Is Fresh Expressions just the latest “Flavour of the Month”?

Is Fresh Expressions just the latest “Flavour of the Month”?

Interest in Fresh Expressions seems to be everywhere. Bishops are talking about it. Students are talking about it. Every church doing something new-even a coffee hour after the main service-seems to be boasting that it is doing a “fresh expression.” And, of course, Canada now has its very own Team Leader for Fresh Expressions Canada-Nick Brotherwood.

But already the question has been asked, “Is this just the latest flavour of the month?” Is it just one more in a long line of bright ideas from another country, “guaranteed” to solve our problems and grow our churches? We’ve seen these before: they come and go, and nothing much really changes. How is this any different?

The simple answer is: Fresh Expressions both is and is not the flavour of the month.

Yes, it’s the flavour of . . .

On the one hand, yes, it is definitely a new-and transient-phenomenon. Fresh Expressions in the UK, after five years, has just committed itself to another five years of existence. After that, Steve Croft, the first Team Leader told me, they are not committed to keeping it going indefinitely. But you will notice that I used the term Fresh Expressions with capital letters. That refers to an organization with a staff and programs and resources.

Steve’s goal is that Fresh Expressions would so influence the DNA of the Church of England that, by the end of the ten years, no organization would be necessary to sustain the fresh expressions (lower case) movement. And this seems to be happening. For example:

  • It is now possible to be assessed, trained and ordained specifically for pioneering (rather than traditional pastoral) ministry.
  • Seminaries are reshaping their curricula accordingly. Some are appointing faculty to teach pioneer ministries. Trinity College, Bristol, has deliberately switched the whole thrust of its training from maintenance to mission. And St. Miletus College in London is a whole new seminary dedicated to training for “church planting, fresh expressions, and other pioneer ministries”, as the Principal, Graham Tomlin, told me.
  • The Church of England created a “Bishop’s Mission Order,” an official means by which a fresh expression can be recognized by and accountable to a bishop, even when it crosses traditional parish boundaries.

All this means that, five years from now, if all goes according to plan, the doors of the Fresh Expressions office in Oxford can be closed, and a sign posted, “Mission Accomplished.” Then those for whom Fresh Expressions has been a Flavour of the Month will have to find a new one.

No, it’s the flavour of . . . the missional church

However, there is more important sense in which fresh expressions (lower case) is not the flavour of the month, never has been and never will be. Fresh expressions was not in the first place a national organization with its own staff and budget, encouraged by the Archbishop of Canterbury. All that is a recent addition to the scene. Rather, it began as a messy grassroots movement of entrepreneurial young people trying to figure out what it means to be a follower of Jesus in post-Christian, postmodern Britain. In other words, they began to think like missionaries, as Christians in every century have done.

That impulse led to experimental ministries in many different forms all over the country. Leaders realised that what was needed was not simply new forms of outreach and evangelism-which would simply prompt people to come to traditional churches. The more “unchurched” people were, the less likely that was to happen. So why not “do church” in a way that was appropriate for whichever culture was being reached? Hence many of these by definition did not look like traditional churches. Indeed, critics asked, “Are these truly churches at all?” Hence the coinage of the phrase “fresh expressions.” It enabled people to fend off criticism by saying, “Well, we are not saying these are churches-not yet anyway-but they are fresh expressions of church.”

So “fresh expressions of church” are simply what the church has always done when it finds itself in an new and different culture: figure out how the Gospel relates to that culture, and enable an indigenous church take root and become incarnate there. Naturally, that will always be different, according to the culture. Thus the term fresh expressions (with or without the capitals) may wither and die: but while the church is passionate about the Gospel, the impulse to incarnate it in every culture will remain.

The alternative, of course, is for the church to lose that missionary impulse, and then it will die because it will have become the unpalatable and stale flavour of an alien world.

John Bowen was Professor of Evangelism and Director of the Institute of Evangelism at Wycliffe College from 1997 till 2013, and then Director of Wycliffe Serves! until 2016. Now retired, he is happily engaged in preaching, teaching, mentoring and writing. John is married to Deborah, an English professor. They have two adult children and four grandchildren.