If people have an image of the Church of England, it is generally of an elderly, genteel and sleepy church, centering on ancient, decaying buildings in delightful rural settings. Although those churches certainly exist (I have been to some of them), the full reality is very different.
Breaking New Ground
I think this came home to me some years ago, when two people independently told me that the Church of England had been planting new congregations at the rate of one every two weeks for the previous ten years. This was news to me, as maybe it is to you. Then a Church of England report, Breaking New Ground (1994) was written to respond to this new reality, and it turned out that the reports were greatly exaggerated: new churches were beginning only every three weeks.
Mission Shaped Church
Some of these new churches, however, did not fit the mold of what one might traditionally think of as an Anglican church. To give one of the more famous examples, how many Goths do you know who go to church? Probably not a lot. (Maybe I should have asked first of all how many Goths you know.) Yet there is a thriving church especially for Goths in Cambridge. Or what about skateboarders? The Church of England has a church for skateboarders—not a ministry to skateboarders, which would not be uncommon, but a church of and for skateboarders. New churches have apparently been coming into being for some years, functioning in pubs, coffee shops, community centers, schools and homes across the country.
The pace of growth was so rapid that within a decade, it became clear that reality had overtaken Breaking New Ground. So a new report was commissioned, this one called Mission Shaped Church (presented to General Synod and then published as a book in 2004). The introduction to the report reflects (I think, with some bemusement) on the pace of change:
Only three fresh expressions of church were planted in 1978 . . . It is not clear why, by 1983, this number of church plants had trebled to nine, or in 1985 fifteen examples were begun. . . . The number of churches planted each year continued to rise, reaching about 40 per year in 1990. (Cray 16-17)
Mission Shaped Church did a number of things: it described some of the changes in UK society in the past fifty years which required a rethinking of what church is; it outlined a dozen kinds of “fresh expression of church” which were springing up all over the country; it offered a robust Trinitarian theology of church planting and enculturation, shaped mainly by Lesslie Newbigin, David Bosch, Lamin Sanneh and Vincent Donovan; and it offered some practical strategies for beginning fresh expressions of church.
The report was also the origin of the term “fresh expressions,” which was coined because people could not agree what to call many of these new things: most were clearly not churches in any traditional sense, but most were not simply evangelistic outreach programs whose goal was to get people into traditional church either.
The other helpful thing in the report was statistics about church affiliation in the UK, which provided a reality check for those who believed that existing churches could evangelize (or re-evangelize) the UK alone. (The version reproduced here is slightly more recent—2006.) Those with a current connection to a church represented only 25% of the population. Fully one-third of the population were “dechurched,” meaning they used to attend church but do so no longer. Of these, only a small percentage (5% of the total) were “open”—meaning that they expressed an interest in exploring a return to church. The statistic that came as the biggest surprise, however, was that of the “non-churched”—those who had never had any contact with a church. Here too a third of the population of the UK checked the appropriate box. And of those, an even tinier proportion (1% of the whole) were “open” to checking out what church was about.
This report, to everyone’s surprise, turned out to be something of a best-seller, selling 23,000 copies (a record for a Church of England report—or maybe any church report) before it was made available free online. It also proved to be a catalyst to further experimentation. When the Fresh Expressions website was first set up shortly afterwards, people were invited to “register” their fresh expressions of church. Within a very short time, over 500 had done so.
What is a fresh expression of church?
The official definition says:
A fresh expression is a form of church for our changing culture, established primarily for the benefit of people who are not yet members of any church.
It will come into being through principles of listening, service, incarnational mission and making disciples.
It will have the potential to become a mature expression of church shaped by the gospel and the enduring marks of the church [one, holy, catholic and apostolic] and for its cultural context.
One of my favorite examples concerns a Methodist church called "Somewhere Else," in Liverpool England. It began when the newly appointed pastor, Barbara Glasson, decided to walk the streets for a year, getting to know people and trying to discern where God was at work. At the end of that year, she began to bake bread for the community, and others slowly joined her. Over the course of a further year, with much baking (and eating!) of bread, a community came into existence where people told their stories, and the Gospel was shared in a natural, unforced way. A Bible study came into existence, people became Christians, and finally a worshipping community around the Eucharist was born. That is an archetypical story of how a “fresh expression of church” grew by means of “listening, service, incarnational mission and making disciples” into a “mature expression of church.”