Aren’t they the weird ones who do church on skateboards? The liberal ones who try to be relevant and avoid talking about God? That’s the crowd that sit around and drink coffee all day… Misconceptions abound with Fresh Expressions. But even the most cursory research shows that this somewhat hard-to-define movement of church plants has had a positive impact in the last ten years. This cross-denominational movement, originally pioneered by the Archbishops of Canterbury and York and the Methodist Council, now boasts at least 2,500 Fresh Expressions of church, reaching approximately 60,000 people.
There’s a sliding scale of Fresh Expressions, from the ones that most have tried to those that are particularly niche. ‘Surf church’, for example, has particular requirements ? primarily, a beach, and ideally to not look totally stupid on a surfboard. Then there are the ones such as messy church or café church that churches nationwide have experimented with in an attempt to create a more welcoming environment for an increasingly church-shy Britain.
This April, Bishop Graham Cray retires from his role as the Archbishops’ Missioner for Fresh Expressions, a post he has held for the past five years. He passes the mantle to Canon Phil Potter, who is currently director of pioneer ministry for Liverpool.In the decade since its naissance, Fresh Expressions has gone from seeming a wacky idea ? resisting the trappings of normal church habits ? to being widely recognised as something the Church ignores at its peril.
But in this transition, has it lost its pioneering spirit and become part of the establishment itself, or is it still innovating its way into the next decade?
The thing that defines all Fresh Expressions is not cultural relevance, or being ‘trendy’; it’s mission. They are re-imagining church for those who find church a foreign concept; those the established Church finds hard to reach. And when mission really is the driving force, churches tend to look a little different.
Losing the church building and the curate in quick succession was the starting point for the new direction at St Michael’s Church on the Marlpit estate in Norwich. Facing a future without church walls or a leader, and a dwindling congregation, the remaining members looked to the community. ‘It built links because we had to go powerless. Instead of being the church “up here”, we were cap in hand saying “we need to work with you or we can’t function”,’ says Katie Miller, one of the team leading the church and a trainee pioneer minister in the Church of England.
Over time, the core group of 12 that now make up the church has set up six different ministries on the estate. ‘The heart of it is that we want to go out and do things where people are, rather than saying “come to us”,’ says Miller. ‘I feel a lot of what we do is an excuse to put the kettle on and listen.
‘People are concerned that they won’t know how to behave [in church],’ she adds. ‘These people are now third generation de-churched.’ To that end, they run a toddlers’ group, followed by a ‘Sunday school’ (held on Tuesdays) for those who find it difficult to come to church on Sundays. Additionally, they organise a community choir, which attracts about 30 people, and a newly established community garden.
On Sundays, the group starts by discussing different people’s experiences, and then looks at a passage of scripture ? reversing the usual structure of Bible study meetings. ‘We can all pay lip service to the idea that we all have something to contribute, but it’s easy to restrict who we learn from,’ says Miller. ‘It’s been exciting to be in a church where that’s the truth.’
THE MISSING GENERATION
Low-income housing estates aren’t the only communities with which traditional church models in the UK often struggle to connect. Much is made of the need to reach the ‘missing generation’ in our churches ? the 20s and 30s who see the Church as an outdated irrelevance ? but it’s difficult to know how.
On the average Sunday, about 20,000 people fill Brick Lane in east London. Most of those won’t be walking to church; they’ll be browsing the niche shops that form the hub of this trendiest part of town. It’s a world where graffiti is part of the design concept, skinny jeans and heavy-framed glasses are uniform staples, and café tables are bedecked with Apple Macs.
We want to go out an do things where people are, rather than saying 'come to us'
With its navy blue shop front framing cakes displayed on rustic logs, Kahaila café blends into its surroundings. Although this place describes itself as a church, there aren’t any crosses hanging on the walls, there’s no worship music in the background. There’s a community noticeboard, art by local artists, and a chalkboard with the question for the week scrawled on it: ‘What is community?’
The café is home to a diverse programme of evening events ? poetry readings, music nights and supper clubs, which are part of the mission to create ‘crossing points’ between the church and the community. ‘The café and the church are one,’ says founder Paul Unsworth, a Baptist minister and now businessman. ‘Everything we do is church; if the café failed, then the church would fail.’
The profits from the café are used to support the church’s mission, which includes a prison ministry and a safe house for vulnerable women opening in the new year, accompanied by a bakery to fund it.
Services at the café happen on a Wednesday evening after closing as Sundays are the busiest day for business. In the past year, the core team of eight has grown to 20, as other Christians have caught the vision and come to support them. They are joined by up to ten others, often non-Christians; people who are passing through and those who’ve stayed in the café after closing. Like other fresh expressions, there’s an emphasis on discussion; thinking and talking about the application of the sermon during the service.
For those sceptical about how you can go from serving coffee seven days a week to building relationships and discipling people in the faith, Unsworth looks back to his days as a youth worker within a traditional church setting, and says: ‘I had more significant conversations in a month working here than in a year working for a church.’
Many churches are hamstrung in their missional activities by the need for generous financial support. This church, as well as being a permanent outreach opportunity, is able to host a range of social justice missions with a relatively small group of people because the café is a viable business in its own right. Having been warned that it was a risky venture, they now make five times their originally estimated profit.
‘We don’t want to become the next trendy church,’ says Unsworth. ‘We’re really trying to think about how we do church for non-Christians, rather than how we attract many Christians. Because the café’s doing really well, we don’t have the tension of trying to get loads of Christians in to fund what we do.’
OUT ON A LIMB?
Breaking free of the expectations about what a church should look like and how to quantify its success is a recognisable concern for those leading a rather different looking café ? Thirst in Cambridge. Away from the fairy tale gowned university centre, the rest of Cambridge is more diverse. The school that hosts Thirst reflects this variety.
This ‘church’ meets in a reception area at school ? in the middle of the hubbub of an ordinary school day. The occasional group of children traipses through their meeting as the 10 or so mums chat, talk about God and pray for one another. Some weeks the teaching involves a video, others a talk, always followed by discussion.
In the course of the morning, the Old Testament was compared to EastEnders, salvation was like something from Stargate, and somewhere in the middle was a reference to Homeland. Throughout the meeting there was a natural desire to make the God of the Bible understandable for everyone.
Thirst is led by a team of women who have been meeting to pray for the school for many years. Sue Butler, one of group’s leaders, is now a pioneer curate in the Church of England.
When we’re going about the usual pattern of Sunday services, it can be easy to lose sight of why this kind of fresh expression is needed. But the hymn sandwich is a foreign framework to those who may have never stepped foot in a church before. One woman in the group says: ‘I couldn’t just go to church ? I felt hypocritical, because I didn’t know if I believed. These people are the best example of loving people and opening their hearts…I feel like they’re God’s messengers.’
Leading a Fresh Expression isn't a pastime for the under-occupied; it is a calling
Since joining in April, she and her family have all come to faith and are planning to get baptised in the new year. ‘I can’t always say that everything’s wonderful. But that’s just life. My choice is that I believe. And I don’t feel embarrassed to admit it. My partner looks at me and he’s proud of how I am now ? I think it’s all to do with God.’
Each of the women attending has a different story ? one burdened with debt, another with an addiction and another with the isolation of being an immigrant with disabled children. In a different context, any one of these issues would be a big deal. Here,somehow, it isn’t. The welcome, the conversation and support speaks to them as people not defined by their ‘issues’
One woman struggling with drug and alcohol addictions says: ‘For me, it’s early days, but I’m coming every week and I’m happy coming. I’m hoping in a year’s time not to have these addictions and to be able to understand how [the others in the group] believe in God.’
The hymn sandwich is a foreign framework to those who may have never stepped foot in a church before
The evident discipleship is one of the striking aspects of Thirst. As those coming have learnt more about God, they have followed their leaders’ example: they’ve invited others; they’ve prayed for people at the school, and grown in confidence to show God’s love to the people around them. One woman says: ‘I’ve always felt unwelcome in churches, but I wanted that community. I’m able to carry on getting to know people in my street because of the love I’ve been shown. I wouldn’t have been able to do it on my own.’
This church is clearly growing. The leaders have responded to the needs of the group and started an additional meeting on a Saturday for the families of those who come during the week. But this growth doesn’t necessarily mean that the group members will be filling pews in their local churches.
‘From the general congregation the question is always, “This is great, but when are they coming to church?”,’ says Rachel Drury, one of the group’s leaders. ‘Some of these girls are never going to do that. The Church still needs educating that they may not see the face of our church.’
This fits with Bishop Graham’s analysis of the place of Fresh Expressions: ‘We are not building halfway houses to traditional Church, but new sister congregations.
‘We have been greatly helped by Archbishop Rowan’s term the “mixed economy” Church,’ he adds. ‘In the one economy of God’s mission through his Church there is room for, and need of, both the traditional and fresh expressions. Each is a complement to the other ? not a threat.’
This subject is a common area of difficulty for fresh expressions: should they become churches in their own right, be attached to individual churches, or not attempt to fit in either box? The movement does at least offer umbrella support from a multi-denominational perspective. Peter Grant, who leads Connect, a community for ex-offenders and their families in Newcastle, says, ‘We don’t want to be something that’s totally out on a limb; the fact that it’s linked to the Church of England and the Methodists is important ? a lot of people have been there and done it, and history tends to repeat itself. As it becomes more its own thing, those links will become even more important.’
Those who have been inspired by particular innovations have often been keen to cut and paste an idea they’ve seen in action into their own context. The received wisdom is that this doesn’t work.
‘The most frequent mistakes people make,’ says Bishop Cray, ‘are to copy an idea that works somewhere else, rather than have the patience for prayerful local discernment, or they start with a worship service without really knowing the community they are trying to reach.’
This certainly reflects Butler’s experience in Cambridge, ‘[Thirst] was born out of eight years of prayer and relationships. You can’t just pick this model up and drop it in another scenario.’
Fresh Expressions is a movement offering support, but it’s not an organisation with financial resources on tap. What constitutes ‘support’, therefore, is almost certainly a question the umbrella body, such as it is, will face. Sharing testimonies of what pioneering minds around the country have done is something Fresh Expressions has done well. Equally, its mission training has equipped the passionate but inexperienced. And it has thought through what it means to do mission-shaped church effectively.
The unacknowledged aspect of this work is the cost. Many of those who run these alternative congregations aren’t remunerated in the same way as their traditional church leader counterparts. Leading a fresh expression isn’t a pastime for the under-occupied; it is a calling.
Though Butler acknowledges the support she has received from the Bishop of Cambridge, she feels there is still more that needs to be done in the wider Church to demonstrate the priority of mission. ‘We have a congregation of 60 to 100 people [in the Thirst community],’ she says, ‘but there are [traditional] churches that have ten to 12 people with stipendiary [salaried] vicars. It’s no good wringing our hands and saying the Church is in decline; it’s not just about having a diocesan missioner, but about changing our mindset.’
Even with prudent planning, some projects still require far more financial backing than the average church budget can cope with. The start-up costs for Kahaila, for example, were about £100,000; well beyond the reach of most churches.
One thing Bishop Graham has learnt from his experience is that these ventures take time. ‘I would have warned church authorities that this takes longer than they think. A number of flagship projects were set up with only three years funding, while planting from scratch often takes longer than that to become sustainable.’
So, has it all been worth it? The Sheffield Centre, in partnership with the Church Growth Research Programme, began researching the effect of Fresh Expressions by diocese in 2012, under the leadership of George Lings, director of research at the Church Army. Their study has provided some impressive results. In Liverpool, for example, one-third of parishes are engaged in fresh expressions. It is estimated that 41% of the people these churches are reaching are unchurched.
‘There’s a huge window of opportunity and openness where there was scepticism,’ says the new incumbent, Canon Phil Potter. ‘George Lings’…was the first rigorous piece of research to get some detailed data from Church of England dioceses. When it was all anecdotal, it was particularly easy for people to come up with reasons and excuses not to engage.’
Fresh expressions is fundamentally about finding ways to share the gospel, so perhaps church growth shouldn’t come as a surprise. But what are the obstacles to growth? And will the next ten years just involve more of the same?
Despite the widespread adoption of fresh expressions, Bishop Graham feels there’s still room to do better: ‘Mixed economy needs to become the default setting for the average church, whatever the denomination.’
There are also specific areas for the Church to focus its mission. ‘We need to give particular attention to young adults ? the “missing generation”; and to retired people ? the baby-boomer “Jagger generation” certainly need imaginative mission just as much as anyone else. We [also] need to be much more proactive in planting into the main locations of everyday life ? the workplace, schools, shopping malls, leisure centres and sports clubs, and not just neighbourhoods.’
Potter is aware that as fresh expressions has spread, it’s picked up some negative connotations. ‘The phrase “fresh expression” for some is almost a dirty word; it’s been misunderstood a lot,’ he says. ‘So then people start using language in a careless way ? the idea that everything is a fresh expression, or the inference that all other expressions of Church are somehow not fresh!’ Clear communication is a priority if the movement is to persuade the disillusioned.
One of the more helpful phrases, he suggests, has been the term ‘mission-shaped Church’; listening and responding to the mission context without preconceptions about the type of church that will emerge. ‘As with any sort of initiative, people can be too quick to jump on the bandwagon and just start doing, and are then discouraged when it hasn’t worked.’
For those who have persevered, tasting the fruit has whetted their appetite for more. The leaders I met all say their involvement in new forms of church has spoilt them. ‘When you see people come to faith, and new lives birthed,’ says Butler, ‘you don’t want to settle for anything else.’