Building churches fit for the future – 7 lessons that need to be learnt

Fresh Expressions logoMost of the time God and Politics focuses on the relationship between the Christian faith, politics and society, but alongside these the future of the Church in this country is a major concern too. Today’s guest post is by Norman Ivison, Director of Communication and Resources at Fresh Expressions.

The Fresh Expressions organisation exists to encourage and support the fresh expressions movement, working with Christians from a variety of denominations and traditions.

Norman Ivison fresh expressionsThe initiative has resulted in hundreds of new congregations being formed alongside more traditional churches. It was started in 2004 by the Archbishops of Canterbury and York with the Methodist Council, but now involves an unparalleled range of partners.

You can follow Fresh Expressions and Norman on Twitter. Norman also blogs at Missional Musings.


The latest research into new forms of church has just been published. Church Army’s Research Unit has produced a detailed and robust report, based on over 500 in-depth phone interviews across ten dioceses in the Church of England. The findings make for uncomfortable reading for those who think the church should leave things just as they are, but perhaps tweak them a bit. If we are really going to engage with those who seem alienated from much of conventional church, then new forms of church are absolutely vital.

If the ten dioceses are typical, then a number of things are becoming clear:

  • Those attending fresh expressions of church in those dioceses, amount to the equivalent of a whole, new average sized diocese
  • Almost 10% of those attending CofE churches in a diocese, attend a fresh expression of church
  • Initial planting teams see an average increase of 250% as others join them.
  • The average size of a fresh expression is 44
  • In the average fresh expression, 25% were already attending church before they joined, 35% had some but no current church experience and 40% (the largest group) had no significant church experience at all
  • New leaders are emerging, mostly not ordained, and many have no formal recognition or training

If you care anything about the future of the church, and wonder about the way forward, you ignore these facts at your peril.

But the beauty of the Church Army research is that you can, if you are that way inclined, dig deeper and draw out some important lessons. Elsewhere I have already written about the myths that are busted by the report, but what of the lessons? There are at least seven for those who want to explore mission in an imaginative and innovative way and these are described in the report.

  1. Be sure who the fresh expression of church is for. It is difficult, but the leader of a new form of church must focus on those the church is trying to reach, not simply those in the start-up team. That might mean changing a total change to any missional approach. As Earl Creps, American missiologist and lead pastor of Berkeley’s 360church claims: ‘The way to develop a missional ministry… is to be transformed into a missional person.’  [Creps, E, Off-Road Disciplines: Spiritual Adventures of Missionary Leaders (San Fransisco: Jossey-Bass, 2006)] That sense of a calling to mission has to be at the heart of all a pioneer does and it will mean they will be sensitive to who is influencing them. Vision will be determined by those you are most in contact with. The temptation to grow church which is comfortable for the initial team, but alien to those you are trying to reach has to be resisted. Spending time with those you are trying to engage with and letting them positively influence you and the direction the church is going, is vital for healthy mission. The last thing needed is a new church full of disaffected Christians, which is as off-putting to those with no significant church background as any other kind of Christian gathering.
  2. Be conscious that some forms of church will be better for those you are trying to reach than others. It is common sense, but a skate-park church is unlikely to attract many 80 year olds, although ‘knit and natter’ might just attract some teenagers! Interestingly ‘alternative worship’ based fresh expressions are more likely, for example, to attract dechurched people than those with no significant church connection. If you really want to connect with the ‘unchurched’, the missional lesson seems to be – go for a school based gathering, something for the under 5s and their carers or a youth congregation. Café churches seem to attract almost as many de-churched people as unchurched people. Multiple congregations in the same parish tend to attract more dechurched than unchurched people too.
  3. Be willing to listen to God, your context and your Christian friends – and take your time before adopting a particular form of fresh expression. The research identified at least 21 ‘types’ of new church, illustrating significant creativity and innovation amongst Christians in the UK.  It is nearly always unwise to simply take a model off the shelf and apply it to your context. If you are tempted – resist! Much better to build relationship, make friends and ask ‘what form of church would be best suited to those I am now in contact with’? Don’t make the silly assumption that what works for you must work for them.
  4. Be flexible about how often you might meet. Here is something interesting. The research seems to show that fresh expressions which meet fortnightly can struggle to reach a point of sustainability. Do people get confused about when to show up or simply lose heart if they miss a session or two? Those new forms of church which meet either monthly or weekly seem to survive best. Keeping it simple has a lot going for it. Intriguingly though fresh expressions which started, say, monthly and then tried to go weekly, struggle to persuade those who attend to change their habits and patterns of attendance. The missional lesson seems to be to take time deciding the right meeting pattern for those you are reaching and stick with it, only adding ‘extra’, occasional gatherings where appropriate.
  5. Be encouraged to start a fresh expression almost anywhere!  One of the myths busted by the research is fresh expressions work best in more traditional, suburban areas. That is simply not true. In percentage terms there are as many fresh expressions in expanded village and rural areas as there are in suburban areas. They are most popular in small towns, but almost 10% of fresh expressions are in urban priority areas. The missional question is not, ‘where will we plant a new form of church?’ but ‘what form of church will we plant in the area God has called us to?’.
  6. Be clear about whether you are called to a geographical area or a looser network of people. Do people go to a fresh expression for geographical reasons (it meets close to where they live or work) or for reasons of network (people attend who they are in touch with and who have similar interests to them)? The research seems to show that 60% of fresh expressions are based on geography and 40% on a network (new ‘communities’, ‘clusters’, youth church, special interest groups and so on). Being clear about what kind of fresh expression is forming around you is really important. It will affect how often you meet and where, how you publicise events and activities and your expectations around attendance and commitment. Network fresh expressions seem to work well in rural as well as urban areas. So again, the missional imperative suggests your context, who you are trying to reach, should dictate whether you opt for a geographic or a network model.
  7. Be clear about cultural, not just geographical issues. People start new forms of church for all sorts of reasons. They might be urged on because new forms of church are the diocesan flavour of the month. Perhaps the local inherited church realises it is not reaching a particular part of the parish, or that new housing area. But sometimes there is a realisation that the church needs to be more diverse culturally and that there are unreached people groups just outside the door of the church. As the report makes clear, ‘cultural diversity and identity contains its own mission call’, and most dioceses surveyed were focussing more on pioneering mission (reaching brand new people groups and cultures) than progression mission (extending the missional reach of already existing work). There are real missional lessons here around early listening and discernment as well as being clear about the focus of a fresh expression of church and who exactly it is for.

Of course lessons from statistical research can be really helpful and a debt is owed to Church Army for carrying out this work. The results help get me up in the morning. But actually what really makes me leap out of bed (alright  – stagger out with enthusiasm for the task ahead…) are the people I meet up and down the UK who are discovering what faith in Jesus means for them, are exploring discipleship and are genuinely surprised to find themselves part of ‘the church’. We are talking about thousands of people who otherwise would not be followers of Christ. The missional lessons we need to learn are important, not so that we can rescue the church from decline, but so that we can be part of an expanding kingdom of God and introduce many people to life – life in all its fullness.

Categories: Church, Faith in society

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4 replies

  1. I can see that “messy church” is included as a Fresh Expression of Church. I’m not at all convinced it meets the criteria.

    I’ve been to lots of successful Messy Church events and they are more like resource-hungry year-round holiday club than a fresh expression of Church. I’d like to see what happens to members of Messy Churches when the children get older and are less keen on gluing and sticking, frankly. Most of the work is done by adults who are members of traditional churches and they work incredibly hard to keep the show on the road – without them the Messy Church would simply collapse: hence not meeting the criteria.

    Also, I’d like to know what percentage of the total numbers of Fresh Expressions looked at in the research are Messy Church events? I can’t see it in the paper but maybe I just missed it for looking.

  2. According to the linked page on Norman Ivison’s blog, one-third of Fresh Expressions are Messy Church. I wonder whether the theological balance would change if it was excluded? My experience is yes, but the whole point of this research is to get beyond the anecdotal…..

  3. Thanks “SeekTruthFromFacts”. I’d like to see them excluded. These figures on church growth from Fresh Expressions seem hugely inflated and the only source I can think of is 30 children and there parents turning up for Messy Church being counted as Church growth when I’m sure they wouldn’t see it as such. There’s a great and wholesome craft and story activity with hot food to take their kids too – of course they go! Are these children replicating Messy Churches? No. Their parents/carers? By and large, no – it’s hard working members of traditional churches that run Messy Churches; without the Traditional Church feeding the spiritual lives of the leaders of Messy Church there would be no Messy Church.


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