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Fresh Expressions of Church

Dr Tim Ling

Fresh expressions of Church (fxC) have paradoxically been around a long time. It could be argued that they have been with us since Pentecost and the earliest Apostolic mission. At their simplest they are new forms of church that emerge within a culture and engage primarily with those that don’t ‘go to church’. The fxC approach is to ‘go to them’. They do of course also have a more contemporary origins story, with learning to attend to and a rationale for attending to that learning now.

Where have fxC come from?

In 2004 the Church of England produced a report: Mission-Shaped Church: church planting and fresh expressions of church in a changing culture. This report introduced the language of fresh expressions. It also helped us to pay greater attention to our prevailing culture, to emerging church practices, and to how God appeared to be active in mission. In his introduction, Archbishop Rowan Williams, echoing comments from his time in the Church in Wales, highlighted the challenge of the resulting ‘mixed-economy’:

“The challenge is not to force everything into the familiar mould; but neither is it to tear up the rulebook and start from scratch.”

The report has helped the Church of England to both recognise and affirm existing fxC and to inspire and support the development of new ones. It has also led to greater clarity as to what constitutes an Anglican ‘Fresh Expression’ identifying four key markers:

  • Missional: it intends to work with non-church goers
  • Contextual: it seeks to fit the context
  • Formational:  it aims to form disciples
  • Ecclesial: it intends to become a church

This greater clarity has helped us in our learning about how to work in a mixed-economy where everyone grows together in faith and eagerness to learn about and spread the Good News.

Small but with big impact

Our Research Unit has learnt from its now decades of research that: fxC are for everyone, they are young and diverse, and, they are small with a big impact.

First, they are not just for big evangelical urban churches with large teams. fxC, as a whole, occur in all social and geographical areas. Growth in size and maturity does not mainly depend on a large team and they are begun by all church traditions. They are an extension of parish mission and life not a radical departure from it.

Secondly, three quarters of the fxC that we have encountered have only begun in the last ten years. Today four times as many per year are being started as compared to when Mission-Shaped Church was published. We have identified twenty types of fxC. The five most common are: Café Church, Child-Focused Church, Messy Church, Church Plants, and Multiple Congregations. Each type varies in relation size, frequency of meeting, leadership, team size, and, who comes: Christian, de-churched and non-churched.

Thirdly, whilst some fxC are quite large they are normally small in terms of numerical attendance. Some continue to grow but most maintain growth gained and plateau, perhaps suggesting a natural size limit. Despite their size they have a big impact. They are twice as likely as parish churches in attracting under sixteens. Their composition is on average: 40% Christian, 27% de-churched and 33% non-churched. For every individual who is involved in starting one there are now 2.5 more people attending.

As our former Director of Research, Rev Canon Dr George Lings has observed, reflecting on this research and a lifetime of mission studies: “Nothing else has this level of missional impact and the adding of further ecclesial communities, thereby fuelling ecclesial re-imagination.”

Our Research Unit’s vision for our research is that it may help to seed the discussion of how God is active in mission across the UK and Ireland and how the Church may best join in. Between 2012 and 2017 the Unit has analysed over 3,000 cases of potential fxC from 23 Anglican dioceses and interviewed over 1,000 of their leaders.

If you would like to read some more in depth reports about fxC please visit www.churcharmy.org/ResearchUnit.

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