In 2005 the Church of England published Mission Shaped Church.1 The Report recognised the drastic need for renewed mission work in England, but also the creative work already being done by groups that would be labelled as Fresh Expressions of Church. This term came not from their new-ness, but from their missional orientation; they were seeking to fulfil the ordinal's instruction for the ordaining of priests to proclaim the gospel afresh to each generation. It also liberated the work of mission from just the priest to the Church – looking back to Jesus' great commission in Matthew 28. Some read value judgments in the language employed – surely to call something 'fresh' is to imply 'staleness' in what already exists,2 but this is a value judgment not inherent in the name, and this led to Archbishop William's description of Anglicanism as a mixed economy3 in which the inherited and the fresh forms of church are both welcome and needed. Amid early excitement, there was an Australian adoption with Building the Mission Shaped Church in Australia.4 Sadly, this enthusiasm has waned.
What defines a Fresh Expression of Church? The Church Army in England set out ten parameters in a 2013 report:
- That the group is new (in their terminology, it was 'birthed'), rather than being a modification of an existing group.
- The group has sought to engage with non-churchgoers. They are not simply a new outreach programme of an existing church, but a new church with and for the unchurched to meet their cultural context rather than expecting them to confirm to an existing church paradigm.
- The new church community would meet at least once a month.
- The new church is to have its own name that reflects its identity, or is in the process of discerning its public nomenclature.
- The group is intended to be a church in and of itself, rather than being a bridge back into 'real church'.
- The church is Anglican – by which they mean it is accepted by the relevant Bishop as part of their 'Diocesan family'. The report stresses that being Anglican is not measured by use of centrally authorised texts or by being part of the parochial system.
- There is a system of leadership acknowledged both internally by the church itself and also from without by the Diocese and wider community.
- The majority of members see the group as their primary and major expression of being church.
- The group aspires to live out the four 'marks' of the church.
- The church is intended to be self-financing, self-governing and self-reproducing (ie, mission-shaped churches plant more mission-shaped churches, which are to be themselves 'fresh' and not simply replicating the parent church).5
A Fresh Expression need not be aimed at the young or hip – a 1662 BCP styled service could be the heart of a Fresh Expression Church if it was reaching the De-Churched and Unchurched.
Since the adoption of Mission Shaped Church by the Church of England, debate surfaced over the relationship between traditional and fresh forms of the church. Some alleged that Fresh Expressions are not part of Anglicanism, nor even truly part of the church because they do not conform to the parochial system. In England this debate is moot by virtue of the persistence of the Fresh Expressions. Here, by the lack of support they have received.
There has been a fundamental difference in the way the Church of England and the Australian Anglican Church have handled the Fresh Expressions movement. England recognised the need for Church planting and renewal, and resourced personnel, training, research, and has worked cooperatively with other denominations. The Australian Anglican Church has not done these things. We face the same issues of increasing secularisation and declining attendance, but this movement has been allowed to fall off the agenda. Church planting still occurs, but the commitment to the enculturated and the localised is I believe lacking. Fresh Expressions challenges us about what church looks like – often breaking from not just the parish system, but established patterns of ministry. Professional insecurity and pride may be an issue here – we would like to have the next big thing, the next growing church plant to our name. Seeing slowly growing networks of communities might not fit Diocesan growth strategies, or our own CVs as easily. It involves more than budding 20 or 30 people from a mother church to plant a new congregation – it is about asking, what might church look like from the grass roots up in a new context, not inserted from elsewhere.
However, the need to consider the message of Mission Shaped Church, to deploy pioneer ministers, and plant Fresh Expressions of Church persists. Yes, there are inherited churches that are growing, but all too many of these are from the rearranging of the saints and not from reaching the unchurched and de-churched. Growth of many of these churches is likely at the expense of other congregations. It is too easy to have a complacent self-congratulatory ease when attendance is good, and not ask uncomfortable questions about where attendees are coming from, or when did someone last become a Christian through our ministry. This is exacerbated by our uncritical adoption of the parish system – not simple parish boundaries (even porous ones), but the form of parish church. Church does not have to look the way we do it now. Moreover, why does ministry happen in the way it does? Outreach and ministry runs the risk of being mission-flavoured not mission-shaped; more concerned with the churched and their wants, rather than the unchurched.6
Mission Shaped Church and the Fresh Expression of Church challenge us to look instead for pioneers, still theologically trained, but people who are not looking simply to maintain the status quo, to build the biggest and best version of what everyone else is doing, but to genuinely go out into the world, and engage people with the gospel, and form new communities centred around Jesus. Communities that take the issues of culture and context seriously, and do church in ways that speak into those cultures and environments. The way we have often done church is not a direct one-to-one result of the gospel; it has been shaped and moulded by history and culture. That process can result in a church experience that fails to connect to the plethora of cultures we encounter today. The issue isn't the gospel; the issue is expecting people to want to do church the same way we do. For example, whereas many Anglican church cultures may have been bookish and textual, we find ourselves in a culture now that is visual, or image sensitive. Lots of us have changed from finding Prayer Books on seats to the use of PowerPoint or Proclaim. But on a more fundamental level, there is still the question of whether we are doing church in ways that speak to the culture around us. This is neither syncretism nor surrender because the exterior form of the church is not divinely mandated; this is the same missionary task we would undertake in a foreign context.
What are the ways of both proclaiming the gospel afresh here, and of meeting as God's people here? This is the task of pioneer ministry and the essential need for Fresh Expressions of Church.
The Rev. Dr. Guerin Tueno is Assistant Priest at St John's Canberra and Anglican Chaplain at the Canberra Hospital. He was the 2010 Lucas Tooth Scholar, writing his doctoral thesis 'Built on the Word: The Anglican Church of Australia and the Fresh Expressions of Church' (2015). Ordained in 2005, he has served in churches in both Melbourne and Canberra.
1 Church of England. House of Bishops, Breaking New Ground: Church Planting in the Church of England : A Report Commissioned by the House of Bishops of the General Synod of the Church of England (Church House Publishing, 1994).
2 For example, despite some helpful and challenging elements to his critique of FXC, Martin Percy fails to recognise that 'fresh' is not about being new, but about missional. Martyn Percy, Anglicanism: Confidence, Commitment and Communion (Farnham: Ashgate, 2013), 129-131.
3 Evangelism Research Group Church in Wales. Board of Mission, Good News in Wales: A Conference Held at the Hill Abergavenny (Church in Wales Publications, 2000), 3.
4 Nicholls, A., ed. Building the Mission-Shaped Church in Australia: A Resource Book for Churches, Home Groups and Diocesan Staff Meetings with Questions for Small Group Discussion (General Synod Office, Anglican Church of Australia, 2006).
5 - Church Army Research Unit, "Report on Strand 3b: An Analysis of Fresh Expressions of Church and Church Plants Begun in the Period 1992-2012," (2013), 30.
6 Robinson, Stuart P. Starting Mission-Shaped Churches: With Discussion Questions (Chatswood: St. Paul's Chatswood, 2007), 83-86.