In the late 1990’s and into the New Millennium, a number of Church denominations and mission agencies worked together reflecting on the 90’s church-planting movement and beginning a process of investing and encouraging the pioneering of new forms of church expression. These fresh expressions weren’t simply a fad or an attempt to be cool but looked to address a rapidly changing culture in the UK and a change in attitude to attending church and to a spiritual life. New things were taking place and church expressions like The Net in Huddersfield and Grace in Ealing sought to re-imagine church for this new environment whilst staying true to a missional and Christ-centred gospel.
In 2003, Archbishop Rowan Williams began to talk of a need for a “mixed economy” of church to meet these new challenges. This was amplified by the 2004 Mission Shaped Church Report which sought to reflect what was already happening and then to make recommendations for the future practice of this pioneering mission. It has gone on to be one of the most widely read and purchased Church of England reports ever. It argued that “the time has come to ensure that any Fresh Expression of Church that emerge within the Church, or are granted a home within it, are undergirded with an adequate ecclesiology” (MSC pg. 147.) This was exciting and encouraging for many practitioners at the time who were working hard to disciple people and develop new and imaginative expressions of Church but found them hard to be accepted as ‘church.’ Instead the report recognised their importance, placed value on their role in a ‘mixed economy’ or Church and furthermore recognised the need for the “identification, selection and training of pioneer church planters, for both lay and ordained ministers” (MSC pg.147.)
Here the Fresh Expressions movement was born as a partnership between the Church of England and the Methodist Church and initially led by Bishop Steven Croft (now Bishop of Oxford.) with Revd Peter Pillinger as the Methodist Missioner.
Bishop Steven identified “a Fresh Expression is a form of church for our changing culture established primarily for the benefit if people who are not yet members of any church.” (2006) The movement developed, first connecting with those projects already developed and then encouraging others to take first steps. These new forms of church ranged from family focused Messy Churches to New Monastic Communities and to Social Justice Projects.
Under the leadership of Bishop Steven, then Bishop Graham Cray and Rev Canon Phil Potter these communities have continued to grow and develop. New partners have joined with Fresh Expressions - the Salvation Army, the United Reformed Church, the Church of Scotland and the Baptist Union of Great Britain – all of whom identify growth and encouragements in these new experiments in Church.
Studies conducted between 2012 and 2016 showed 1109 Fresh Expressions of Church identified in 21 UK Dioceses with 50,600 attending. These statistics were just for the Church of England. George Lings, author of the studies reflected “nothing else, as a whole in the Church of England has this level of missional impact and the adding of further ecclesial communities, thereby feeling ecclesial re-imagination.” (Lings ‘Day of Small Things’ pg. 10 2016.)
As we step into the future, Fresh Expressions is now seeking to develop as a network of networks – enabling practice and encouraging pioneering across the country. We are excited to see what happens next.