Have you ever looked at your church community and thought ‘there must be more to life than this’?
Have you ever wondered what would happen if the Christians intentionally encountered those who normally just walk past the church door – and shaped the Church’s strategy by the encounter rather than by our assumptions?
The feeling that ‘I still haven’t found what I’m looking for’ seems to be the beginning for any number of creative ways of letting the Gospel loose in communities.
I recently spent a day with dozens of people passionate about seeing that encounter made real. Most of us were either supporters of, or active in, the Fresh Expressions initiative and we were together to thank Archbishop Rowan Williams for his spark of creativity in kick-starting the whole movement.
The meeting followed on from a painful week for the Church of England and it was good to find Archbishop Rowan relaxed, smiling and on top form with his keynote address which spoke of missional opportunity and the importance of belonging:
“Why should people still be interested in the church? Because the church is what speaks to us about the possibility that all human beings can belong together by the grace and acceptance of God if they’d only just… turn round, repent and believe, turn round and trust, look to the generosity of the God who created and redeemed you, look into the face of the stranger in a completely new way.
So what we’ve been looking at and thinking about in terms of fresh expressions (of church) is… belonging being created. People who thought they didn’t matter, they weren’t welcome, are discovering that they are; suddenly finding there’s a challenge about community that only the Christian vision or the Christian community can help them with.
The marks of such an attractive community are studied in a new book that examines the relationship between fresh expressions and the theological understanding of the Kingdom of God. It’s a series of essays from practitioners and thinkers and Archbishop Rowan is first up.
He acknowledges that the spark for a fresh way of being church can be the ‘I still haven’t found what I’m looking for’ frustration.
The positive potential is in the fact that fresh expressions begin from a creative dissatisfaction with aspects of inherited patterns of Church life, sensing that they may have become self-serving, to the extent that they will reinforce what their members already think and feel.
That dissatisfaction must translate both into saying something about God’s love for people and also living out the evidence of its implications, he said.
It’s clear that the ‘assembly’ that constitutes itself around the Risen Jesus when the good news is proclaimed is distinguished not only by what it ‘confesses’, what it states as true and authoritative, but by the character of its relations – ‘life in the Spirit’, marked by mutual patience, generosity and interdependence.
The stories of how Christians have listened to their communities are so varied: from Zac’s Place, a mission church in Swansea marked by its acceptance and ability to embrace the marginalised, to re:generation, a youth-orientated congregation based in Romford and Wesley Playhouse, the Howden Clough project which is the first church run outreach mission for families providing a soft play area and café.
It’s really not possible for effective evangelism unless Christians find creative ways to share the hope that is in them, Archbishop Rowan writes.
At the heart of this is the belief that the good news cannot be good news just for me as an individual. Evangelism must be more than the invitation to find Christian faith an attractive option for myself; that would be to shrink the universal impact of the gospel…
Bishop Graham Cray, who leads the Fresh Expressions team, backs up the Archbishop’s argument in his chapter, arguing that faithful sharing of the Gospel is attractive in itself.
The Church exists, not for its own sake, but for the place where it is located, he says. So the purpose of a fresh expression is to be a community for networks or parts of a neighbourhood where the Church is not already engaged.
People should be able to look at a Christian community and, at least, say ‘They’re certainly not perfect, they’re not really my type, and I’m not sure I believe what they believe. But if what they have is half a glimpse of a believable future, I want to know