Rev Steve Francis, moderator of the Uniting Church WA, and Rev David Kriel mission planner at the Uniting Church WA, recently travelled to Cape Town, South Africa, for the International Fresh Expressions Conference. Steve shares his reflections with Revive.
You have probably heard it all before; declining aged congregations, faithful people, financial struggles, a lessening capacity to give, tired building, green shoots of new life, signs of decay, and glimpses of hope. Too often the church in Australia is a good news/bad news story without any real focus on the future and where God may be leading us.
How stimulating to go to a conference where the focus is on the future church. A conference that gets is cues not from the traditional patterns of the past, but from the new things that God is doing. Rev David Kriel, mission planner for the Uniting Church WA, and I were extraordinarily privileged to attend the third International Fresh Expressions Conference in Cape Town, South Africa, recently.
Before I go much further, I need to clearly state what ‘Fresh Expressions’ is – and what it is not. It is not ‘out with the old and in with the new.’ Every church, whether it is traditional or contemporary, meets in a cathedral or a warehouse, is called to be missional. Our music may be as far apart as Gregorian chants is from Hillsong, our preaching may be diverse in theological content, our clergy may dress in gowns or in denim. Styles and patterns of church vary greatly. God can use all kinds of churches to be beacons of light and conveyers of the Kingdom.
The Fresh Expressions movement takes on board Archbishop Rowan Williams’ insight, that the church is meant to be a mixed economy, a rich diversity of different kinds of churches worshipping God and reaching out in a loving missional way to others. The Fresh Expressions movement is not saying we must not do church in the ways we have always done it. Rather, it is calling and challenging the church, in a complimentary way, to explore new ways of being church in the light of the new missional context we find ourselves in.
Notice I said new ways of being church. It is fresh expressions of church that is core. The Fresh Expressions movement continues to insist that it will always be about fresh ways of being the church, not simply fresh ways of serving our neighbour. So a fresh expression is always directed to people outside the church, it has a clear worshipping intent and it seeks to be discipling – that is, helping people to know Christ and become his disciples.
To quote the Church of England Report of Fresh Expressions, “a fresh expression is a form of church for our changing culture, established primarily for the benefit of people who are not yet members of any church. It will come into being through principles of listening, service, incarnational mission and making disciples. It will have the potential to become a mature expression of church shaped by the gospel and the enduring marks of the church and for its cultural context.”
In recent years, visits to WA from Dave Male (UK) and Steve Taylor Adelaide), and the ongoing work of Rev Karyl Davison with the Eaton Millbridge Faith Community, has stimulated our thinking.
One of the great things about the conference was listening to practitioners and pioneers who are doing this stuff around the world. Over 180 people attended from 17 different denominations, delegates from all over Africa, the UK, Sweden, Germany, North America and Australia. While there was solid input from heavy duty theologians and missiologists, I gained more from real life stories of Christian people who were risking the way of Jesus in new ways.
I think of Phil Potter who described a Fresh Expression that meets in the local police station. It is essentially a gathering of police officers who were formerly dechurched or atheists. Through the ministry of a local church and committed Christian police officers they meet to praise, pray, learn, love and serve in Jesus’ name. They are church in a cop shop. The Church of Scotland in its report, ‘Church without walls’, speaks of church as being “a people on the move with Jesus, going where Jesus leads them.”
I came away from this conference much more hopeful about the future of the church and much more prayerful that the Uniting Church WA will be a community that seeds Fresh Expressions of church across this state. Where do we begin? “Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into God’s harvest field” (Luke 10 v2).
It always begins with God.