Fresh Expressions

What is Fresh Expressions and what might we learn from it?

A guest post by Mark Johnston.

For some time now, Fresh Expressions UK has been getting people’s attention as snippets of what the Church of England and other mainline denominations are doing in the UK reaches these shores. This year in July, Bishop Graham Cray, the leader of the Fresh Expressions movement in the UK was in New Zealand at the invitation of a couple of Anglican Diocese and several of us Presbyterians jumped on board to hear Bishop Cray, along with several Methodists and Baptists.

What is Fresh Expressions?

Fresh Expressions is best summed up as a movement in church planting that has taken off since the publication of a Church of England report in 2004 called “Mission Shaped Church[1]. It’s not often that a CofE report releases energy and momentum in the church but this one did. It initially was written to sum up the state of the Church of England in its mission context and clarify its thinking about church planting as a strategy of parish mission. It however became a document that captured something of the challenge to re-think the parish principle and put forward theological and missiological reasons for endorsing and resourcing a whole host of experiments in church life and forming of new communities of faith. These experiments might have previously fallen outside the inherited ecclesial and economic unit definitions of a “church”. Mission Shaped Church reclaimed them as real expressions of church, genuine attempts to embody the life of Christ in new and changing cultural circumstances.

Fresh Expressions emerged out of the coalescing of various interest and energies identified both by the research and writing that went into the report and a desire to work the report’s practical suggestions to the CofE into something tangible on the ground. When Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury made the report a centrepiece of his episcopal leadership, official energies, resources and permission-giving became available to sustain a movement of common interest. It is noteworthy however those leaders in the movement found themselves less propelled by the official endorsement than a sense of the Spirit of God doing something serendipitously and they were caught up in it. Fresh Expressions seemed to emerge and evolve from a collaborative intent and joining of hands rather than driven by top down policy or a strategic plan of any kind. The subsequent addition of Methodist, URC, Congregational and Baptist partners indicated there was more to this movement than a one church’s re-thinking local mission.

What makes Fresh Expressions interesting and more durable than a single church growth strategy or method is its umbrella like nature. Rather than prescribing a particular approach it has welcomed diversity in approach, form and to a certain extent theological colour. For instance there are tales of church planting an Anglo-Catholic expression in a city supermarket, the formation of new social justice communities, new rural faith communities, “goth” church, a church that makes bread, as well as more conventional congregational plants. But this is not without being held together by a central idea and some key theological reference points. The big idea that defines Fresh Expressions is “establishing a form of church for our changing cultures, established primarily for the benefit of people who are not yet members of any church”.

It is church planting in a broad sense. Fresh Expressions defines Church Planting as “the process by which the seed of the life and message of Jesus embodied by a community of Christians is immersed for mission reasons in a particular cultural or geographic context”[2]. It includes the efforts of inherited congregations to plant a new expression alongside the old, intended to engage different cultures, generations and sub-cultures, in other words people “not like them”. It affirms pioneer individual or teams who feel called to start from scratch and establish a new form of witness in marginalised areas of cities often left behind by middle class churches. It provides support for new cultural expressions of church amongst 2nd and 3rd generation immigrants who are seeking to find culturally appropriate ways of engaging “third culture” peers and friends, who shun both traditional immigrant churches and the “white” churches. It also encourages the emerging attempts at new monastic and lifestyle communities to embody Christ in the midst of culture.

Missiologically “Fresh Expressions” arises out of the recognition that the attractional mode the church operates in is flawed and contributes now to a major disconnection between churches and huge sections of society. Society has changed and the church is finding itself stranded. This is exacerbated by operational theologies which make mission a tack on church activity or duty rather than a gift of participating in the mission of God in Christ towards the world. “It is not the Church of God that has a mission in the world, but the God of mission who has a church in the world” [3]. If the church belongs to the mission of God then the church is no longer the centre of mission and has no reason to draw energy towards itself and its own preservation. This frees the church for a more light-footed and responsive form of existence, to become sent, to cross boundaries into new spaces, to be expressed in new shapes and forms suited to the context.

Church planting with a theological underpinning

However “Fresh Expressions” is not interested in reducing church planting to strategy. It is a theological intention after the pattern of Christ. Authentic church planting is shaped by the incarnation. The incarnational principle calls the church to identify with and enter the world as it is, to give up its own power, preferences and likes in order that Christ might be embodied in contexts where people no longer relate to our expressions of church. The issue is not relevance, it is incarnation. Irrelevance is a symptom of churches that have become non-incarnational. The incarnational principle expresses itself as church dies to self (John 12:24) and gives up its preferences and privileges for the sake of being Christ to the other (1 Corinthians 9:19-23). It is not church or worship or community as we would like it. It is not cloning. It is discovering what church could be for and with others who may not be like us. This is difficult DNA for us Presbyterians, since our origins as a colonial settler church were seldom sourced in this way. Fresh Expressions is recalling the church to one of its core DNA.

Fresh Expressions are not immune to the criticism that this call to contextualised mission can lead to a loss of distinctiveness, the message and form of the gospel so accommodated to the language and forms of the hearers that it loses its content and edge. It recognises that planting in the pattern of Christ is also the pattern of the cross, there is a world to counter. There is always a tension between adapting and identifying with context and becoming colonised by that culture. That is the tightrope walked both by inherited forms of church and fresh expressions. Church planting from the incarnational principle begins in a journey of cross shaped sacrifice and planting with this DNA will determine how a fresh expression wrestles with syncretistic temptations in the future.

Lastly the pattern of Christ shapes church planting by the resurrection. There is a world to anticipate and whatever a fresh expression becomes – it is called to become a pointer to God’s future. Fresh Expressions reminds the church that too much attention can be given to the passing on of the inheritance of the past and too little as an anticipation and foretaste of God’s future. What Fresh Expression’s celebrate is the possibility of church as hopeful and expressive of what salvation means in the ordinary and everyday realities of many different kinds of context. For dispirited and disbelieving people in those contexts, Fresh Expressions are attempts to offer another kind of lense to see God and God’s purposes by, a foretaste sufficient for people to say, “whatever eternal life means, if it means life like what I see here then …”.

This does not come about by good intentions or churches with creative ideas. Fresh Expressions is a movement that regards mission as a Spirit event. It requires discerning the Spirit of God and allowing God to bring forth the future in fresh and “ready to be surprised” ways. This does not mean the entire abandonment of inherited church, but rather the intention to take incarnationally motivated risks, to corporately practice deep listening to God, context and one another and to connect this to shapes of common life, activity and obedience. Fresh Expressions challenges the church to begin with “divine listening” in mission and relativise our dominant default practices of strategic analysis and planning. The biblical narrative reminds us that God creates new futures in the most inauspicious of places.

Six years down the track, “Fresh Expressions” has become a large network of support, story sharing and research, intentional collaboration and training that is spread across the major mainline denominations in England. Individual ventures to form and plant a new expression of church can register with the Fresh Expressions network and currently about 2000 Church of England and 1000 Methodist Fresh Expressions are on the books. Figures for other denominations are not available yet. Telling and publicising stories of what ordinary people and churches are doing on the ground is an important vehicle for spreading encouragement and vision. Professionally produced DVD’s of these stories have been released to spread the word. The website acts as a hub. Individual denominations make their own decisions about what funding they will make available to their own fresh expression projects. Ecumenical cooperation takes place at the training, equipping and support level through regional “FEASTS”. Several denominations have now developed ordained pioneer ministry tracks in their theological colleges and selection criteria processes have been modified to take account of and discern “church planting” or pioneer gifting and callings. Resources for church leader and planting teams and short-term course have been developed. Critiques[4] and research of Fresh Expressions has continued to be published and this is regarded as healthy addition to a movement which is evolving as a practice based and learning organisation. Its structures are lightweight, based on high levels of trust and collaborative working.

Benefits of Fresh Expressions in our own situation

So what does Fresh Expressions bring into a local situation where church members or a leader is keen to develop a new way of engaging the community or un-churched people? Fresh Expressions firstly helps to give some language and framework to this desire. It recasts it as matter of embodiment. How is the life of God to be expressed amongst these people in such a way that they might encounter Christ for themselves? Fresh Expressions affirms that one way forward may be to intentionally plant a communal expression of the gospel that is more responsive to their realities and context. Many of our churches planted and grown in one kind of soil find themselves amidst increased cultural and lifestyle diversity, in much changed soil conditions, and limited in their ability to grow an engagement with people unlike themselves. The reality is while some churches adapt, planting the seeds of church into the changed conditions allows for more people in more conditions and cultures to find a welcome and a home.

Secondly Fresh Expressions is positive about the role that inherited and present modes of church have to play. This is not a prescription for ditching the old and embracing only what is new and different. There is an affirmation of the catholicity of the church and the need for new alongside and in relationship with the inherited modes of the church. Churches are encouraged to plant new expressions within “parishes” and to creatively maintain the apostolic link to tradition to fund their imaginations and faithfulness to the Gospel. However at the same time inherited churches are urged to practice cultural hospitality by allowing space and permission for experimentation and radical developments to emerge.

Thirdly Fresh Expressions has developed a sense of “best practice” to aid in the church planting task. Tellingly it urges church planting normally not to begin with corporate worship. Beginning with worship events has tended to perpetuate attractional models of church, often growing by transfer growth from other churches, failing to evolve as contextual rooted expressions and resembling cloning of church than genuine fresh expressions. A process of intense listening to context and God is urged accompanied by loving and serving people in the desired locations or social contexts. This becomes a formative journey for community to emerge, the exploration of what discipleship means and finally the public shaping of church.

Fourthly Fresh Expressions as a movement is developing resources that build capacity in churches concerned for church planting. Their development of “Mission shaped Intro” and “Mission shaped ministry” training materials are designed to introduce people to church planting and equip motivated members of churches who may go on to form a team for church planting. Much of the story-telling material, available in DVD form, offer a catalogue of what God is doing through ordinary people taking risks to innovate and grow new expressions of God’s life in their communities. It is hoped that the production of a New Zealand equivalent will provide a diverse range of stories which can inspire and illuminate the art of the possible.

Fifthly, Fresh Expressions is building up a considerable body of research and reflection upon church planting from a mainline denominational base. It does not claim to have all the answers and is intent on learning from the grass-roots activity of experimentation, theological reflection and a praxis based learning cycle. For instance Graham Cray drew attention to possible sources of failure in church planting due to attempts at cloning, being too event centred and burning people out in resource hungry “attractive” events, lacking long term investment of people and funding, lone ranger, personality centred and CEO type leadership models, and the failure to start with key DNA (expressive of the Trinitarian God, incarnational, transformative, disciple-making and relational).

That is a good place to finish. Fresh Expressions is not a new word for contemporary worship services or community projects. Fresh Expressions in the end is not a focus on “forms” or “expressions” but the kind of intentionality that accompanies church becoming the embodiment of Christ in the world. A church can only grow from the DNA present in the seed. “Unless and until the Kingdom and mission are in the DNA of the seed of the church what is planted will prove to be sterile. If mission is not located in the identity of the church, planting is very unlikely to recover it.”[5]