Julian Mann has some awkward questions about the Fresh Expressions movement
Questioning Fresh Expressions of Church can be made to seem like objecting to spring-time itself. How can anyone object to daffodils, the May Bank Holiday weekend, or Christian Aid Week?
The very name immediately puts any critic on the back foot. ‘Fresh expressions’ speaks of bringing new life to the tired, the jaded, the near moribund. The application to the Church of England is immediately obvious being, as it increasingly is, a denomination made up of small and elderly churches that are running out of money, ideas and time.
Who in their right mind could question that the Church of England needs the breath of spring? But the inconvenient question nonetheless needs to be asked whether Fresh Expressions really does spell spring for the Church of the nation. Here are some questions from a parish plodder who has seen the dark side.
What is the good news being proclaimed in these network churches targeting specific demographic groups? Is it the Gospel as the Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church, of which the Church of England is a part, has received it? Is it the true biblical Gospel of the forgiveness of all sin through faith in God’s One and Only Son, Jesus Christ our Lord, as expressed liturgically in the Book of Common Prayer, doctrinally in the 39 Articles of Religion and evangelistically in the Ordinal? Or it a consumer-oriented gospel that panders to my felt needs?
Even in fresh expressions where the true Gospel is being proclaimed, is it really true that they are reaching the parts that other churches cannot reach? To what extent are they getting transfer growth from existing parish churches, attracting people who want to escape from the uncomfortable diversity of their local church so that they can mix with people like them?
To what extent are these fresh expressions contributing to renewing the Church of the England, which is overwhelmingly made up of parish churches in a diversity of communities? To what extent do they contribute financially to the mission of the rest of the Church of the nation, which cannot, by definition, be homogeneous?
Planting new congregations where the Bible is taught and the Gospel proclaimed is undeniably to the glory of God and the good of his Church. But in spiritually immature hands, church planting can damage God’s Church and the cause of his Christ.
The problem that appears to be developing at the grass roots in some sections of the Fresh Expressions movement is a tendency to define themselves by what they are not. We are not a flower-arranging church dominated by old ladies. We are not a woolly liberal church with an unclear message. We are not a bunch of ritualists swinging bells and letting off smells. We are not a cloying holy huddle obsessed with pastoral care. We are not an exclusive religious club that doesn’t welcome visitors.
It is not a long jump from these negative statements about what they are not to the arrogant claim that their ‘brand’ of church has a monopoly on ministry to the young; on clear Gospel proclamation; on attractive informality; on outreach to the unchurched; and on friendly welcome.
The reality is that by God’s grace more and more established churches in local communities are wanting to do these very things and are beginning to make progress. They are doing them differently from church plants, but that probably means they want to get it right for their settings.
Of course, affirming biblical truth and good church practice involves denying unbiblical untruth and bad church practice. But that is not the issue here. The problem with the arrogant underbelly of the Fresh Expressions movement is self-definition by what you are not.
Is this not perilously close to the self-justifying Pharisee in Jesus’ parable: ‘God, I thank thee that I am not like other men’ [Luke 18.11]?