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Breathing life beyond their time: Fresh Expressions and Faithful ‘Failure’

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Seasons. Change. Endings. We seem to keep coming back to these themes as we ponder away at FX HQ.

“A time for every matter under heaven…a time to be born and a time to die, a time to plant and a time to pluck up what is planted,” start the oft-quoted words from Ecclesiastes 3. And yet it can feel that the reality of changing seasons is so challenging, so potentially painful, that we shy away and desperately hold to times ‘in the sun’ – when maybe, sometimes, what we’re called to is a faithful act of ending. What happens when the season changes? When what started with hope reaches a point of painful ending – sadness, failure, time to walk away.

This theme was honestly explored at the recent ‘Dying to Live’ event by Simon Matholie, CEO of Rural Ministries, along with a seminar-full of FX leaders prepared to take a brave look at what failure means in a FX context. “How do we know when to try and fix things, and when to walk away?” asked Simon, “If we believe in life after death we need to let things die, and accept the pain that things may not look the same post-resurrection. The church – as the mission of God – is organic and seasonal, and some things will need to die as seasons change.” This sentiment was echoed in a recent conversation with Sarah Agnew, a biblical story-teller and poet who has first-hand experience of the realities of FX lasting only for a season: “As pioneers there is often an unspoken assumption that we need to strive for the eternal life of our endeavours. We need to let go of these expectations – eternal life is what we find in God, not our own works, and yet we lose focus on this. Although ‘the church’ has become an enduring institution with a settled pattern of life and governance, it is actually always evolving, growing, and dying, for all things have their season.”

It is vital to make space for these hard conversations – both for the pioneers’ own healing, letting go and, maybe, starting again in a new way, but also as acceptance of ‘failure’ as part of the life of FX means that a culture of risk, experimentation and innovation can become rooted in structures and practice. Faithfully examining where new life is being stunted by commitment to something which has passed its useful time may allow for new shoots to grow where goodness has been put into the soil by previous work. Therefore, our lens of ‘failure’ shifts – its now OK to take risks and try new things which may not endure, for all work is part of a season wherein seeds are planted which may only grow long after a previous endeavour has ended.

“I am grateful for the seeds that were planted in both the Fresh Expressions which I started,” Sarah reflected, “Although, to be honest, I don’t know what fruit has continued to grow after we went our separate ways. Except within in me. In the years since I have reflected on who I am as a ‘pioneer’. I am where I am now because of the ‘Fresh Expressions’ I tried, and the seeds that were planted in me then.” Similarly, at ‘Dying to Live’ Simon encouraged the group to understand and measure ‘success’ based on the development of the innovator – not on how long the innovation lasts. He shared the illustration of a toddler learning to walk – “when a child falls over, a parent doesn’t say ‘You’ve failed, it’s over.’ Similarly, when a FX closes God doesn’t call that failure, but calls us to get up and walk again.”

Learning to walk again does not mean rushing on from the pain and hurt of the fall, but maybe it does mean accepting those experiences as part of the journey. What comes next may not be what we expect or can even imagine at the point of the ‘failure’, but – with faithful imagination it may be something deeper and richer than our first steps. If we find a new way of accepting risk and failure, perhaps we will find a deeper reliance on God and see that although our FX endeavours may last only for a season, they can breathe life beyond their time if we allow new life to take root in ways which may surprise us. And the potential outcome of this, not just for us as pioneers but for the wider church and Kingdom is significant – as Simon concluded: “What comes next may not look like the church we inherited, but – if we’re faithful in our endings – it may just look like a church we can pass on.”