Last week at our deanery synod, Mark Rodel gave a compelling presentation about fresh expressions of church and pioneer ministry in our context as a post-Christendom culture. Mark is part-time on the staff of St John’s, Nottingham, and also a Pioneer Minister in the diocese working in the Lady Bay area of Nottingham. Anyone who has been through theological education, or is involved in General Synod, might feel that they have heard more than enough of these issues—but I am not clear this is the case for the average churchgoer. It was very refreshing to be talking about such things at a deanery synod, rather than reflecting on drainpipes, lost lead or haggling over parish share!
Mark started by looking at national and local statistics, and one particular challenge for Nottingham: whereas in the last census 59% of the population self-identified as Christian, in Nottingham that drops to 44%, with the main difference being a larger proportion of ‘no religion.’ He explored the features of a post-Christendom culture, and walked us through the analysis of churchgoing in the UK in terms of regular, casual and fringe attenders and open and closed de-church and unchurched (see diagram). It was this analysis which appeared to have the most striking impact. When you spend a lot of your time amongst fellow Christians, church attenders and generally churchy things, it is very sobering to be confronted with the 60% of the population who are ‘closed’ to church.
Mark then further explored the theological dynamics of ‘mission-shaped church’ before relating his own story of working in tower-block areas of Portsmouth, and trying to establish a fresh expression of church amongst people who would not normally get involved in ‘traditional’ church.
A number of things struck me out of the presentation.
First, within the presentation and discussion, clergy were quite happy to engage and ask questions, but the laity less so. At one point about half-way through, I looked around the room, and it represented a sea of intrigued but slightly baffled faces. It was a reminder that when we start considering some of the fundamental questions of what it means to be ‘church’, we are addressing some core issues—and we often struggle to find the language and references points with which to discuss, engage and evaluate what we are facing. I was a member of General Synod when the first report on Fresh Expressions was presented, and two things were surprising. First, that the report was greeted so positively, and, second, that it did not occur to any of us to ask questions of eucharistic presidency within the context of a fresh expression of church. Perhaps we had more pressing things on our mind—or perhaps we were just struggling to get our heads around some of the ideas we were facing.
Secondly, Mark made some really interesting observations about his Portsmouth experience. A core part of their discipline as a community was to read Scripture together, and the health of the group depended on members sharing faith with their friends and family, and inviting them to come. In this regard, the fresh expression was in effect facing the same two major challenges of many ‘traditional’ churches—how do we make sense of Scripture together, and how might we be equipped to share faith with those around us? These are two questions where changes in culture and changes in church present the biggest obstacles. There is no doubt, as we approach Christmas, we will be regaled with data on how little of the Christmas story is known outside the church, and of course Bible reading continues to decline amongst Christians. And a recent survey showed that a mere 27% of Anglicans would invite a neighbour to church, let alone share their faith.
Thirdly, it is clear that establishing fresh expressions can be a resource-intensive exercise. Mark talked very honestly about his own experience (as he has done elsewhere) and the painful reality that, when he left Portsmouth, the fresh expression that he had led did not survive. It is estimate that about 10% of Anglican church attendance is now at a fresh expression rather than ‘inherited’ or traditional form of church, so it is clearly of importance at a time when Anglican church attendance continues to decline, this year by about 1% compared with last year. And yet, as David Keen’s analysis shows, the picture across the country varies enormously, with London Diocese growing by more than 10% in the last four years, whilst Lincoln Diocese has shrunk by 18%. London’s growth must be due, in large measure, to the growth of some very ‘traditional’, gathered churches, namely, HTB and its church plants. Here in Nottingham by far the largest congregation is at Trent Vineyard, where more than 1,000 meet in Sunday services.
Now there are plenty of problems with large churches, not least the fact that it can be very difficult to have a sense of belonging and form meaningful relationships. That is why large churches can often form the exit doors for the church as a whole: people leave smaller churches that they attended regularly and where they knew everyone (and were known) and move to a larger church, perhaps because things are more exciting, or the teaching is better, or they feel more comfortable inviting friends. But it is easier to attend less often, and when you are not there no-one misses you.
And yet large churches are more efficient than smaller churches—you can do more with less effort, since everything is on a bigger scale. You can have specialist ministries; you can invest in your building; members of paid staff can afford to focus on doing a few things and doing them well. Given the resource pressures on the C of E at the moment, this is not to be sniffed at.
I first met Michael Moynagh, a keen champion of fresh expressions and pioneer ministry, about 15 years ago when he came to do a teaching day at our church. I asked him privately whether he saw a future for ‘inherited church’, and it was clear he did not. The future’s bright; the future’s fresh expressions. I am not sure whether he still thinks that, but I have never been convinced, not least because the key features of ‘inherited church’—meeting on a particular day in a particular place to worship, hear the scriptures read, and remember and celebrate Jesus’ death and resurrection—form the essence of the Spirit-filled church communities we read about in the New Testament. That is why many people talk of a ‘mixed economy’ church of ‘inherited’ and fresh expressions. But given the pressures on resources, and the shared central concerns of reading Scripture and learning how to share faith, I think a more likely scenario for the future is to find the ‘mixed economy’ within churches, rather than across them. Smaller groups here function as points of connection, places of belonging and doorways into what is a larger and more formal central structure. In fact, some would argue that many current ‘fresh expressions’ are not actually church, but function as ‘pre-evangelism’ creating a way into church ‘proper.’
This might sound like the ‘minster model’ of church, but large churches have been doing this for some time. Someone once said to me, ‘As the local church gets larger, it must get smaller’. In other words, effective larger churches need to have the relational features of small churches (relationships, people missing you if you are not there) if they are to be healthy—and this cannot happen without small group structures within the church. In fact, the need to find a place for authentic relationship within the congregation has been an important impulse in this country since the ‘charismatic renewal’ of the 1960s.
Some of these observations have implications for training and leadership. If core issues are about engaging with Scripture and sharing faith, then these need to be central in clergy training regardless of whether it is for ‘inherited’ or pioneer ministry. Pioneers need to understand Scripture and the hermeneutical issues we face in reading, just as much as ‘regular’ leaders, and ‘regular’ leaders need to understand about faith-sharing in a post-Christendom culture just as much as pioneers.
I am grateful to Mark Rodel for permission to use the two images here from his presentation.
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