Going Deeper 4: Is this Church?

Fresh expressions challenge Christians to think of church in new ways

Many church members have heard regularly that they should be involved with mission, but often little seems to happen. Could this partly be because Christians can't imagine how church could be different? Existing forms of church are so deeply ingrained that congregations cannot conceive of anything else.

Yet different and more varied ways of being church are central to fresh expressions. Thinking afresh about church is a mission priority. To re-imagine church requires a clear picture of what church is. What can change and what has to stay the same? It may be helpful to ask:

  • what is at the heart of church?
  • what must always happen 'in' church?
  • what can change?
  • how can we preserve our identity?

What is at the heart of church?

The simple answer is Jesus. The question is not what is at the heart of church, but who?

The question is not what is at the heart of church, but who?

Archbishop Rowan Williams has described church as 'what happens when people encounter the Risen Jesus and commit themselves to sustaining and deepening that encounter in their encounter with each other' (Mission-shaped Church, CHP, 2004, p vii).

Church is what goes on when people meet Jesus, meet each other and meet Jesus in each other. Church happens when people gather regularly round Jesus.

What must always happen 'in' church?

It is not quite enough to say that church is what happens when people encounter Jesus and one another. Are there things that we should expect always to happen when these encounters take place? Over the years Christians have said 'yes', though they have not always agreed on what these essential 'happenings' are. The Methodist Church in Britain, for example, describes church as worship, learning and caring, service and evangelism. These are what you can expect to occur when people gather round Jesus.

If Christians are really meeting Jesus together, UP, IN, OUT and OF dimensions of church will always be present

A more traditional answer is contained in the Nicene Creed, which affirms Christian belief in the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic marks of the church. These are four essential aspects of what it means to be church. If Christians are really meeting Jesus together, these four dimensions of church will always be present.

They are sometimes re-expressed in today's language as follows. Church has:

  • an UP dimension in connectedness to the Father, Son and Holy Spirit - a Holy church;
  • an IN dimension in fellowship and community - a Christian community that is at one;
  • an OUT dimension in mission, broadly defined - an Apostolic church;
  • an OF dimension – being part of the whole body of Christ, round the world and in history - a Catholic church.

These dimensions overlap and reinforce each other. Christians may connect with God and have fellowship with each other as they serve people in mission, which may be undertaken with other groups of Christians. UP, IN, OUT and OF are channels of grace and means for individuals to grow closer to God. All four dimensions need to be present for a Christian community to be truly church.

What can change?

UP, IN, OUT and OF are a skeleton to support the flesh and blood of church. How each dimension is expressed will vary between denominations, and from one church to another within a denomination. Christians continue to debate what form these dimensions should take. Some churches think communion should be celebrated every week, for example; others once a month - while the Salvation Army doesn't celebrate communion at all.

Inevitably, some of these wider debates will be reflected in fresh expressions, as they seek to become churches that both fit the culture of people who take part and remain true to Scripture and the Christian tradition.

A different approach to church has some examples of what can change.

How can we preserve our identity?

Remaining true to our particular inheritance is getting tricky as local churches become more diverse, due in part to fresh expressions. 'All these churches are so different, what makes them specifically Methodist?' 'What will make this fresh expression Church of England?'

Five values that tie Church of England churches together

These have been suggested by Steven Croft, Bishop of Sheffield and former Archbishops' Missioner and Fresh Expressions Team Leader, in his chapter 'Conclusion' in Steven Croft (ed), The Future of the Parish System, CHP, 2006, pp178-182:

  • a commitment to Scripture;
  • a commitment to the sacraments of baptism and Holy Communion;
  • a commitment to listening to the whole Christian tradition and seeing that tradition expressed in the historic creeds;
  • a commitment to the ministry and mission of the whole people of God and to the ordering of ministry through the threefold order of deacons, priests and bishops;
  • a commitment to the mission of God to the whole of creation and to the whole of our society as defined and described in the Anglican Communion's five marks of mission (described in The OUT dimension of church).

Three values that might be at the heart of contemporary Methodism

These have been suggested (in conversations) by former Principal of the Methodist Cliff College, Howard Mellor:

  • the means of grace - Scripture, sacraments and conferring (class meetings and committees);
  • the ministry of the whole people of God, with an emphasis on lay leadership in pastoral care and preaching;
  • sharing in God's mission through evangelism, social action, the struggle for justice and the care of creation.

Might these be helpful guides to whether a fresh expression is truly Church of England or Methodist? What would be the equivalent for other denominations and 'streams'?

Advice to churches planning a fresh expression

Be clear about your identity

About what you think is vital to express the UP, IN, OUT and OF dimensions of church. How important, for instance, is weekly communion, gathering round the word of God, ministering in the Spirit, campaigning for social justice or eating together?

Will you be working within a catholic, evangelical or liberal tradition? It would be asking a lot of many congregations to support a fresh expression that had a radically different theological stance to them. So being clear at the outset about what is negotiable and what is not could well avoid tensions later on.

An exercise I use invites teams to decide which of twenty-three aspects of church are non-negotiable. I have never encountered a group in which there was full agreement. This often surprises participants, who had assumed they all agreed on the essentials. Some are intrigued by encountering items on my list that they had never thought about, but which on reflection they decide are non-negotiable!
Stuart Murray Williams, Urban Expression

Leave as much room as possible for exploration

The Spirit is constantly bringing new insights into the church. A fresh expression will need the freedom prayerfully to experiment with different approaches to mission, building community, worship and discipleship. God has built experimentation into creation, and so experimentation should be part of the church's life. This is explored in God believes in creative experimentation.

Be generous to churches that define 'up', 'in', 'out' and 'of' differently

Robust debate about an aspect of church can easily slide into judgemental attitudes that impair fellowship and undermine the 'of' dimension of Christ's body. As one person said, only the whole church can know the whole truth.