Fresh expressions – towards a dialogue

Antipodean internet responses to the Church of England report A Mixed Economy for Mission (PDF) have been falling over themselves with unalloyed fervour and praise. Certainly there is much of value in this and its earlier report, Mission-shaped Church (PDF). But anyone who has previously seen the church’s enthusiasm wax lyrical about a new “solution to current issues” has probably seen the disappointment as those addicted to moving from novelty to novelty move on to the next big thing.

Please note that this balancing post is not in the context of phobia for the new. No one who spends time on this site I think would fairly accuse me of being a reactionary conservative. I am a strong advocate for an internet presence (this is the most-visited Christian site in New Zealand, Liturgy is the second-most-followed twitter page from New Zealand), I firmly encourage new monasticism, I thrive on insights from emergent and missional approaches, etc. I am enthusiastic about fresh expressions of church and see nothing ultimately sacrosanct, for example, in the inherited parish system. But just as such words as “evangelical”, “orthodox”, “liturgical”, and even “Christian” have been hijacked and are often no longer usable, so I can see this may happen to “fresh expression”.

So, to balance the praise, here are some points I hope that will encourage us to pause before we plough headlong into this latest salvation of the church. It has been well said: organised religion looks for new programs, healthy spirituality looks for new people.

Fresh expressions and liturgy

One of my strongest fears is that “fresh expression” will be used, by some, as merely another excuse to abandon the liturgical life of the worshipping community. Liturgy has often not been tried and found wanting; liturgical study, training, and formation of individuals and communities has, in many cases, been found difficult and left untried. Also, in some practice, the focus seems to be so much driven by an anxiety about shrinking and aging communities, that anything appears to be appropriate as long as it reverses those trends. This shifts the focus from God and the gospel. We may not just be throwing out the gospel baby with the inherited bathwater, but, in changing from a bath to a lounge suite, we may miss our primary purpose.

I immediately bristle when I see “vocations” used to refer solely to church positions (page 3 Mixed Economy). Such a non-missional perspective makes me alert to read what follows with great care.

A community I know speaks of their commitment to the rite Thanksgiving of the People of God (p404ff in the New Zealand Prayer Book, the most recognisably Anglican rite for anyone from anywhere in the Anglican Communion), with the complete Revised Common Lectionary, as being so rare that if there is any finance being offered for this they will apply as being a Fresh Expression.

The word “liturgy” does not occur at all in Mixed Economy, and the word “worship” occurs only incidentally.

The ‘common core’ strategy underlying Common Worship is helpful. It emphasizes patterns and structures instead of giving detailed and prescribed texts. If church planters are trained in the overall structures and patterns of Christian worship, then they should be trusted with the freedom, together with their new congregations, to develop culturally appropriate liturgy from below. This approach will help discourage the cloning of patterns of liturgy and of church in new areas of mission.
p117 Mission Shaped Church in chapter 6 some methodologies for a missionary church – patterns of worship

I totally endorse the above paragraph. In theory. Central to liturgical renewal was the shift from – the meals-on-wheels, instant-services, frozen-centrally, reheated-locally, 1662 BCP style, to – locally cooked meals:

Services in The Book of Common Prayer have often been likened to “meals on wheels.” They were centrally prepared, and then warmed and dished up locally. One began at the beginning of the service, reading most of it until one reached the end of it. Services in A New Zealand Prayer Book are more like “frozen peas,” or maybe a basket of groceries and a recipe book. A core of essential material is provided with some further resources, other content is added locally. Many will be surprised that the obligatory material from any of the eucharistic liturgies (pages 404 510) takes only about six minutes to recite. Most of the rest of the service is locally chosen. The quality of the meal is now much more dependent on the local “cook”! (Chapter 1 of my book Celebrating Eucharist)

My fear is, however, based on my experience that so, so many leaders have continued the “meals on wheels” approach, but merely with new, different texts. It appears that many, many worship leaders are not being “trained in the overall structures and patterns of Christian worship” to enable them to “be trusted with the freedom, together with their new congregations, to develop culturally appropriate liturgy from below.”

Fresh expressions and diversity

Chapter 1 in Mission Shaped Churchchanging context sets the tone:

“‘One size fits all’ will not do.” p12 Mission Shaped Church (cf. Foreword of Mixed Economy)

“No one kind of worship can attract, much less hold, a major proportion of the varied population of this country.” p13 Mission Shaped Church.

The traditional, inherited model has always encouraged the meeting of people with similarities: Sunday school children, youth groups, women’s groups, etc. But there is a trend amongst some now to have that as the only or primary experience. To press the point, this approach would have a worshipping community consisting of and geared towards eg. car mechanics; no: white, male, car mechanics aged 25-35, with the likelihood that the 28 year old white male car mechanic pastor, in spending time preparing the service and sermon is alienated from his community because he is no longer sufficiently involved in car mechanicing!

Contrast this pressing of the approach, with the following quote:

When we gather around the table and break the bread together, we are transformed not only individually but also as community. We, people from different ages and races, with different backgrounds and histories, become one body. As Paul says: ‘As there is one loaf, so we, although there are many of us, are one single body, for we all share in the one loaf.’ (1 Corinthians 10:17).

Not only as individuals but also as community we become the living Christ, taken, blessed, broken, and given to the world. As one body, we become a living witness of God’s immense desire to bring all peoples and nations together as the one family of God.” (Bread for the Journey, Henri Nouwen)

I conclude this reflection with this important question: Is the primary goal of our worship to attract people into church? Or is the primary goal to worship God?

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