Fresh expressions or inherited church?

Screen Shot 2014-11-19 at 12.19.40Last 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.

Screen Shot 2014-11-19 at 12.17.25Secondly, 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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8 thoughts on “Fresh expressions or inherited church?”

  1. The decrease in Lincoln Diocese coincides with a policy under the previous leadership to manage decline and deliberately reduce clergy numbers. Both giving and attendance of course went down. I am pleased to announce that Bishop Christopher has made it a priority to recruit 50 new clergy posts over the next five years on top of the 50 that will be needed to replace those retiring. The diocese have invested from their considerable reserves to reverse the trend and it will be interesting to observe the results in three to five years time.

  2. 15 years ago I was very pessimistic about the existing church. But since then fresh expressions have grown apace and, in many cases, have been welcomed by the inherited church. We now have lots of evidence that the ‘mixed economy’ can thrive, with new and older types of church existing alongside each other in mutual support. There is a long way to go and lots of misunderstanding to overcome. But at least we have started the journey!

  3. Ian,

    I read this post and compared your observations with the findings in the recent report, Church Growth: From Anecdote to Evidence.

    Results of its surveys show a strong correlation between those clergy who prioritise numerical growth and those clergy whose churches grew in numbers.

    ‘Two-thirds of churches which said they offered encouragement and support through specific discipleship courses or courses “preparing members to be a Christian witness in their daily lives” showed growth. In those which reported none or “some emphasis through preaching”, less than half were growing.’

    ‘Of those who said there was a lot of rotation among people in volunteer leadership roles, 47% reported growth (those who said there was some rotation reported 19% growth)’

    ‘Three quarters of churches that offer retreats, conferences or camps for youth report growth, against half among those who do not.’

    So,if a parish church is:
    1. only giving Sunday sermon mentions about the importance of Christian lay witness, but not specific courses on discipleship and daily Christian witness;

    2. if that church avoids rotating volunteer leadership among a wide range of committed members;

    3. if that church doesn’t offer focus events to improve and challenge it members to spiritual maturity…

    Then, guess what? That church is probably not growing.

    In 2007, the Church Commissioners and the Archbishops’ Council earmarked £7.25 million for new housing and other development areas (for example, business or retail) with the aim of extending the Church’s witness into these areas and developing sustainable Christian communities.

    In 2013, Charities Evaluation Services was asked to ascertain the impact of that Programme to date, and identify any learning.

    I’ll highlight two incisive observations from their report:

    ‘Monitoring and evaluation within the projects has been very limited to date, although most projects have collected some data, including a small amount of outcomes data.’

    ‘There was a lack of clarity in terms of the intended outcomes for each project and, in some cases, a lack of understanding of the difference between outputs and outcomes’

    In other words, the grant recipients for pioneer ministry need to distinguish the products of the projects from the discernible results in people’s lives. The latter requires follow-up.

    How many of those attending the debt counseling coffee mornings actually set up IVAs with their creditors? How far did each go towards getting out of debt?

    Did the cleverly devised part-general knowledge, part-religious Sunday pub quiz (in which the quiz-master explains the correct answers) result in improved Bible literacy as a pre-cursor to evangelism?

    How many men became regular visitors to the Arkade PS4 console sports night?

    Of course, monitoring outcomes is relatively boring, isn’t it? And why? Well, outcomes demonstrate what outsiders eventually achieve, while outputs are more about what the insiders managed to deliver.

  4. Over time in the CofE we’ve witnessed:
    1) The introduction of ‘alternative’ forms of worship (which rapidly became the standard fare) to the exclusion of the Book of Common Prayer in most churches. This has had major unintended consequences due to its sidelining of the 39 Articles; we are currently reaping a particularly sour fruit in that regard.
    2) Making the Communion Service the ‘Great Central Service’, thus consigning Morning Prayer (in whatever form) to near oblivion. Despite being a service for committed Christians (exclusive) this was earnestly promoted by leading evangelicals at the time and therefore widely taken up even in that wing of the church.
    3) The musical area of worship (lyrics and musical form) increasingly overtaken by the ‘worship song’.
    4) An era of charismatic excitement
    5) Women’s ordination
    6) Fresh ways of ‘doing church’ – yes it’s a woeful expression!
    7) Women bishops (soon in a diocese near you!)

    Personally, not all of this convinced me at the time and experience has not changed that. And I am not alone because throughout this period there has been a steady decline in the overall numbers of people (both absolute numbers and in proportion to the growing population) who could be called genuine members of a CofE congregation.

    But in fairness there have been so many factors in society over this period which will have had some effect on people’s response to the Gospel and perception of the CofE that it is impossible to know what would have happened if these changes had not occurred. But what we can definitely say is that these things have clearly not halted the decline even if they did not cause it. Of one thing I am pretty certain: the feminisation of the church has turned it into a virtual no go area for straight white males, thereby markedly reducing its potential congregation. By ‘feminisation’ I mean the way we do things and how we talk about things rather than women clergy – although there may be an obvious correlation.

    All of which leads me to say that we really need to think through the aims and consequences of new ways of doing things far more thoroughly and rationally before we rush ahead with the latest exciting idea. Unfortunately such caution is easily perceived as negativity whenever any change is suggested; someone once told me that the trick is to find a right balance between the enthusiasm of young people and the experience of older people – in a perfect world that sounds so easy!

    Perhaps our most pressing consideration is how we think through and establish a steady route between outreach and the mature Sunday worship liturgy of our parish churches. Both may be excellent in their own way but wouldn’t life be simple if there were easy ways to lead people from one to the other?

    • Hi Don,

      The recent religious innovations are not all bad, but they are signs of the church’s desperation to stay relevant. Form and ritual should be fashioned into tools of mission (rather than the other way around) and not overly prescriptive in pursuit of salvation. At the same time, I’m as tired as you are of lame-a** liturgy that would even denies the existence of the devil as our genuine adversary.

      The statistics on religion show that between 2001 and 2011 the number of people self-identifiying as having no religion increased drastically., while Christian affiliation decreased.

      Talk to those disenchanted with Christianity and several will re-hash the objections of ‘pop’ atheist arguments promoted byRichard Dawkins. What people believe is largely media-driven, with few wanting to step out of line to think carefully for themselves.

      The CofE currently has no bishop or media-savvy evangelist who either wants or is able to deliver challenging Christian counter-arguments to society’s current part-rationalist part-hedonist ethos. The media filters out anyone who contradicts the ‘laissez-faire’ political orthodoxy on human sexuality.

      Many of the un-churched just suffer from ‘down-here’-ism, far too obsessed with fitting in with the latest fads, fashions and cultural phenomena to worry about their long-term impact on their lives. They believe that they are invincible and only time and hardship will change their minds.

      For the de-churched (as I was for many years), it is the frustration of discovering that the church organisation that they joined have abandoned thier ideals on an inter-personal level,. Cross the wrong person on PCC and your involvement in volunteer leadership is over.

      For both the unchurched and de-churched, lIfe itself must deliver it’s tough lessons in teaching us that we are not as resilient as we think we are, that every self-indulgent pleasure incurs a heavy long-term cost and that the pursuit of ‘freedom’ that masks interpersonal and career amorality with ‘sound-bite’ armchair activism ultimately reduces us to the depraved enslavement of animal appetites, self-indulgent exploitation and domineering materialism.

      In order to come to our senses, we must first experience as intolerably degradation the deprivations caused by our own life choices. It is only worldly-weariness that prompts Prodigal Sons to return home.

  5. Ta for the post Ian.

    Its correct to say that for the London Diocese adult weekly attendance grew by just over 10% between 2009 and 2013. But it might be that the bulk of that growth was because over the same period London’s population grew by over 8%.

    Lincoln Diocese’s 18% drop using the same measure and years similarly masks the fact that the decrease took place whilst the area’s population increased some 3.5%

    This blog post says a bit more on this subject

    As you can tell – I really think we need to look at attendance as a % of population – otherwise we can seriously misread what the numbers are telling us


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