The ‘Strength’ of the Church is Never Anything Other Than the Strength of the Presence of the Risen Jesus
When you hear the term ‘fresh expressions’ being used as a bit of a joke, at least you know it’s arrived! You can hear people talking about proposals for new arrangements in a PCC [parish council] or Synod as fresh expressions of church admin; or music groups as a fresh expression of organs…
What is obvious is that the language is here to stay. The last few years have established that the Church in the UK has recognised an inescapable truth. Renewal for the Christian community is never simply a matter of doing the same things better, though that is an essential part of it; it’s also about finding what new shapes for our life together are created under the pressure of mission. New wines and new wineskins, you might say; the idea is firmly rooted in the Gospel itself.
The Fresh Expressions initiative has managed to hold together a resolute commitment to new forms and styles with an equally resolute refusal to write off the best of what we have inherited. One of the things I have found most encouraging and positive in all this is the spirit of generosity it has nurtured. It’s always easy to claim that there is one and only one answer to the question of how to make room for new life in the Church.
But this has not been the agenda of Fresh Expressions. It has instead made us ask, ‘What is the kind of vitality, imaginative life, integrity and quality of worship that is appropriate in this specific circumstance, with these specific people?’ The traditional parish pattern, worked out with flair and commitment, may be completely the right priority to work on in some situations; in others, the actual needs of the people around will suggest new possibilities. And this is probably most often the case when we’re talking about those who live in less traditionally focused communities, those who have never had any experience at all of Church life – and many, perhaps most, of the under-25s.
So Fresh Expressions has encouraged two attitudes that I believe to be vital for a healthy Church. It has helped us to be positive about the variety of ways in which the call of Jesus Christ can be heard and prayed through and thought about; and it has helped us pay real and costly attention to the real questions and the real agenda of those with whom we want to share the Good News.
Certainly this has also meant an encouragement to take some risks. A fair number of new initiatives have flared up briefly and then faltered or dissolved, and this is bound to be painful. But the New Testament and early Christian history already show us plenty of instances where the new life of the gospel community comes to life in unexpected ways, some of them lasting, some transient.
The early Jerusalem community in the Acts of the Apostles is marked by an intense commitment to sharing all its material goods and by loyalty to the Temple. But it is not slavishly reproduced in other churches – and, so far as we can tell, it does not survive the scattering of the apostles and the later death of James the Lord’s brother.
Paul in Acts 19 encounters an established Christian group apparently working with a defective understanding of baptism, and he sets out to change its practice and theology. The letters to the churches in Revelation suggest a picture of local churches some of which are expanding or deepening their lives, and some drying up. There is no need to panic at the thought of risk and even at the thought that what we come up with is liable to change drastically or even disappear in the form we know it.
But, to live with risk like this, we need to have a clear and robust understanding of what the Church really is. It is not, in the New Testament, a carefully constructed human society, organising itself in local branches, with members signing up to a constitution. Instead, it is what happens when the news and the presence of Jesus, raised from the dead, impact upon the human scene, drawing people together in a relationship that changes everyone involved, a relationship which means that each person involved with Jesus is now involved with all others who have answered his invitation, in ways that can be painful and demanding but are also lifegiving and transforming beyond imagination.
The ‘strength’ of the Church is never anything other than the strength of the presence of the Risen Jesus. And one thing this means is that, once we are convinced that God in Jesus Christ is indeed committed to us and present with us, there is a certain freedom to risk everything except those things that hold us to the truth of his presence – Word and sacrament and the journey into holiness. These will survive, whatever happens to this or that style of worship, this or that bit of local Christian culture, because the presence of Jesus in the community will survive.
Fresh Expressions, I’ve suggested, has helped us see something of this liberating vision. It’s true, from one point of view, that this takes us beyond a concern with denominational identity; and for some this is worrying. Is it really Anglican, or Methodist, or Baptist? What I hope is that, in the next phase of the work of Fresh Expressions, as it continues to enter more fully into the bloodstream of the churches, we start asking instead – of Fresh Expressions, but also of some of our inherited patterns – ‘Is it really Church?’
Is this a place and a community where people are expecting the Risen Jesus to be tangibly at work and the Holy Spirit making a difference? Is this a place and a community where people can begin to see that what makes the Church what it is and holds it together is the sheer strength of God’s promise and invitation through the living Jesus?
You can ask that question without rubbishing or ignoring the precious heritage of witness that our denominations have accumulated. There are deeply traditional churches where the presence of the living Jesus is obvious and there are fashionable new ones where it isn’t. What matters is what I mentioned a little while ago: whether we are really trying to make the connection between what we say about Jesus and what the genuine questions and needs are of the people we are seeking to serve. Generosity and attention, remember: and all of it in the name of the One whose word of judgement and mercy and hope has the power to penetrate into the depth of every human heart and every human culture.
So, as this first phase of Fresh Expressions’ work moves into a new rhythm and style, I thank God that he has helped us turn our eyes back to the heart – and Head – of the Church, so that we see all that we do and say as the believing community hanging on his Word. Generosity and attention – and, undergirding them, gratitude and wonder. I’ll be praying that, in the next round of work and planning, it’ll be this gratitude and wonder that will more and more inform what we do – and that such gratitude will set us all free to rediscover some of what the essence of the church’s life is, and deliver us from that profoundly tempting and sometimes all-pervading anxiety which so chokes the Good News of Jesus and his resurrection.
Reproduced by kind permission of ‘mixed economy’, journal of Fresh Expressions UK. The whole journal may be read online at: http://www.freshexpressions.org.uk/uploads/documents/mixed-economy-journal-2008.pdf