Mission-Shaped Church: A Critical Commentary and Analysis

1.4 Fresh Expressions of Church

Chapter Four contains a compendious but not exhaustive account of fresh expressions of church. It would be redundant to summarise the content as it is largely reportage rather than critique and much of it is repetitive (including a long passage on church planting); and so items of particular theological or social interest have been chosen and commented upon, with the proviso that reliance has been placed on what has been reported rather than recourse to original sources to verify the Report's summaries:

The description, without definitions of terms like post-modern, is as fuzzy as what it describes. The approach seems to be self indulgent but is described as thoughtful which might simply be another word for "radical". The overall impression is of a worship-centred phenomenon that lacks Sacramentality.

Their importance seems to lie in their ability to combine a radical social justice agenda with doctrinal and liturgical continuity. It is difficult to see, says the Report, how these can be incorporated into Anglicanism where: "... much English leadership training demands enculturation into middle class values"(49). These issues will require deeper examination in Part Two, Section 1.

As with many of these descriptions, it is not clear what goes on. The attached examples refer to pastoral care, prayer, Bible study and conversation. Cafe Church might well be described as exotic house groups. The only difference is the ability to pick up passing adherents but the impression given is that after a core has been formed it is somewhat introvert.

The great advantage of the Cell Church technique is the development of new leadership for growth. The largest in the Church of England at Hazlemere has 800 members in stark contrast with the tiny numbers in every other example in the Report. In an illuminating passage on Cell Churches which might refer to the whole list of phenomena in this Chapter, the Report says: "The movement is clear that what it advocates is real church, with cell worship, community and mission, all infused by a Christo-centric spirituality emphasizing discipleship. There is less clarity around issues of Sacraments, ordained leadership and deeper connection to the wider church beyond attending area celebrations"(57).

At least less clarity about Sacraments is better than no Sacraments at all. The Report concludes this sub-Section: "... of all the fresh expressions that have been described, this one has the highest rate of adoption by the other expressions”(57). If Cell Churches can hold on to their Sacramentality and be adopted by other expressions they could form a significant link from the wider shores of outreach to the full experience of Credal and Sacramental Christianity; but it may just be that the popularity of this approach reflects its undemanding nature and this is where we have to be careful not to confuse success with numeric growth.

The ambiguity which the Report does not clarify is whether "Not the key dynamic" is a euphemism for very low priority. In a very fundamental sense it is not possible to have worship without community and to have community without worship; but the question posed here, as it is in the Cafe Church examples, is whether a community whose sole emphasis is on the pastoral is actually church.

Here, then, is an apparent antithesis between introvert homogeneity and extrovert heterogeneity; but, it turns out, as has been shown in Chapter One, the antithesis is only between extrovert and introvert homogeneity; if anything, networks are even tighter than geography.

Network churches, says the Report, tend to be even more Anglican in their desire for connectivity and accountability than many parishes which reinforces the overall impression of this sub-section that network churches meet an obvious need of the prosperous and the churched but are relatively distanced from the unchurched (although the Report challenges this deduction) and the poor.

The key to this whole Report is how far the 'Seeker' process can be taken to reach people before the outcome ceases to be church at all and is simply a forum for uplifting sentiment and ethical study.

The Report notes that in the UK this form of church has been mainly successful in restoring the lapsed rather than reaching the non-churched. This has implications for what we mean by "accessible"; if the lapsed have returned because they can enjoy a dilute form of Christianity then "accessible" might be taken to mean less Christ-centred. The problem with the idea of "accessibility" is that it frequently confuses syntax with argot. While millions of people have general working vocabularies of under 2,000 and very little grasp of the subtleties of syntax (possessing a chronological reading age of eight or below) they have a very firm grasp of various technical argots such as that associated with mobile telephones, prescription television, motor vehicles and soccer. Poorly educated Christians have traditionally possessed a proportionately massive Christian argot compared with their general vocabulary. This issue will be considered in Part Two, Section 7b  . 

There is at least a suspicion, which requires much deeper consideration, of whether the numeric success of fresh expressions is in inverse proportion to their Anglicanism. If this is the case, then it is necessary to ask whether fresh expressions of church are a means to revival or a symptom of decline.

The Report then turns to the special missionary requirements of youth. The Revd. Paul Simmonds, a Diocesan Mission Adviser writing for the Diocese of Coventry sums up the situation as follows: "Not only are we struggling to keep and care for young people from church families, we are making only negligible impact on the vast majority of the young people who are unchurched"(77). It would have been better to invert the sentence because what must concern us most in building strength for outreach is the weakness of our core. Simmonds says that the Church is primarily set up to minister to the over-40's.

The report, in summing up what has gone wrong, notes that the pattern of liturgical and music innovation has not been sustained (implying that this is a necessary precondition); the average age of ordination is 40 and increases if NSM and OLM are included; youth work is budgetarily under-resourced; Sunday School attendance has reduced potential returnees; the Church baptises fewer than 25% of babies and fewer than 20% of those return for Confirmation. This prompted a response from the General Synod set out in Youth Apart (Church House Publishing, 1996): "If young people are taken seriously, respected and truly valued, the gap between church culture and youth culture will decrease and close quite naturally"(78); always supposing that this is desirable. Which raises the important question of what is meant by 'youth culture' to which at least part of the answer is that it is the enjoyment of a lifestyle of independence and hedonism by young people which was founded and sanctioned by their parents. Chapter One quite properly condemned this form of lifestyle and so it is hard to see how it can be accorded respect just because young people pursue it in imitation (although they will characterise it as reaction to) of their parents.

The Report maintains that there is such a culture gap between youth and their elders that church planting has special significance; It goes on to quote the Report's author, Bishop Graham Cray: "... for many (or most) even after they are no longer 'young', the existing ways and styles of doing and being church will not be attractive or meaningful. Hence the contemporary and long-term importance of congregations for and by young people” (80). It follows that a strategy for youth congregations is not a bridging strategy to the "real thing".

The symptoms of what the Report says are evident enough but the etiology is missing. It is quite easy to say that young people do not attend traditional churches and equally easy to say that they fail to do so because their 'culture' is radically different from that of their elders; but one of the Report's most persistent themes has been the fall in Sunday School attendance which has nothing to do with youth culture and everything to do with the culture of parents. In fact, it is the parents, particularly those rearing children after 1960, who experienced a radically different culture from that of their parents and these are the cohort now wielding influence and power in society. It is the children and grandchildren of the 'baby boomers' who have turned out to be ultra conservative. Thus, the distinction is not between current youth and its parents but between current youth and its 1960s radical grandparents on the other. This cultural evolution will require further consideration in Part Two, Section 2; but, in summary, the struggle of the Church is not to speak to youth across a cultural divide but to learn how to overcome materialism, its age-old enemy, given unprecedented vigour by disposable income and envy on the one hand and by the political respectability accorded by the Thatcher administration to individuality, greed and a contempt for corporatism on the other.

It is therefore vital that what has been written so far is accorded a theological grounding; and that is what Chapter Five will seek to provide.