Emerging church


Reading the press release from the recent Fresh Expressions Conference in Durham was refreshing. 

I am aware that there is a certain cynicism out there about about Fresh Expressions in terms of people calling just about anything (eg. a new church notice board) a ‘fresh expression’.  However, the report on James Dunn’s input sounds interesting, though it’s a pity that the press release didn’t give us more of the content on Graham Tomlin’s input addressing the question, “Can Fresh Expressions change culture.”

Professor Dunn noted that Jesus was a Jew, his disciples were all Jewish and that “Christianity began as a movement within Judaism.”  He then suggested that the Jesus movement  within Judaism could be interpreted as a fresh expression of Israel’s traditional religion.  His emphasis was that “The character of Christianity as a fresh expression is enshrined in our sacred texts.  These are the texts which define Christianity more clearly and definitively than any other writings.”

Anyone else think that this might be a frutful way of thinking about fresh expressions?

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Thought the stuff that came back on the white van post was excellent.  Obviously, St Paul argued for the principle of paid ministry in general but he also suggested it was not always appropriate in every context. I too was questioning whether the principle be applied in every case, particularly in the pioneering context.

Clearly the point was challenging, even heretical to some, but it was not original in this sense.  We are in touch with pioneers who are asking this question themselves.  The point is simple.  Does payment pull you into a system whose cultural vortex is strong enough to stem creativity?  The white van question is simply a way of asking how much a potential pioneer is prepared to invest (in every way) into the project they are excited by.

But here’s another thought which is a by-product of the same thinking.  In many denominations payment brings you into accountability and accountability is important in all aspects of Christian ministry.  One of the unanswered questions is how do you keep pioneers in the right kind of lines of accountability if you don’t pay them.  I find it challenging to reflect on the kind of accountability which protects people from heresy or abusive behaviour, but at the same time allows creativity and innovation to flourish.  Anyone got any answers?

At a recent meeting, Lee Rayfield, my fellow bishop in this diocese, shared two metaphors of transition from the natural world that had struck him from a book he was reading by Howard Friend. The transitions were from tadpole to frog and from caterpillar to butterfly.

Howard Friend compares the marks of the tadpole’s development – which is visible, organised, orderly and uses the basic structure – with the marks of the caterpillar’s transformation – which is hidden, disorganised, chaotic and abandons the basic structure. Change management gurus call the former incremental change and the latter step change.

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I’ve said I want to challenge the assumptions the C of E has about how to do church, particularly with reference to releasing the emerging church.

First on my hit list is paying people.

When we think about beginning a new project, we set out from the foundational belief – almost credal – that you have to have paid staff from day one. I’ve been told by a leading C of E thinker on fresh expressions that, to pioneer a new project successfully, you need two full-time paid staff. I frequently meet with people who tell me about their vision for a fresh expression of church, only for it to transpire that the reason they are sharing their passion is because they want me to pay for it!

But does this need to be the case?
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I’m not going to pretend that the world of blogging is one I’ve been exploring for a long time. Although I did think of starting to blog about a year ago, it was by accident (literally) that I set up a blog and I have only been blogging “properly” for the last month.

Technorati has this great quotation by one Matt: “55 million blogs… some of them have to be good.” I have only begun to explore the blogosphere but here are a few blogs from the Christian scene that I have spent some time at.

In the Christian scene, there’s a huge amount out there coming out of the emerging church. Blogs that have interested me here go from the local, with my friend and colleague, Paul Roberts, blogging on this subject amongst others, to the global, with Alan Hirsch in Australia saying some interesting things. One of the most popular hubs for the alternative worship community is Jonny Baker’s blog.

There also seem to be a lot of chaplains blogging out there. I’ve enjoyed checking out Maggi Dawn’s stuff (not just because she has linked to me).

Dave Walker at Cartoon Church commented in response to me starting to blog that the C of E as an institution has been fairly “anti-blogging”. I have no idea about that. It’s more likely that a lot of us in the C of E are clueless about new technology and how to use it. I for one am still a beginner. What I do know is that it’s a great way of sharing and cross-pollenating ideas.

“Can we expect emerging churches to emerge in an institutional context?” I asked this question in a post a couple of weeks ago and have been asking it of myself, my colleagues and practitioners in the emerging church movement for some time.

My answer to the question would be “probably not”. Some people in the institution would say the same. What I find interesting is that we say one thing and do another. When you’ve been immersed in an institution, it takes major resolve to identify and challenge the way we do things – our culture. And, as Mark Greene memorably told our clergy conference last year, “culture eats strategy for breakfast”. When our institutional culture dominates, we default to a one-size-fits-all approach to inherited and emerging church alike and deal out all our traditional forms of accountability, training and support (financial, pastoral etc) to the emerging church.
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One thing it’s difficult to escape in our culture is a pervasive cynicism.  Everybody’s good idea is subject to a scrutiny that quickly leads into criticism and hostility.

I reflect on the several media interviews I have heard on the really important issues related to the environment and climate change.  Typical of this was a radio interview which picked up on the efforts of Chris Martin (of Coldplay fame) to offset the CO2 emissions generated by their 26 million album sales by buying 10,000 mango trees in India.  One environmental campaigner made the point that they had burnt down (a fact disputed by another campaigner) and that he probably went to visit his mango trees in his Learjet.

Here’s the point.  HE DID SOMETHING!  It may not be perfect and he may drive a BMW, but he did something and there are others whose travel habits are equally profligate who have done nothing.  How many of us intend to do something to reduce our emissions and it’s always going to be ‘manana’

This is typical of the cynicism I’m on about.  Criticising everything and everybody is likely to stop people from having a go.  We all need to do something and the sooner we start, the better.  No one strategy is perfect, but a lot of imperfect attempts will make some kind of difference, which is what we need.  I don’t know Chris Martin and I doubt he claims to be perfect, but at least he’s made the effort. 

Of course it’s not just the corridors of environmental innovation that are haunted by cynicism.  We are cynical about almost everything, happier to decry than celebrate.  This is true in our churches and can apply to the “Fresh Expressions” stuff.  Sometimes, I sense, people are quick to leap in and make their criticisms (e.g. “it’s only an old way of being church in a new venue”). I’ve done it myself.

The first rule of innovation is to give people permission to fail.  God knows we need a group of out on the edge, entrepreneurial church leaders who are prepared to have a go.  Of course they will make mistakes; of course they will create some ideas which won’t work; little they do will be perfect.  But let’s get behind them rather than greet them and their outrageous plans with an unhealthy cynicism.

To that faithful, often exhausted and frustrated band of church leaders who, in their own way, are trying to make a difference, I simply say this: Thank you and please don’t stop what your trying to achieve!

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