Reflecting on the developing Fresh Expressions in Bridlington that I was part of, one things has struck me recently, and that has been that when it comes to Fresh Expressions of church we should not be so quick to defend and justify them. It is an easy trap to fall into, especially for the pioneer who will have ploughed a lot of blood, sweat and tears into birthing a new community. Of course everyone wants newly formed Fresh Expressions of church to be successful in reaching those who have no connection with either faith or church. We want them to look good, but it is easy to miss the reality of authentic markers of church. There is also the fact that at times we might want to measure how well they are doing by comparing them to other inhered forms of church to see how well they are getting on.
One of the hardest things i find when it comes to critiquing fresh expressions of church is that the only yard stick we have got is one that seems rather inadequate for the job. (the tools no longer fit the situation) tools such as critiquing new communities using orthodoxy and doctrine as a way of interpreting what is going on. Whilst these issues are important they might not always be easily recognisable in the way we might want to understand them
For example, one of the comments of the Fresh Expressions in Bridlington was that it seemed that we never actively preached the gospel, in as much as there was no recognised reading and expounding of the scriptures. I believe the question therefore is one that can be found in the Psalms, at a time when God’s people found themselves in an unfamiliar place, with no recognisable markers to order their sense of God. “How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?”* (the foreign land for us, this time being cultural rather than geographical.)
What we did do is take a hermeneutical approach to exploring issues in the news. Exploring, sharing and debating the topics that everyone was facing. It was through this way of engaging with each other that conversations of faith, ethical, moral, and spiritual ideas were put forward and critiqued and pondered by those who did not profess a faith based world view. This was often messy, with view points being aired and language used that may make some people feel shocked or offended by. Indeed I often asked myself the question “what would people say if they thought this was church?” Of course this was an environment in which everyone was welcome and all views were encouraged to be shared. They would be challenged at times and although there were never any serious consequences the debates would get heated. It was messy and I as the pioneer constantly felt vulnerable about what it was we were doing. With questions like “is this church?” “are these men seeing and hearing the teachings of Jesus?” “can we see authentic signs of the Kingdom here?” and always in the back of my mind were the voices of those who would criticise no matter what we did.
But on reflection, I believe that if a Fresh Expression of church is authentically engaging with and creating disciples then it will look most of the time anything but successful. Just like the disciples, and the early church. In fact I would go so far as saying that a mark of authenticity would be that the community would be very fragile, messy and most of the time in crisis. I say this not only from my own experience but also reading Paul’s letters to the early church. (1 Corinthians 1: 10-17**) Most of the time sorting out the issues that were arising as new disciples worked out their faith in a messy and uneasy way. There is an album by the band Dubh called ‘Fractured, broken and beautiful’, I believe that this sums up the church in every place and not just Fresh Expression communities, but this is what we want. A church reliant upon the saving grace of God though the continued work of the Holy Spirit.
* Psalm 137:4
**10 I appeal to you, brothers and sisters,in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another in what you say and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly united in mind and thought. 11 My brothers and sisters, some from Chloe’s household have informed me that there are quarrels among you. 12 What I mean is this: One of you says, “I follow Paul”; another, “I follow Apollos”; another, “I follow Cephas”; still another, “I follow Christ.”
13 Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptized in the name of Paul? 14 I thank God that I did not baptize any of you except Crispus and Gaius, 15 so no one can say that you were baptized in my name. 16 (Yes, I also baptized the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I don’t remember if I baptized anyone else.) 17 For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel—not with wisdom and eloquence, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.