Rethinking Church

'Church has a gravitational pull in on itself. To get outside of gravity you need to get up to rocket speed.'

Chris Neal

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 the following four questions:

1. WHAT IS AT THE HEART OF CHURCH?

“Church is ‘what happens when people encounter the Risen Jesus and commit themselves to sustaining and deepening that encounter in their encounter with each other.” 

Archbishop Rowan Williams, Mission Shaped Church Report

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.

2. WHAT MUST ALWAYS HAPPEN IN CHURCH?

“Everybody agrees what a chapel is. Or do we? Very different answers would be given by an English American and a Welsh Free Church member. For the former it is usually a quiet, smaller worship space within a larger ecclesial building, be that a parish church or a cathedral; for the latter it is a denominational and cultural identity and the building used for congregational worship. Yet another variant is a chapel serving a larger complex, such as a dedicated room in a school, barracks, a prison or an airport. In the monastic world it was one location among several on the site. Its being only one building in the grounds helps us to ask two questions. What is it for? And what is it not for, which the other places are there to do?”

George Lings, Seven Sacred Spaces

The Nicene Creed affirms the Christian belief in the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic marks of the church. When Christians are meeting Jesus together, these four dimensions of church commonly described as ‘Up, in, out and of’ can be found: 

  • 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.

3. 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.

3. 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 HOLD CHURCH OF ENGLAND CHURCH TOGETHER

These have been suggested by Bishop Steven Croft, 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’?

“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

IF YOU'RE STARTING A FRESH EXPRESSION

BE CLEAR ABOUT YOUR IDENTITY

How will you 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.

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.

REIMAGINING WORSHIP

“We decide that because we met God in long sets of intimate worship songs projected on a screen, that must be the way to meet God. And yet, this comes with so many assumptions; of class, literacy levels, music education levels, even taste in music. It’s important that leaders imagine something different from their own experiences – and that’s where the word ‘indigenous’ comes in.” Check out this interview with Sara Hargreaves from engageworship

STOP STARTING WITH CHURCH

‘Stop starting with Church!’ Was was the dictum developed early in the 1990’s by fx pioneers Bob and Mary Hopkins as they observed the ever-increasing diversity that God was initiating in the early UK church planting movement. 

SEVEN SACRED SPACES

‘Too often people’s understanding of and engagement with ‘church’ is reduced to corporate worship, when it is so much more.’ 

Watch this interview with Canon Dr George Lings about his book ‘Seven Sacred Spaces’.

TURNING A DREAM INTO REALITY

At its simplest pioneering is a combination of seeing and building. The seeing is a gift of imagining possibilities and dreaming up ideas. The building is the work to make something happen out of that seeing. Illustrated in Gerald Arbuckle’s term ‘dreamers who do’ which pulls the two together.

GET STARTED

Fresh Expressions don’t take a model and replicate. We let the place we’re in and the people around us shape what church looks like – an fx is all about doing church that makes sense to the people and place it finds itself in.

So the best way to equip you for the journey you’re about to begin is to give you some tools to help navigate the next steps in this adventure God is calling you into.

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