By Taylor Bodoh
The shape of the Church of England is changing. Seismic cultural shifts have been underway for decades and have led not only to rapid decreases in church attendance, but to an increasingly secular identity among English people. “What is taking place is not merely the continued decline of organized Christianity, but the death of the culture that formerly conferred Christian identity upon British people as a whole.” This demise of Christendom has precipitated the need for an honest reevaluation of the Church’s effectiveness in its national mission to incarnate the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It is recognized that, for many, what is meant by the word ‘church’ is simply inadequate, “so that attendance has replaced discipleship, membership has replaced community, and internal functions have been prioritized over both evangelism and social involvement.” As a result, the Church of England is re-imagining their values, forms and practices, and ecclesiastical structures, as new and creative expressions of mission-shaped church are emerging alongside of the traditional parish model, creating a “mixed economy” to meet the complex missionary need. Furthermore, diocesan structures and canon law are being tweaked in order to accommodate this burgeoning movement known as Fresh Expressions. Though many and varied in form and practice, Fresh Expressions finds a cohesive identity in its missional approach and shared values.
The following is a reflection on the contents of the book The Mission-Shaped Church, which was commissioned by Archbishop Rowan Williams in 2004, and which sets forth the principles and practices of the Fresh Expressions (FE) movement. I will place with particular emphasis on how FE is introducing a new thread in the Church of England’s values and theological emphases, forms and practices, and ecclesiastical structure.
Mission-Shaped Theology and Values
At the heart of mission-shaped theology is the doctrine of the Trinity, and fidelity to worship and serve a missionary God. In order to redeem a corrupt world, God the Father sent God the Son to be incarnate by the Holy Spirit. “In Christ, God was his own apostle.” The missionary activity of God can be observed throughout the narrative of Scripture: in the calling of Israel to be a blessing to all nations, in the inauguration of the blessings of the kingdom through Christ, and through the Spirit’s empowerment of missionary expansion in Acts and the Epistles. Because God is Triune, his mission utilizes relational means to accomplish a relational goal. A self-giving and interdependent partnership exists between the members of the Trinity who in turn collaborate with the people of God, his Church, in order to reconcile all things to himself.
In view of God’s missionary identity and purposes, the identity and calling of the Church of God become more clear. Out of God’s nature flows his mission to the world, and out of his mission springs his Church: “It is not the Church of God that has a mission in the world, but the God of mission who has a Church in the world.” Getting this formula backward has been the cause for an ever widening disconnect between Church and culture. Rather than beginning with the Church and regarding mission as a subsequent (and sadly, oft-neglected) addition, “ecclesiology is a subsection of the doctrine of mission.” Getting this backwards leads not only to poorly run churches, but in extreme cases, to a loss of the Church’s missional identity altogether: “Start with the Church and the mission will probably get lost. Start with the mission and it is likely that the Church will be found.”
In chorus with MSC, the American Bishop John H. Rodgers boldly asserts, “The Lord of the Church is on mission so the Church is on mission or it is unfaithful.” Faced with the challenges of reaching a post-Christian culture the Church of England cannot afford to be idle nor to rely solely upon a ‘come to us’ approach. In response to the reality of the incarnation, whereby the Word became flesh and tabernacled among us, FE churches have sought to embody a ‘go to them’ approach to mission. In further to the Trinity, these fresh expressions are highly relational, privileging a communal rather than an organization ethos. Yet the goal is not simply to establish community for its own sake; rather, in view of the cross of Christ, they seek to grow communities that will band together in sacrificial commitment and love for God’s world. This value for friendship and interdependent community present both a natural appeal as well as a prophetic call to an increasingly individualistic and fragmented society.
Mission-Shaped Forms and Practices
For the missional churches of FE, it is the shape of the mission that determines the form of the church expression. This way of thinking avoids the obvious pitfall of imposing a model of church upon a culture which is archaic or unwanted, as well as the error of merely presenting a population of people with an additional choice in terms of denomination or style of worship. The latter approach relies heavily on a ‘come to us’ approach that simply plays into the consumer mentality of the surrounding culture. The goal is to incarnate the Gospel within a particular culture. Two of the most common embodiments of this principle within Fresh Expressions are the Network church and the Cell church.
Historian Philip Harrold maintains that, “the history of the Church has repeatedly shifted back and forth between a ‘come’ and ‘go’ approach to mission.” Currently in the Church of England, there is perhaps no better embodiment of the ‘go’ approach to mission than Network churches. These churches target people groups or “networks” who are drawn together by work, school, or common interests, rather than by geographical locale. Missional leaders identify key points of social intersection within a network, build meaningful relationships, and seek to minister through relational evangelism, service, and the establishment of cell groups.
Another common model in the Fresh Expressions movement is Cell church. Cells are mini-communities that meet throughout the week at an accessible location, are often lay lead or facilitated, and are representative of the DNA of a wider church community. Cells are multiplicative and mobile, often attracting people who are disconnected from more traditional forms of church. Interpersonal discipleship is usually a high value, including apprentice training, and every member has the opportunity to utilize their gifts. Healthy cells are socially and evangelistically engaged in mission together and have a strategic eye for multiplication. The Cell church model is flexible, and has often been used alongside of congregational forms of church.
Mission-Shaped Ecclesiastical Structures
The book Mission-Shaped Church was put together by a working group of the Church of England’s Mission and Public Affairs Council, featuring an eclectic group of Anglican clergy and chaired by Bishop Graham Cray. Given the groups vast ecclesiastical experience and involvement in the Fresh Expressions movement, it is not surprising that the group made several recommendations about how the wider Church of England could more effectively aid and under gird the movement on a macro level. Their report also issued several suggestions of conduct for missional churches in terms of accountability to the bishop, the training of lay leaders, and complimentary coexistence with traditional churches in the area. Since the initial publishing of the report in 2004, the group’s ecclesiastical recommendations have been mostly adopted and integrated into both practice and canon law.
The existence of such an organic missional movement within the context of an historic episcopate has been at times a cause for frustration as leaders straddle, “the call to be Anglican and the call to be apostolic.” However, in The Gospel and the Catholic Church, Michael Ramsey contends that the Anglican Church’s mission and historic order have a unified source and function: “if our reading of the New Testament…is correct, these two truths—the Evangelical and the Catholic—are utterly one.” Therefore it is not surprising that these tensions, while potentially irritating, have nevertheless had the positive effect of spurring missional and ecclesiastical imagination.
One suggestion has been to create a new missionary order or Bishop’s Order. Such an order would serve to encourage apostolic thinking and formation, meanwhile preserving episcopal authority and helping Fresh Expressions to exists alongside of inherited structures. Another innovation is the Resource Church model, whereby clusters of local churches have strategically partnered to reach different networks, and have sought together to permeate a geographical area. Thirdly, there has been a recognition of the need for a new kind of training and education for missional ordinands as well as authorized lay church planters. These are all examples of how the Fresh Expressions movement has had a prophetic impact on the Church of England, calling it’s leadership to, “continually assess whether our organizational structures best serve the Church’s missionary calling.”
In the earlier days, the legitimacy of Fresh Expressions churches was more widely challenged. This skepticism was understandable, being rooted in the recognition that, “Not all groups named ‘Church’ qualify for the name they claim to bear.” Since this time of initial reluctance, however, there has been a paradigm shift as many of come to recognize mission-shaped Anglican churches as being: “not only legitimate expressions of church, but they may be more legitimate because they attend more closely to the mission task, and they are more deeply engaged in the local context, and follow more attentively the pattern of incarnation.” Nevertheless, the issue of legitimacy, both real and perceived, remains vital to the encouragement of the movement.