Ask the average clued-up Anglican to name a progressive, creative and dynamic Bishop, and there’s a good chance that Graham Cray will make their top three. In fact, the former Bishop of Maidstone has a fair number of fans outside his chosen denomination, thanks partly to his involvement with both the Greenbelt and Soul Survivor summer festivals. In a remarkable portfolio career, he’s also been vicar of St Michael le Belfry in York, and principal of Ridley Hall theological college, Cambridge. Now he faces a new challenge: as team leader of cross-denominational church-planting movement Fresh Expressions.

I haven’t met a lot of Anglican Bishops. Had the 52-year-old not been wearing the giveaway purple shirt and dog collar as we met in a cramped Church House meeting room, I might not have realised that he was my interview subject. Courteous and gentle, he navigates our opening exchanges with a half-joked admission that he’s “been on the customary media training day”. As presumably he’s been trained to do, he asks me for my first question so that he can be thinking about it during the preamble. Upon hearing it, he graciously suggests a better one. I like him already. 

For the uninitiated, what is Fresh Expressions? 

It’s about planting congregations of churches. Not a fresh expression of worship, or of ministry, it’s only a limited sense of fresh expression – of mission. It’s about planting congregations of Christian people among groups, communities and networks with whom the church as it now stands has no impact or little effect. It’s all about what we call ‘the non-churched’, the people who’ve never been inside a church, and that’s a third of the adults and the majority of the youth and children of the country for a start. It’s also, to some extent, for the de-churched: those who used to go and don’t any more.

Where did it come from? 

It began in the Church of England with a report I chaired called Mission-Shaped Church. We coined the term because it was as bland and cover-all a term as we could think of to describe the way we haven’t done church planting before. It wasn’t already a brand and we felt that both ‘emerging church’ and ‘new ways of doing church’ were brands with particular methodologies, which were fine but were part of the picture, not the whole picture. For Anglicans it worked initially because every Anglican minister, when they’re ordained or when they get licensed to a new post, has to publicly commit themselves to the scriptures and the creeds and a faith, which I quote: ‘Must be proclaimed afresh in each generation’ and we were saying that proclaiming the gospel afresh in our western, Post Christendom cultureeffectively raised questions about the shape of the church and not just the translation of the message. 

The Archbishop of Canterbury set up a team to resource this, and I am the second leader of that team. The Methodist Church immediately joined us; the United Reformed Church has joined recently and when we deliver some of our regional training courses we’re Anglican, Methodist, United Reformed, Baptist and Salvation Army. So it came from the Church of England but it’s a gift for the other churches and it’s also being taken up in other parts of the world now. 

Is your long-term vision to see this bubbling under as almost the fringe, the Edinburgh Fringe of the church; or do you actually think that the church of the future will look like these plants, rather than traditional forms? 

I think it’ll be both. I quite like your Edinburgh Fringe metaphor because actually the Fringe is an institution. You couldn’t think of the Edinburgh Festival now without both the original festival and the Fringe. If you go to Edinburgh you’ll probably notice the Fringe activities more than other things. We are committed to what Archbishop Rowan calls “the mixed economy”. We’re committed to supporting, blessing and enabling historic ways of doing church to be as missional, hospitable and winning as many others as they possibly can. We also believe historic church alone can’t do it in our changed culture; therefore we also need to plant Fresh Expressions of church, not to replace the historic but to supplement it. 

The long-term vision is that in every decent-sized parish in the Church of England, in every Methodist circuit, in every local group of smaller churches, you’ll find both mission-focused historic church and you will find Fresh Expressions of church, planted to reach those that the historic church doesn’t reach. The vision is that the two together becomes the norm in this country. 

Where have you seen a Fresh Expression work really well in reaching a specific group of people who haven’t previously been in church? 

Some of the more remarkable ones are the exceptions because people have had to be particularly imaginative. If you go down to a particular beach in Cornwall you will find ‘Tube Station’ which is a Fresh Expression of church planted in a completely reordered Methodist chapel. If it were any nearer to the beach, in biblical terms it would be planted on sand. It’s physically been completely reordered as a surfers’ cafe, it used to have six elderly members, now in the closed season it has 40 regulars, and in the surfing season it is heaving with people. It is explicitly Christian but you don’t have to step out of surfing culture to step into the church. 

There’s a church in Birmingham designed for Asians who want to explore Christ without totally becoming Western in culture and it’s deliberately not exclusively Western, nor too extremely Asian. They are helping people to find Christ without having to give upany dimension of their culture that isn’t contrary to the gospel. 

There’s Saint Laurence’s in Reading. Saint Laurence’s is a historic church building; there is still a largely elderly, early morning, traditional congregation. The building has been reordered and Chris Russell, the vicar there, and his team have got involved with one of the most needy secondary schools in the area. Initially to do that they had to lock the doors and make sure that the local, already lively Christian young people didn’t think this was even more exciting than their church and transfer, because they would have shaped the culture. They’ve grown that congregation from below. As someone with some responsibility for Soul Survivor, I see Chris year by year bring these originally totally unchurched young people and use Soul Survivor as part of the pattern through which they come to faith. 

Those stories are in some ways the more exceptional stories; the more normal story is that a church realises that it has a whole group of people gathered around a particular school, who are involved with the school, and that they could actually form church in the school to bless the school not to just take advantage of the opportunities that it gives. Or there is a midweek after-school club, and the leaders realise that instead of the parents coming to pick up their children, they could do the last half an hour for both the parents and the children and actually plant an all-age congregation meeting, weekly in term time. It’s that sort of thing which is much more numerous. 

It’s creating church where people are, not using where people are as a sort of bridge device to get people to come to church where we are. If you do that then they come to what you put on but they don’t cross the bridge and join your church. We plant church there. 

In lots of churches you have groups of people, particularly 20s/30s, who are disenfranchised, they’re not prepared to commit to church, they really don’t get on with the fact that they have to sing two hymns every Sunday morning. Isn’t there a danger they could all meet up and think, “Why don’t we run a Fresh Expression?”

Yes, except it’s not a Fresh Expression unless Fresh Expression means anything you choose, unless it’s a humpty-dumpty word, where the word means precisely what I mean when I use it. We are clear that if you are going to use the Fresh Expressions language, as it’s been coined in its original context, then you are talking about a call to serve people who do not yet know Christ and to find ways to create church for them, that brings them to faith and makes them a blessing to their own community. 

You need to be prepared to do it at your own discomfort. The church planters pay the cultural price of the cross-cultural mission. If there are, as I know there are, groups of young adults feeling disenfranchised, the best resource they’ve got isn’t what they would really like to do if they were allowed to do it for themselves, it’s the patience they’ve learned coping with something that doesn’t suit them. They can take that and say, “Never mind what suits us, what will bless us is what will reach and bless these other people. Let’s learn to do it for them.” 

With Fresh Expression, you’re obviously adapting the church itself to fit the local culture and the local context; there is a danger that you’ll start to water down the message as well. Is there not a big risk there? 

I think it’s a thoroughly biblical risk. There is a classic crosscultural church planter, planting within the world he grew up; he’s called St Paul. The most useful biblical material in all of this is Jewish evangelists becoming the leaders in the Gentile mission. Having to go through a huge re-evaluation of what is doctrinal and what is cultural. Paul, who says in 1 Corinthians 9 “to the Jew I become as a Jew and to those outside the law I become outside the law,” knows above all that he must proclaim the cross and that the cross is counter-cultural; it’s actually stupid in both the cultures he’s trying to reach. He also says that the core gospel that he received is something you cannot change; you must pass it on. In 1 Corinthians 9 he also then says, “and I do it all for the sake of the gospel.” So, biblically, we have to hold together an unchanging gospel which is counter-cultural with a deeply culturally costly engagement with culture – following the example of the incarnation – so that people can hear the gospel. 

You were involved in the birth of the Soul Survivor youth festivals. From your perspective, are they still working? 

They’re more than working. The really significant change in the last year or two is the number of youth groups which have huge confidence in bringing their not yet Christian friends and the extraordinary number of people, between 1,000 and 2,000 a year, who make a first public commitment to Christ or a serious recommitment. 

A lot of youth groups are now seeing Soul Survivor as the focal point to the year; they structure their calendar so they’ve got an Alpha course going on in September, seeker-friendly events in April and May... Is that healthy? 

Obviously the intention isn’t manipulative. We have never suggested to any youth group that they do that, but some of them do. What occurs to us is we’ve got to be true to God and to the Holy Spirit, we’ve got to keep learning and be faithful to our identity and let the DNA develop in any and every way that God shows us. The only variant on that is that we are now aware of how many not-yet- Christians come and we have to make sure that we’re hospitable to them because that’s a core value. 

Do you worry about the potential for hysteria and indoctrination? Of course the Holy Spirit can move, but there’s also speakers and sleep deprivation and music and hype and everyone else coming forward... all powerful factors. 

Sociologically there’s very little we can do about that. We’re aware of it, and a huge value is to downplay hype. There is a difficulty, in an age that thinks that it’s only real if you can feel it, that we create disciples that last as long as they feel something, but it’s very often the reality of God among his people that awakens these young people to that fact that this is real. Afterwards, it’s then down to the quality of the disciple-making of the groups to which they already have a relationship. If any youth group thinks Soul Survivor does all their work for them they should think again. 

However much we downplay it, those large event dynamics will be there, but frankly they are in every public congregation. What helps at Soul Survivor is if you are isolated, there’s a detached team, and you will hopefully go back and talk about it and say, “Was that real? Was that God? Am I crazy?” People do have those conversations three days in and wonder if what they did was real. Everyone who comes to faith comes to faith through a long-term work of God, and we’re a link in the chain that seems to touch quite a lot of young people’s faith stories at the moment. But we’re not more than that. 

You’re known as a cultural analyst, not least including your annual music talks at Greenbelt; what was the music that had the biggest influence on you? 

The music of the 60s taught me to feel. The Who, Hendrix; a whole range of 60s stuff, some folk-rock. Later on Bob Marley and Stevie Wonder, who said that soul music is an expression of what you feel so that other people can relate to what you feel. So finding music as a 16-year-old introverted only child taught me to feel, and finding Christ told me who I was. It was the combination of those two that really freed me to be who I am today. 

Graham Cray the culture analyst comes out of Graham Cray wanting to make Christian sense of the music he loved. Never play me at trivial pursuit on the history of pop music. I have things other than Jesus I can talk about. There was a quote that really got to me, a man called John V Taylor, when he was head of CMS, went to Fuller Seminary in the States, and gave a lecture. During that lecture he said this, “When my son gave up on the church, he said to me, ‘Father, that man, the preacher, is saying all the right things but he isn’t saying them to anybody. He doesn’t know where I am and it wouldn’t occur to him to ask.’” Now what makes me tick, what makes me so committed to Fresh Expressions, is I want to know where people are so that all the right things about Jesus can be said to them in a way that they can understand, that can help us plant churches which will embody it for them and which will turn them into communities which will transform their own communities. That’s what makes me tick, so if I get out of touch I can’t do my job. 

Can you tell me about your doubts? Do you still have them or now that you’ve got the purple shirt is that basically a doubt-proof vest? 

Do I doubt Christ? No. Do I doubt whether I have understood him sufficiently? Yes. That gives me an appetite to keep learning. The other thing I struggle with, there is, I believe, a Godly gift of dissatisfaction. I think the Holy Spirit works in you so that you are healthily dissatisfied with where you’ve got to in your Christian discipleship; not satisfied with where the Church is at the moment. The border between that and the sort of dissatisfaction that eats away at you, is harmful to you and actually inhibits faith is not a lovely clear-cut border. Both to do what I do and to be me, I’ve got to police that border fairly carefully and not be naïve about the Church, but not too quickly become discouraged or disappointed. 

So are you optimistic? 

No, I believe in God. More importantly I believe in the resurrection of Jesus. I love that quote where C S Lewis says, “In the resurrection, history turned a corner.” I think we’ve just had one of those little consequences-of-the-resurrection moments and we’ve turned a particular corner, and Fresh Expressions is a part of that. I’m enjoying the new view, but my trust is in the resurrection, and not in how well we’ve done. 

Graham Cray was appointed as Archbishops’ missioner and leader of the Fresh Expressions team on 1st May, 2009. He was consecrated in 2001 and became the Bishop of Maidstone and the Bishop for Mission in the Diocese of Canterbury where he remained for eight years. Before becoming a bishop he was principal of Ridley Hall, Cambridge, a Church of England theological college, after 14 years as vicar of St Michael le Belfrey, York, where he worked with and then succeeded the late Canon David Watson. He has been chairman of the Greenbelt Festival and is currently chairman of the Soul Survivor Trust. He chaired the working party which wrote the Mission-Shaped Church report on church planting and Fresh Expressions of church. He is married to Jackie and they have two daughters, Catherine and Sarah.