Revd Sam Foster is fresh expressions pioneer missioner for the Scarborough Deanery. Numerous projects are now underway, among them a fresh expression of church in Hub Groups. Sam tells us more:
I am a fresh expressions missioner for the whole Deanery instead of a single parish and that has made a huge difference. Although I work for the Church of England, I work ecumenically – mainly through Churches Together – helping churches to step out in faith in building community and supporting Parochial Church Councils and ministers along the way. I now have an Anglican team of about ten people, including Church Army officer Shena Woolridge. Church Army gave us full funding for five years and Shena works full time on spirituality and the arts. The entire Deanery is represented in the make up of the team, we have got 27 Anglican churches here for instance but five of those churches may be in one benefice so one person will represent that group.
The team overlap a lot; and the beauty of it is that everyone has responsibility for a project or particular area of work. The groups of people helping us to run these projects are ecumenical, everything from Anglo-Catholics to Pentecostal Baptists. If we want things to be sustainable we must equip and encourage lay people to do all sorts of things; I am against the model of a vicar as a Jack of all Trades. I have been ordained for seven years and I don’t want to have a breakdown because I’m running around trying to do everything. We also have a mix of lay and ordained as well as some people who have recently come to faith. Whatever their Christian story so far I look for people who don’t speak church ‘language’ all the time – it’s very easy to slip in to that but it ends up meaning nothing to the people you’re trying to reach. It’s interesting that people who don’t know anything about church tend to respond to friendship and support but the de-churched people we meet along the way look for some form of accountability so they know if we are ‘safe’ or not.
To work across the Deanery means that Sam can go anywhere and open things up, not only to CofE churches but also ecumenically. Part of that work is getting as many churches as possible to support and fund the initiative. Twelve churches of different denominations have done just that though this comes with its own challenges; namely that we have to make sure that everybody is singing from the same hymn sheet by using the same national material from Fresh Expressions. It sounds a bit heavy but in order for this to work it has to be that way.
Healing on the beach for example is a bit controversial among the churches but most people on the streets – faced with things like regular Mind Body Spirit Fairs – are saying, ‘It’s about time Christians were doing something like this’. The media around here call me ‘the vicar without a church’ and I’m fine with that. I don’t face too much opposition as such – mainly because I’m ordained and the vicars see me as being in the same boat and also that I came into this job because I truly felt that God was telling me to do it; to be a church without walls.
The Hub Groups are part of our fresh expressions faith community, discovering together what it means to be disciples of Christ in the 21st Century. There are three groups now with the first one coming out of an Alpha course we did in a Travelodge. It was New Year and they let us advertise on the railings outside because they were promoting New Year’s breaks and we were looking at Resolutions in one way or another. We had a real mix of people there and by the time we got to the end of the course they wanted something more.
This is a real mix of an area; it’s a seaside town with a middle class suburbia that attracts visitors all year round but two locations in Scarborough are also nationally recognised areas of deprivation. We also cover many rural villages too and this rural focus makes up quite a lot of the Deanery.Part of our role is to try to encourage churches to shape a team and take over building community when they feel equipped to do so.
Michael Moynagh then draws out the learning points from the story of Scarborough Deanery.
The Deanery is far from being wealthy, but
they decided to channel their resources in a different and more creative way.
When a minister retired, they redesigned the post and appointed a pioneer to catalyse fresh expressions in the area. If the inherited church wants to become more missional, it must create missional posts to enable this. Otherwise, if we keep on doing what we are doing, we shall go on declining as we are doing. As Sam Foster says, Scarborough did what any group of local churches could do.
Some ministers fear that a local fresh expression will sheep-steal from their congregation, or weaken it by siphoning off individuals with key gifts. Sam met these fears head-on by recruiting individuals who would not leave their local churches but be advocates of fresh expressions within them. In other contexts, many fresh expressions are led by lay people who ‘blend’ their church experience; they worship in their fresh expression but also in their parent church from time to time. Nowhere does the New Testament say that you cannot belong to two local churches!
Sam refers to missional communities whose members not only meet together, but are active in local mission as a group. This illustrates how fresh expressions are challenging the inherited model of personal mission. The church traditionally gathers for worship on Sundays and then disperses as individuals through the week but often it is very difficult to do mission on your own. You need to do it with other Christians who can pool their gifts and support each other. Jesus did not do mission alone. He gathered a group of disciples round him. Fresh expressions, like the missional communities Sam refers to, are modelling a Jesus-based community approach to mission.
Sam talks about the need for something new, alongside the existing church. This is one way that the church can be a gift to the world. Through the Spirit, the church offers the gift of community with Jesus. Like any gift, this must suit the recipients. Would a bottle of wine be much of a gift if the other person was tee-total? Offering community appropriately could mean inviting someone to an existing church. But other people will need something different. If a church meets at a time, place and in a style that is inaccessible, it won’t be a gift because it cannot be reached. In these cases, the gift of the church will take the form a new community with Jesus – a new expression of church that is available. Fresh expressions offer Christian community to people who find existing congregations practically and culturally inaccessible. They echo communion: a piece of the church is broken off to become a new community, which is shared with others.
Sam is thinking ahead. She knows she will leave at some stage, so she is already thinking about equipping leaders to continue her work. She is copying Jesus: raising up others to take forward the mission. Growing into Christian leadership is a key way that individuals mature in their faith. Fresh expressions will disappoint in the long term if not enough attention is paid to home-grown leadership.