In 2014, the Church of England released a statistical report regarding a church growth movement called “Fresh Expressions of the Church.” (You can find the full report here.) Fresh Expressions is the name for the Church of England’s outreach and mission programs. These programs can take all sorts of forms—from cafes and coffee houses, community gardens, stalls at farmers’ markets, special children’s worship offerings, new church starts, and craft groups. Many times, the Fresh Expression takes place far away from the church building—in communities and neighborhoods that have little to do with church. Other times, the Fresh Expression utilizes the church building itself. In any event, Church of England members and pastors provide leadership and direction for these programs.
The researchers talked to leaders of 518 Fresh Expressions of Church across England. They interviewed people who had been involved in these movements from 1992-2012. Some of the highlights:
- Fresh Expressions are usually small gatherings, with an average size of 44 persons.
- For every one person sent out from an established church to minister with the unchurched in a Fresh Expression, 2.5 people are brought into the faith.
- These growning Fresh Expressions now compose 10% of the membership in the Church of England dioceses.
- 78 percent of Fresh Expressions have a process for discipling participants into a deeper relationship with Jesus Christ.
- 76 percent of attendees are unchurched or dechurched.
- 52 percent of Fresh Expressions were led by lay people.
I would like to focus on the last of these points.
The 2014 report noted that lay leaders were as effective in Fresh Expressions as ordained clergy in terms of longevity of program, growth, and so on. This poses an interesting opportunity and challenge to United Church of Christ congregations, clergy, and laity. In a time of diminishing resources and smaller churches, trained ordained pastoral leadership gets a lot of attention. However, Fresh Expressions asks us to investigate more fully lay-led shapes of the church. Some questions the report raises for me:
First, can/should this model be replicated in the United States? There are several cultural differences which may blunt the impact of a Fresh Expression in the U.S., but are those differences really that great? Greatest of these obstacles is the closer connection in England between church and state than is possible in the U.S.. However, there is a U.S. website devoted to Fresh Expressions and I am sure that U.S. can and should be influential in community development and anti-poverty programs.
Second, is your congregation interested in reaching unchurched people? Do you have a heart for the people of your neighborhood? How does your congregation interact (or fail to interact) with those who live close to the church building? What would church look like if money and time and resources were no obstacle?
Third, who is on board? Is it only the pastor? Or are there a team of lay people who might like to get further training/education? Many of the Fresh Expressions groups are team led. Teamwork seems to be key to having longevity in working in this mission field.
Fourth, what do we need to do for continuing education/training? We often talk about continuing education for our clergy (and so we should) but what about for our laity? There seem to be two sub-issues here: 1). For clergy, Fresh Expressions reminds us that we need to learn from the laity. The 2012 report demonstrated that lay people’s life experience has been invaluable for helping them reach the unchurched (often times more effectively than ordained clergy). How can we, as church, recognize the unique gifts of our lay people in building up the household of faith? 2). Is there a role for expanding training of lay leaders in our churches, Associations, and Conferences? The UCC has already moved in that direction by offering quality Regional Theological Education Programs (a partial list can be found here) which focus on subject areas of Bible, church history, congregational dynamics, theology, etc. I would encourage lay leaders from across the United Church of Christ to explore these programs further. If you don’t see one listed for your geographical area, call your Conference and inquire.
Fifth, do we need to re-think the role of clergy? Do we need to de-emphasize the pastor as the center of all activity in the congregation and see her as the trainer, the coach, the sender, the equipper of the laity to do more intentional ministry themselves? It is time for clergy to recover their Biblical role as “equipping the saints for ministry, to build up the Body of Christ” (Ephesians 4:12).
I’m encouraged by the findings of the Fresh Expressions report, and I believe that a sustained discussion of the data found there could benefit our congregations as well.
Rev. Joseph Hedden is Pastor of Emmanuel Reformed (Hill’s) United Church of Christ in Export, Pennsylvania, just outside of Pittsburgh. He serves as Dean of the Penn West Conference Academy for Ministry and also chairs the Global Missions Team for the Conference.