I suggested in the last blog on this thread that the church of the future is looking as though it will be a church of prayer rather than presumption, slimmed down but more ready for action and more aware of its desperate need of God’s grace to achieve anything at all. I also noted some signs of new life, which I want to explore this time.
The term ‘Fresh Expressions’(‘FXs’) was coined 10 years ago after the publication of the Mission-shaped Church report in 2004, and it represents the fact that official policy in the C of E is to see ourselves as having two strands, or a ‘mixed economy’ of church life, the stuff we’ve all been used to for centuries and some new things which might look very different. This thinking goes further back to the work of my old boss Robert Warren on church in ‘inherited’ and ‘emerging’ modes. So what has emerged?
There are a significant number of FXs in the UK, some quite honestly looking fresher than others, and a huge amount of research going on into their style and effectiveness in making disciples for Jesus Christ. They have a good-looking website at http://www.freshexpressions.org.uk/home and several books and DVDs, and the Church Army’s Wilson Carlile College in Sheffield is doing sterling work in researching and documenting FXs. Alongside this mixed economy of church there is also now a mixed economy of leadership, with ordinands plumping either for traditional or ‘pioneer’ training. All this is very encouraging, and the statistics show that FXs are already having a profound impact on the life of the church.
But I want to suggest that we are not out of the woods yet, and that we have a lot lot more work to do before we can win our nation for Christ. From personal experience, while I am very excited about the rise of this new ‘movement’, I’m just not sure yet that the C of E really gets it. I bear the scars of having been bullied out of a parish where one (among several) issues was the hostility of some to an FX which we planted to reach out to new families. As FXs go it was pretty tame and trad, but it was resented by ‘the main church’, was seen as divisive, as not valid as an expression of church, and as outside the ‘control’ of the PCC. The fact that we were seeing new young families finding a spiritual home in an otherwise pretty elderly church did not seem to matter: the problem was that they were not joining in with our highly trad services, but going off to do their own strange things in the church hall. I have heard this story repeated again and again: the mixed economy tragically seems to be between those trying to do new things to win currently excluded groups to Christ, and those who simply don’t get it. At best some FXs are looked on with suspicion by Christians: at worst they can be actively persecuted.
The same is true of pioneer training. One such ordinand has told me that while some of what he is getting is great, and very helpful to him, the way he is misunderstood by the trad ordinands with whom he is rubbing shoulders betrays a gross ignorance and deep suspicion of this new strand. And he feels misunderstood by the ‘system’ as a whole: fresh expressions of church require fresh expressions of leaders to pioneer them, but they also require fresh expressions of DDOs (those who help ordinands through the vocation and selection procedures), and fresh expressions of BAPs (a residential where the fate of hopeful ordinands is sealed). While our establishment mind-set is still about selecting traditional clergy who are going to end up as normal parish priests we still have a very long way to go. Something far more radical is needed, and twenty years may or may not do it.