A dramatic revolution has been taking place in Britain’s churches over the past decade, encouraging experimentation and innovation outside of a traditional parish structure dating back to the seventh century. The consequences for Europe could be far-reaching, if continental leadership could learn from this model.
On the eve of the new millennium, church leaders began to ask what the church of the twenty-first century should look like. Archbishop George Carey championed the first ever General Synod study of church planting, Breaking New Ground, published in 1994. Church-planting conferences, facilitated primarily by YWAMers Bob and Mary Hopkins, helped bring such activity into the mainstream of Anglican thought, while the Methodist Church responded by publishing Stopping the Rot: planting new congregations.
When Rowan Williams succeeded Carey as Archbishop of Canterbury six years ago, he stressed the need for a ‘mixed-economy church’, in which parish structures coexisted side-by-side as ‘equal partners’ with alternative forms of being church.
Never before in the English Church’s history had initiatives outside of the parish system been legalised. That system had been put in place by Theodore of Tarsus who became Archbishop of Canterbury in 669, and who first organised the whole country into dioceses and parishes.
But in a world now being shaped by the internet, mobility and multi-culturalism, Theodore’s contemporary successors had come to see the need for ‘fresh expressions’ of church. That phrase entered the church vocabulary in 2004, along with the concept of ‘mission-shaped church’. The Anglicans and the Methodists joined forces to explore new ways of being church under these banners. By 2005 a national movement was underway, with a dedicated website, www.freshexpressions.org.uk. Last year Bishop’s Mission Orders were written into the Church of England statute book legalising fresh expressions of church alongside the parish system.
While this story is now familiar to church leaders in the British Isles, leaders on the continent are just beginning to realise how radical the British experiment is. While various American models have attracted much attention in Europe, such as the Willow Creek seeker-friendly services, nowhere are pioneers so offically encouraged to experiment with youth congregations, alternative worship services, cells, revivals of ancient forms of spirituality, i-church (internet church), café church, midweek congregations, and more.
The Financial Times has noticed changes happening in the traditional church. Last December the paper observed: The Church seems to have found new ways of speaking to people, whether in a virtual meeting online or via a physical encounter at a café, an evening in the pub or at a cathedral service. Unlike other rescue packages, “Fresh Expressions” is a grassroots movement and has never been imposed from above. It’s simply a way for individual churches to work out their own ways to reach new people.
I experienced some of these ‘ways to reach new people’ this weekend in Sheffield at the national centre of the Church Army, whose evangelists are increasingly engaging with pioneering situations. Church Army researcher, Steve Hollinghurst, had called some 70 ‘pioneers’ together from around Britain, plus a handful of ‘continentals’, to share stories and lessons in sharing their faith with spiritual seekers. Through stands at New Age events, card reading, creation liturgy and ‘quiet gardens’, these pioneers aim to develop Christian communities that can sustain spiritual travellers in their faith journeys, despite little or no connection with the church.
Steve believes non-religious spirituality already has overtaken traditional religion in Britain. These new spiritualities make sense to people living in a post-modern consumer society in a way that Christianity increasingly seems to be something only relevant to a past age.
His approach is cross-cultural mission, he explains, seeking to incarnate faith in the culture of contemporary spirituality. With those used to seeking guidance using Tarot cards, Steve uses ‘the Jesus Deck’, with four suites, one for each Gospel. Each card is a story from that Gospel told in words and pictures. By using cards these bible stories become something people used to card reading can relate to, it makes the bible relevant to them as a spiritual guide for life.
Its not everybody’s cup of tea. But that’s the point of Fresh Expressions: as with Paul, it means becoming all things to all men, in order to win some.
Till next week,
Till next week,