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Reimagining – partnering – embedding – reproducing

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As a New Year dawns what encouragements might we take from God as we move forward with Him into 2017? Last year closed with us digesting the latest piece of research (‘The Day of Small Things’), just published by the Church Army. The findings offer numerous challenges and encouragements but overall confirm and affirm that “nothing else, as a whole, in the Church of England has this level of missional impact”.

Back in 2004 when the ‘Mission-shaped Church’ report was being written, our own church had started to experiment with fresh expressions. We agreed together to move out of our building once a month and developed several flagship communities. A member of our congregation at the time drew a cartoon that summed up the sense of challenge and adventure. It was an image of the doors of the church, chained and padlocked, with people staring at them rather anxiously, along with a sign attached that read: “You’ve been coming here long enough. Now go and do it!”.

Today this new research shows that since the initiative began, probably over 20,000 people did “go and do it”, and between them planted over 2,000 new ecclesial communities, with over 100,000 attending. After over a decade, not only is Fresh Expressions on the agenda of every diocese and thousands of local churches, but a huge amount of work has been done on every aspect of its life, from theology and ecclesiology to strategic planning and deployment, and from training and coaching to research and resourcing.

As people gather to examine all that is happening there appear to be 4 words that come up in conversations repeatedly. Together they summarise what we believe to be the call of the movement through the Holy Spirit in the next few years.

As the conversation continues and we make plans together, there is an increasing sense that the scale of imagination and innovation needed to take us where we need to be in reaching and responding to the needs of contemporary Britain is huge. Whilst we still have the riches of out inheritance to draw upon, all the evidence suggests that to reach that half of our population that has never engaged with us before, we will not only need to change the way we do or see things, but change our whole approach to the way we see, in other words we will need to make a paradigm shift. Fresh Expressions has played a crucial role in giving us the courage and confidence to reimagine, but the sense is that we have only just begun the journey, and there is much more to embrace and enjoy as we learn to innovate and reimagine church.

This initiative has offered us a wonderful model for being ‘better together’. From the outset, Fresh Expressions has been an ecumenical venture, but more recently there has been a galvanising of all kinds of learning communities and supportive partnership hubs, from the ‘Inter Diocesan Learning Community’ for senior diocesan staff, to several dozen bishops, archdeacons and missioners forming hubs to both learn and be advocates for fresh expressions. Most dioceses now have local ‘pioneer communities’ for mutual support, and creative missional partnerships are forming across parishes, deaneries and even dioceses. The recent ‘New Monastic Communities Conference’ in Southwark was an excellent example of a wide array of communities from various traditions coming together for mutual learning, but also to inaugurate new levels of cooperation and partnership.

For a while, the ‘embedding’ word was perhaps looked upon with suspicion by those who deemed themselves as truly ‘on the edge’! But the journey of a decade has brought a maturity that genuinely understands and embraces the vision of a mixed economy, that sees what is happening not as an ‘either/or’ vision but ‘both/and’ in the very best sense of the word. Recent diocesan conferences in Sheffield and Ely reflected this with their themes of “Deep and Wide’ and “Blended’, and the Church Army research confirmed that over three quarters of fresh expressions remain within and part of the parish that started them. In other words, this is a vision that in God’s economy can very happily embrace many styles of church, that are living and working in parallel and in harmony with each other.

Whilst all forms of growth and models of planting are being welcomed, there is a growing agreement that maturing must quickly evolve into multiplication, and that this increasingly needs to be built into the dna of everything that is ‘fresh’ in the missional world. This is one of the major reasons why fresh expressions are such good news for the smallest struggling church. ‘Small is beautiful’ is one of the watchwords of the movement, and we see again and again how the principle of the seed bears fruit as one or two well-connected Christians engage with their natural context and begin to ask what church might look like in their own familiar setting.

I am confident that these four words will continue to be given a very full airing in the many gatherings, conferences and communities that Fresh Expressions now represents, and my hope is that you will find them a helpful focus in your own context as you continue to engage with fresh expressions of church.

Phil Potter leads the Fresh Expressions team and is Archbishop’s Missioner for Fresh Expressions.