On my second day in London I bought a loaf of bread. Just your standard Sainsbury’s wholemeal loaf, ideal for out of hours munchies and cheap lunches. After a couple of days it was a bit stale, but still more or less edible, and I began to wonder how long it could last. Several more days later, I decided if it was THAT full of preservatives I wasn’t going to eat it, but kept it out of curiosity. Day 9 was hot, and finally brought it undone!
The loaf has been in my mind a bit this week as I attend the ‘Fresh Expressions of Church” conference. At risk of being unkind and overly critical, I’m not finding anything especially fresh about it as yet, and am wondering about the preservatives involved…
We’ve been sitting in rows quite a lot listening to speakers, with the odd “talk with those around you about…” break, and there’s not a whole lot new in the content. Moments of worship have generally used printed liturgy and lots of words, many in non-inclusive language, with the occasional song included to lead us in prayer: all good, but not a lot that’s new.
The major challenge for me, however, is the sense that much of what is being outlined is not exploring a new paradigm for faithful living in community, but slightly different ways of continuing the old one. Yes, there are different ways of doing church, but I can’t help feeling that the underlying hope is for enough preservatives to keep church and denomination going.
Many of the presentations have begun with a statement like: “everything’s changed, the church is in decline we have to do something about this or there’ll be nothing left”. I came hoping to hear “Hey look! We’re in the midst of a time full of rich opportunity to reconnect with the world around us and live the faith of Jesus with our neighbours”. (I’m having another conversation with myself about the theology of crisis, and will post something about that soon. I think it’s even more important than I thought previously).
To be fair, what I’m also hearing is that the aim of Fresh Expressions is NOT to get more bums on pews on Sunday morning. This is good news, because if that’s its aim then I think there are serious problems. But at the same time, we’re hearing regularly about “the unchurched” and people who are “unreceptive” and “closed” to the gospel, which are really loaded terms.
Now I don’t want to be a whinger here, because actually I’m gaining a great deal from participation in this conference. It’s just that much of it is coming from the many conversations with people reacting to or against what’s being said and done, most of these have been very deep, very perceptive, and working hard to be gracious.
These conversations have happened with people from Australia, Scotland, Denmark, Sweden, Canada, New Zealand and several other places but, interestingly, not from England. They were not invited, which I still haven’t quite got my head around yet!
Anyway… strange as it might seem from some of the above, I am enjoying the time, and the stimulating conversation with wise fellow travellers, so on with the show!
One story I can’t resist. We were shown a DVD with stories of fresh expression , one of which concerned a small church which basically turned itself into a ‘playhouse church’, with all ages involved in wonderful relationships , sharing food, hospitality and deep faith stories. Many new people have come to be part of this community of faith. It arose out of the vision of one person (Carolyn) not originally connected with the former church, and the church community taking the risk to see where it led. One older woman was interviewed for the DVD and said: “Most of us couldn’t see what Carolyn could see, right up until the day of the opening. But ever since then, we’ve been undaunted”.
Not for everyone, certainly, but certainly a fresh expression!