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.