Changing Landscapes Conference

Last Friday (6th May) I joined 200 or so other Christians at a one day conference organised by Fresh Expressions. Fresh Expressions began as an Anglican organisation but the Methodists and now the URC have joined as partners – it did feel, though, a very Anglican event (and that wasn’t just because of the Archbishop’s presence!)

The day was structured around interviews with 4 pairs of people who are involved in a very varied range of ‘Fresh Expressions’ (I have reflected on 3 of them). We were seated around circular tables (free seating, so pot luck who you were with) and following each interview there was 15 minutes for discussion. There were also two half hour presentations, one from Rowan Williams (Archbishop of Canterbury for my non-Christians friends out there!) and one from Graham Cray (Bishop heading up Fresh Expressions). If you want to hear some of the interviews or talks (rather than read my reflections on them!)  then go to the Fresh Expressions website

I had an interesting table with a couple of people who were from Beyond – an Emerging Church/Fresh Expression in Brighton that I had hoped to make contact with. It was great over lunchtime to have the opportunity to interview them.

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I arrived early and while drinking my coffee and reflecting that I knew no one in this blur of Anglicanism I ended up chatting to a woman who had been involved in a Church plant in the South West.

She had been part of a group who had been sent to start a midweek community on a new estate. They had met on a Wednesday evening and she felt that it had reached people who were no longer  part of the established Church.

What was interesting was that the Church plant had closed a couple of years before because of a break-down in relationships with the vicar in whose parish the group was meeting (although those who had started this ‘new Church’ had originally been sent by that  parish church). Clearly there was a lot of internal politics going on, differences in theology, ordained priest feeling threatened by lay leaders etc.

What interested m was how important the support (or lack of it) of the wider Church structures had been to this group. Did it matter what the local vicar thought if the worshipping community was flourishing? Clearly it did! It was a theme that kept popping up throughout the day – ‘permission givers’ was a much used phrase.

One of the themes that is strongly present in the Emerging Church movement is a more collaborative leadership style – groups of people coming to together to share discipleship, to lead worship together, to journey together. This creates, it seems to me, potentially more tension within those denominations where worship in particular is seen as the preserve of the ordained leaders.

Of course the fact is that in a denomination like my own where there is, in theory, great freedom to be creative, the reality does not always match up. The URC structurally should be a great place for Fresh Expressions – we are, as a denomination, less bothered about ‘permission’ and that should allow greater freedom for groups to grow and flourish as that community of believers are led while remaining connected to a greater or lesser extent to the mainstream church. But that doesn’t seem to be happening (or maybe I just don’t know about it).

The Beacon

The first interview was with Bart from The Beacon,, a Methodist venture in Dartford, Kent. Bart is employed as a lay worker on a new estate housing with predominately young families (about 1,500 houses). He has a core team of around 10 people and he had begun by simply getting to know the community. The first thing he did was start a residents association and organise fun community events (The Big Lunch – with food, bouncy castle etc). He sees his role as fostering a sense of community on the estate and being a Christian presence. The core group meets regularly as a cell Church on the estate and Bart strongly disputed the idea that they were simply an extended house group.

I was struck by the fact that this idea of connecting with the local community in a real and meaningful way was not very different from the URC model of Church Related Community Worker (CRCW) that has been around for at least 30 years (I think). Maybe we need to start getting them called Fresh Expressions!

Alongside Bart was the Methodist Superintendent for that District and it was clear there was flexible oversight, trust, and space for the community to grow at their own pace. As always, sustainability is a big question and also whether there is a desire to ‘grow’ a more traditional Church alongside the broader outreach to the community. This wasn’t, I felt, really addressed. Bart also raised the issue of leading a sacramental community as a lay leader, and once again I sensed that the URC should be the place where these issues are less problematic.

St Georges

 What a contrast the second interview was! This was a story of Church growth and outreach. Sheila Porter and Chris Spencer are the 2 Senior Clergy at St Georges, a large Anglican Church in Deal. It had filled its Church building and there was no other building big enough for the congregation to meet in if they were to continue growing. So, over four years,they began to look to how they could continue to reach out in mission and grow as a Christian presence. Their solution was radical; they closed the building and continued to meet throughout the town in Missional Communities of 20 to 50 people.

They now have a 3 layer structure: Cell Groups, Missional Communities, Whole Church celebrations. In terms of leadership there are 3 to 6 lay leaders per Missional Community and there are 5 ordained Pastors for the whole church. Throughout the year the leadership teams meet with the pastors and there are also training events, retreats away together etc.

It was interesting hearing how the Missional Communities were formed. The congregation were invited during the 6 months leading up to the closure of the Church building to spend time in prayer and reflection and consider whether they were called to lead a Missional Community in their neighbourhood or network.

People were then invited to come and present their vision to the congregation and people gathered around the community/vision that they felt called to. Each Missional Community then had to find a venue to meet in and identify leaders among them.

An example was given of a Missional Community based around parents and young children where a member of the congregation who had never seen herself as a leader, but who had experience and gifts with nursery aged children, had come forward to join that Missional Community and had then become one of the leaders.

It seemed a very organic and ‘bottom up’ way of Church growth that began with people’s natural networks and neighbourhoods. The connection between the different ‘layers’ was also interesting: the ‘bigger church’ was there to handle accountability and sustainability and it was also there to make the leadership role for the Missional Communities less burdensome.  Stuff could be carried at the centre that did not need to be carried by the individual communities.There did not seem to be a hierarchical relationship between the different layers but rather an enabling one.

I thought structurally it was a very interesting model and could be more widely used as a way to structure some of the Fresh Expressions/Emerging Churches that are developing. There seemed to be both autonomy and support  as well as a clear focus on outreach and growth.

 Safe Space

 Telford has the lowest Church attendance in the UK (what a great quiz question!) and it is where the New Monastic Community, Safe Space, is based. There are 10 to 12 people in the community (who are the floating two??) and their focus is mission and transformation of the town and living a life of intentional spirituality.

Mark Berry is the founder of the group and has a keen interest in football. With this in mind one of the first things he did was to visit Telford Football Club and ask the Chairman what peace for Telford Football Club would look like. Following that meeting he ended up on the board of the supporters club!

The community has been together for 5 years. There is no desire to grow – Mark said it could only have as many people as could be seated around the table as eating together was at the heart of the community. They have a critical friend, the Abbot of a nearby ‘old’ monastic community  ? (didn’t catch the name) who comes and helps them reflect on their life together.

This community was not about replacing Church but a vocational Christian community committed to a particular place and becoming a transforming presence in the town.

Archbiship Rowan’s bit!

As you would expect there were some real gems! Rowan began by talking about the nature of Church saying that it is a journey to the heart of God’s purpose. He also suggested that Church begins where Jesus is with others and that at the heart of Jesus’ encounters is the opening up of people to change and newness, giving them the ability to see that the landscape looks different. They look, they notice and then finally they see.

He suggested that mission is the place where people see things differently and that Fresh Expressions are enterprises of vision. They are places where people are enabled to see. And as Jesus had an understanding of pace (expecting speedy change of some and giving others all the time in the world) likewise the institutions need to recognise that for the different Fresh Expressions and the different communities that they are encountering there will need to be both speed and patience.

Rowan spoke also of the need for a trustful relationship between the old and new models and informal mentoring. He suggested that what is needed is sensitivity to festival and celebration – the big events – as well as a focus on the small groups, the places where relationships are key. It is, he suggested, at these two extremes where Church can really reach out in mission.


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