serving them - read Reinhold Niebuhr on the inherent sinfulness of institutions) and it's perfectly appropriate to subvert the resources of such institutions for the sake of the Kingdom! The hard question to answer is what are the proportions - how much of the historic denominations can be reinvigorated for mission-focussed Kingdom activity.

Change theory part one
Looking at the Methodist Church which I've served for over 30 years I see change towards mission that was almost unimaginable twenty years ago. The amount of funding that has been put into Venture FX and Fresh Expressions has been on a scale that was unbelievable even ten years ago. There are real signs that as an institution we have become desperate enough to face radical change and kingdom-focussed enough to make the right sort of changes.
As I look at the middle level of leadership within the denomination (primarily thinking about Chairs of District. I see a huge increase in the number of mission-minded people over the last 15 years or so (this may be because the leaders are my generation and I've become so domesticated by the institution that I think they're more radical than they really are!). I also see a real battle for the future direction of the church with many people blindly (and unthinkingly) clinging to old models that have already failed with the 'try a bit harder and it will all come right' mantra that has done the church such a huge disservice in the last fifty years. It's hard to put a figure on how much of our people power and financial resource is being put into radical mission, but we're nowhere near the tipping point yet. We have, in my view gone beyond the tokenism which characterised earlier generations of leadership.
That balance is very different from District to District and Circuit to Circuit depending on how long the leaders at that level have been working for change - it is a long slow process - a battle for every inch!
The key change that needs to happen is the basis on which we select and equip leaders - it's still heavily biased towards the sort of leaders who can live with diversity (which too easily becomes keep everybody happy) rather than the sort of leaders who are consumed with a vision of God's Kingdom they're willing to live (and die) for!

Change theory part two
Radical change never comes from the centre - always from the edges. Pioneers thrive on the margins. When they are drawn too far into the centre they are often domesticated and stripped of their radical edge. The biggest test of our missionary credentials is our willingness to embrace the radical without controlling it (and domesticating it). We struggle to find a culture (which is more prevalent in the new churches) of genuinely stepping out in faith.
As a hierarchy bureaucrat, I always had mixed feelings about fighting for funding for radical projects, because once they're institutionally funded, there's an inevitable requirement to conform that flies against the missionary spirit. I've never resolved that tension, but we do need to recognise it and work with it.
There's a grain of truth in the argument that inherited church is paying for the radical (and denying itself funding by so doing). I would argue that it's every parent's job to fund their children's growth and development (I think this is a good analogy that needs developing) - but in the end children become mature (or not) in their own way. How do we keep the balance between the centre and the edge right?

I'm at the stage of life where I'm doing quite a lot of reflecting about earlier choices. I chose (compelled by God?) to throw my energies into the renewal of the church which introduced me to Jesus and shaped my Christian development - that began largely as an act of gratitude. I have often wondered what I might have achieved if I'd had the courage to be more radical and had stepped out of the institution and 'flown free' seeking the Kingdom.

How much change has been achieved? if I was a betting man, I'd say the odds are still on the institution resisting the changes it needs to make. That is in part a reflection on how exhausted I've become in working for change at the heart of an institution for 15 years ( and why I moved on to give the younger radicals a chance - go for it Jo!).

We have a relatively small window of opportunity to achieve radical change. In the UK Methodist Church it's hard to see how we will have the energy for change beyond 2020 if there isn't huge movement in the next 8 years.

As an occasional participant in the original Facebook conversation, I think one of my biggest hesitations about all this is that lurking in the undergrowth there seems to be an unspoken expectation that if we can somehow apply the 'right' structures for mission then somehow everything will be alright. I might be over-sensitive about this, but for me the promulgation of this Apostolic, prophetic, etc structure as the panacea is (a) too cut and dried, mechanistic, and inevitably McDonaldized; and (b) I am unconvinced that this is a biblical pattern anyway. It's not the only structure/mindset that inspired the NT churches, which from my perspective look to have been as diverse as what we have today - the original mixed economy. The church in Jerusalem was clearly not the same as the church in Corinth, while Rome was quite different from either - not to mention Antioch, Ephesus, etc etc. The APEST pattern comes from a narrow band of Paul's writings, so it's not even certain that it represents everything he might have said on the subject. I'm not saying it's not useful as a conversation piece, but don't claim for it more than it actually was - a description of how particular Christians in specific first century circumstances organized themselves - and I fear that by turning that structure into a paradigmatic model not only are we doing the NT an injustice, but we are potentially missing the flexibility and lack of predictability that always in my experience characterizes the work of the Spirit. And is the opposite of what I understand the MSC report to have been saying, which is that we should start with mission and then see what emerges rather than having some predetermined notion of structure within which we then operate in a wooden and inflexible sort of way. I've probably over-stated and exaggerated some things here, but much of this discussion impinges on two things that have been born of my own practical engagement in missional ministry over a considerable period: that McDonaldized systems (even post-Christendom ones) can look as if they work for a while but in the end usually create more problems than they solve; and that in order for our mission to be credible we need to use the Bible in ways that take full account of what we have learned to be true in a century or more of informed exegetical study and research, and that means at the very least looking at the big picture rather than just one particular bit of it.

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