Sunday, February 15, 2009

The language of ‘fresh expressions of church’ may be killing our mission

I think we often underestimate the power of language. The words we choose conjure images of what we are describing, and sometimes these can have unintended consequences. I am increasingly seeing this happen when people use the phrase ‘fresh expressions of church’ indeed even more so when people talking of their mission as ‘creating fresh expressions of church’. I remain a great supporter of both the analysis and aims of the Mission-Shaped Church report which has lead to this kind of language. The problem is that the language has taken on a life of its own that means it is often no-longer serving that report’s vision, indeed I think it is often working against it.

The report gave us several valuable insights. It noted that, with the rise of a ‘non-churched’ population Britain, as with much of what was Christendom, was now effectively a foreign mission field. From this it applied cross-cultural mission principles to our situation and suggested that we needed churches that emerged from within the various cultures of Britain as a result of a process of incarnational mission within those cultures. It also noted how much of our society was organised on a network rather than a local basis and that the parish system needed supplementing with network based churches. Finally all this meant that we needed to move away from thinking about growing existing churches to planting new ones. Within this context the language of ‘fresh expressions of church’ is a reminder that the new mission field would require new ways of being church.

The above remains true, but increasingly the effect of the fresh expressions language is leading to something quite different. People seem to have got into their heads that the need is to ‘create a fresh expression of church’ and not that they are called to cross-cultural mission which may in time, and sometimes a long time, lead to a fresh expression of church emerging from that mission. The result of this is that the process set out in Mission-Shaped Church is reversed, people set up what ever kind of fresh expression they think they ought to run and then go looking for people who might want to join it; such churches are not in the least bit ‘mission-shaped’ they are simply a way of consumer niche marketing existing church to provide a wider ranger of choices for church shoppers. The likely result is that those attracted will be existing church members, or those who have left church. What’s more even if over time missionary members of such churches do make contact with the non-churched or groups of people they have not in the past reached how are these new Christians going to be enabled to worship in their own culture when the have already had the culture of the ‘fresh expression’ decided for them in advance by a group of well meaning but culturally different Christians?

The categorizing of fresh expressions as certain types of church may add to the problem. The idea that something should be called a ‘café church’ for instance tends to define the fresh expression according to a worship style. It unfortunately suggests I decide to model my worship on the style of a café, which is quite different to a church that has emerged from mission within café culture in a particular place. The classification of a fresh expression should not reflect a style of worship, rather the type of community or network that has given birth to the appropriately inculturated expression of church. So to talk of a Goth church makes sense if it has emerged from cross-cultural mission within the Goth community, to talk of starting a Goth service, unless it has such a history, is to totally miss the point. In essence ‘fresh expressions’ is properly not about types of church it is a methodology of cross-cultural mission that leads to inculturated forms of church, the fact that the churches which emerge are inculturated is all that matters not how they do worship. I know that the authors of Mission-Shaped Church where very aware of this danger and considered not putting in the examples. In hindsight I suspect the problem was not the examples but the suggestion that they could be classified under different labels. Telling the story of how fresh expressions had emerged makes the point well. Suggesting there are different types of fresh expression labelled according to styles of worship encourages exactly what the report’s authors didn’t want; looking down the list and deciding to start one of the options and thus ignoring the whole thrust of the report.

So my suugestion? Let’s stop starting fresh expressions of church and let’s start doing the real task of cross-cultural mission in the belief that in time fresh expressions will emerge.


The Church Mouse said...

I agree. The difficulty, however, is how to encourage 'fresh expressions' without labelling them as such. Simply dropping the language normally has the effect of dropping the concept. I fear that it is still too nebulous a concept in this country, and too fragile to lose an identity at this stage. The language will drop away eventually when it becomes so common place it ceases to have any meaning. Wouldn't that be great.

Andii said...

I was just the other day talking to someone about this and saying pretty much the same thing. The real difficulty, I think, is shifting an underlying mindset from build-it-and-they-will-come to venture-forth-and-be-guests (Lk 12). We keep reinventing lots of variations on attractional. What we've got to get through our heads is the idea that mission means being guests not hosts. We like too much the power and prestige of being hosts.

Andii said...

Sorry; should make clearer: the sending of the 72 in Luke is, imho, crucially about where the power lies in the relationship between missioner and missioned. That's the question we need to ask about any venture.

Steve said...

Church mouse
i think i want to change the way we use the language rather than entriely drop it, so i meant my last point quite literally, stop talking of starting fresh expressions and start talking aout cross-cultural mission from which fresh expressions may emerge.
as to some of the classification langauage i am begining to wonder if this has any use, calling something cafe church or messy church is i think deeply unhelpful.

Steve said...

thanks for some good comment.
and i totally agree with you about the sedning of the 12 and the 72 in Luke (some more on this in 'Mission-Shaped Evangelism' when Canterbury press and i finally agree the final draft of this) it is about becoming the guests of others in mission, and that has all sorts of consequences for how one behaves too.

Andii said...

I think that the Church Mouse might just be John and or Olive Drane, btw. It's not certain but ...

I've been saying stuff about guest vs host mission for a while: eg back in 2004

The Church Mouse said...

Andii - I'm not John or Olive, I'm afraid. My blog is at

Steve said...

hi again church mouse
i'd been and checked out your blog earlier... a definately UK Anglican feel, so as ingenious as andii's detective work had been i thought it unlikey you were one of the Drane's
course leaves the question 'who are you' i note the pun on church house publishing...which really gets the guessing game no further, so you are as of yet safely anonymous
i do note your major concern is how those in church look to the outside world (or somethign close to that) from which i think all three of us in this thread hold common ground

The Church Mouse said...

I'm afraid I'm keeping my secret identity secret.

But to go back the point, I fear an attempt to get people excited about cross-cultural mission would merely confuse the majority. Fresh expressions of the gospel is something that people can (and the evidence is that they have) latched on to. It is that feeling that inspires action. I agree that we shouldn't get obsessed with the language, but the language is important in inspiring people and bringing them together wiht a shared vision.

Steve said...

curch mouse
no problem with the identity ;o)

always more interested in the quality of comment

and can't help seeing what you did with the changed it to fresh expressions of the gospel from fresh expressions of church... i think tat is exactly my point, say 'fresh expressions of church' and people start services, say 'fresh expressions of gospel' and we are somwhere different, i would argue in cross-cultural mission, that is expressing the gospel afresh in different circumstances, my issue is that 'fresh expressions of church' as something we start with actually means we fail to even think about expressing the gospel afresh...and thus end up missing the agenda of MSC entirely

Andrew Wooding said...

Well done, Steve! I am all for anything that puts people rather than projects first!

Andrew Wooding

Anonymous said...

Would it not be a better to start with Missionaries who are from the culture they are working in in the first place? That way we won't get attempts at authentic church for that culture which miss the mark [even if the expression has been born out of mission] as the people involved are in the same culture, not trying to understand a different one.

I'm a clubber, DJ and Producer and I work as a missionary in the night club scene, there fore I live in the same world as those I'm trying to show God's love to. It helps me a lot when I know what people are talking about and I actually have an opinion because I love the same things they're into.

Just another thought to through in the discussion.

Great post mate.

Steve said...

thanks for the comment. indeed if we have the right people already in that culture they are an asset and well worth supporting in mission there.

The reality is there are cultures in Britain today with very few perhaps even no Chrsitians in them. others will contain christians struggling to make conenctions between the christian tradition and their own faith, so there will be a need for people to enter new cultures to share faith and work wiht those there to help them share faith.

of course those coming in will be in a steeep learnign curve so there are disadvantages ot overcome in crossing cultures.

glad to hear of what you are doing and would love to hear more if you want ot post hear or contact me via the Sheffield Centre where i work. i got into dance music in the early 90s when i was an urban youth evangleist and then learn to DJ when a univeristy chaplain and ran a radio show, still do stuff at various places abd have run DJ worship too whcih is a big passion of mine so totally with you...but guess i was once an outsider to the culture

hat'n'coat said...

Gosh, thanks for that observation - you have managed to put into words a disquiet I have felt with one or two fresh expressions of church I have encountered, a concern that they are a niche marketing exercise rather than a true transformation of a newly emerging community.

Pam said...

I came across this problem when I attended a Fresh Expressions Vision day with 'local examples of Fresh Expressions', it was clear that some of the groups which were described had not arisen from the process of engagement and listening that had been described but were simply groups which had been set up by churches. Nothing wrong with those kind of groups but they are not 'Fresh Expressions'. Summed up by a Reader colleague saying as we left 'so we just need to add a Bible study to the Sunday lunch club and it will be a Fresh Expression!' What she had heard in the descriptions and videos of bread making, cafe church, messy church etc was 'food + worship/Bible study = Fresh Expression'.

I think this arises from what I call the 'star system' in the C of E - there is a culture of rewarding 'achievement' and copying it, and what is being copied is the end product not the process. Made expecially easy because there are all the 'how to' books.

The Church Times is littered with adverts nowadays who want someone who is going to 'develop a Fresh Expression' or 'pioneer ministry' in addition to the job of full time vicar, hence FE now sadly seems like the latest accessory for the 'successful' church.

Nevertheless I think new things are happening, I'm just finishing the Mission Shaped Ministry course and it does remain true to the vision of going to people where they are. It's just that at ground level I wonder how many parish churches are able to contemplate 'sending out' energetic and committed people to serve people outside the existing structures?

Steve said...

hat 'n' coat,
glad it was helpful. i just concerend that many folk are raising the kind of questions you have which says at the very least there is a communication problem

Steve said...


thanks for the observation, i think you are spot on.

i am very glad though that you feel the MSM course is encouraging the right vision. i've only had a small amount to do with it so don't have that sense of the whole, so good to hear something positive from someone on the course.

Pam said...

I remember something similar years ago when the my church decided to use the Emmaus material. I went home and read it and it was just what we needed - you were meant to start by preparing existing church members for growth by following a (I think) nurture course, then run the outreach courses for potential new Christians.

Of course we 'didn't have time' to go through the first stage so ran the outreach course immediately - at the end since no new members joined the church it was concluded that 'Emmaus doesn't work'.

I think the FE videos don't help - because most of them show some kind of worship, obviously the groups have evolved towards that and that is talked about, but it looks very much as if Fresh Expresssions = alt worship.

My biggest hobby horse re FE is that I think the theology needs to be drawn from praxis, but the tendency in the church seems always to try and establish a theoretical basis on which people are meant to base their work.

So for example, as well as talking to people about the idea of Fresh Expressions, I'd like to see 'Listening for Mission' courses running (maybe they exist but I haven't heard of them) to give people the basic skills that are needed - most of us really aren't very good at listening yet that's a basic requirement for genuine missional engagement.

Steve said...

thanks for the further post. good observations and questions...and so rather sad when you visit us in the not to distant future i am sadly not there...
but here and now. your Emmaus story is bang on. we set the wrong criteria and we set things up to fail. this happens with good fresh expressions that follow the proper path cause they 'fail to deliver' on a short time scale.

theology and praxis, mmm a both and i think. the basis of the sheffield centre's research and form that mission-shaped-church is from observing praxis. but there is a danger, what apparently 'works' may be decieving, why it works is the issue and some things that 'work' need to be assesed against both reasearch and theology and found wanting. in a sense good theology and good praxis need to be in conversation; theology without praxis may well be irrelevant, praxis without theology may well be wrong.

Pam said...

Yes, I feel very strongly there have to be both happening at the same time - but traditionally it does seem to be expected that there should be one set of people 'doing' and another set of people 'thinking'.

I'm naturally very reflective so I've had to learn that sometimes you just have to pile in and see what happens, equally I've been involved in stuff where the 'just do it' mentality makes things very exciting as there's lots happening, but nothing is ever learnt so it never develops.

I guess this is where the idea of learning networks is important.

In the end I think the determined engagement with the established church is important but it's where a lot of the tensions come from. It's easy to start trying to 'sell' FE to the church and that's when misunderstandings arise.

It's interesting that again though this is about listening - the established church listening to what is being learnt not insisting on laying a familiar template on top of what's happening to try and understand it.

Steve said...

Pam# i think a couple of crucial things there; the important realtionship between doers and thinkers and the priority of listening.

IMHO the best thing Mission-Shaped-Church did was give us the concept of double listening

Mike Peatman said...

Hey Steve,

Good to find your blog, and refreshing to read your critique of Fresh Ex language. I've noted two trends: one is to badge anything innovative or a "good idea" as a Fresh Expression, which immediately gives it baggage; the other is to think that doing a Fresh Expressions course will somehow produce genuine fresh expression.

Institutionalising the creative spontaneous, I fear.

Steve said...


nice to have your comments here

i agree, but i think Fresh Expressions is becoming aware of this too and i am getting hopeful that this will be addressed.

of course nothign will stop people bandwagoning human nature i'm afraid

Ulfilas said...

I see you mention Goth Church :)
We've started our Ulfilas meeting in Birmingham as a once monthly fellowship,not just for Goths, but for metalheads and assorted others. A small bunch of people at the moment 5 or 6 at each meeting and most members have a church they already go to. We firmly believe in organic growth and not sending in a team to make something happen. Maybe in future it will become a church in its own right - but I see it more like the Mothers Union but for alternative types! I have struggled with the language of fresh expression and emerging church - labelling things doesn't adequately describe the rich diversity that each group may have. My church B1 was planted before the fresh expression label was attached to it recently. Do people looking for church/spiritual communities/somewhere they are welcomed and loved really care about the label though?