‘Testing Fresh Expressions – identity & transformation’: by John Walker (Ashgate) £54

Well, do they pass or don’t they? As a Fresh Expressions Pioneer myself, and one of the people whose work went under John Walker’s microscope, I studied this book with more than a passing interest. John has provided a massive service both for Fresh Expressions in general and Canterbury Diocese in particular. This book is the distillation of several years’ work, in which John has researched in some detail the actual growth experience in a sample of both Fresh Expressions and Parish Churches in Canterbury.

His answer is both ‘yes’ and ‘no’. No, Fresh Expressions are not single-handedly turning around the declining fortunes of the Christian Church in the UK. But, yes, they are a significant part of a movement that is helping to re-imagine, re-engage and re-invigorate the church’s missional life.

‘Testing Fresh Expressions’ is arranged in four parts. Part One provides a detailed, sometimes trenchant critique of the ground covered by the 2004 ‘mission shaped church’ report. What do we mean by church? Is it best defined by creedal belief or through the relationships by which we live? Are we genuinely shaping church to meet the needs of an unchurched generation? Or are we simply accommodating church to a rootless, consumerist culture?

Part Two outlines current statistical research, which makes pretty bleak reading. How accurate are the figures? Do churches struggle to grow because of sociological factors over which we have little control, or internal factors that we can easily address and change?

Part Three is John’s own unique personally conducted research. 103 people were interviewed, from 10 churches in the Canterbury Diocese, 5 Parish Churches and 5 Fresh Expressions, all showing consistent signs of sustained growth. What were the unique factors? What in common? What can we learn?

Here’s the heart of it. Fresh Expressions are not attracting significantly more un-churched people than the best examples of Parish Church. But in both there is a clear set of principles, which if rightly understood can be applied across the board. The overwhelming majority of those who newly joined, and stayed, in a worshipping, discipling, serving, Christian community, travelled a similar journey that John describes as a Transformative Cycle. Almost always triggered by a life-event (positive or negative), these individuals re-evaluated their own self-understanding, in the context of a growing set of relationships, informed by an inherited, but constantly re-applied, Christian tradition. They were welcomed, nurtured, supported and engaged. It didn’t just happen. It had to be worked at.

Messy Church merits, and gets, special mention. Professor Robin Gill, in his Introduction, describes how as a result, he has changed his mind and become an enthusiastic supporter of this rapidly growing, inter-generational, highly inter-active, form of church. John’s point is that all the research, his and others, shows the supreme importance of childhood engagement with faith, for the future health of the church’s mission. Child attendance shows alarmingly sharp decline in recent years. Fresh Expressions in general, and Messy Church (with its roots in Godly Play) in particular, are showing a demonstrable ability to address this issue.

In Part Four, John draws his conclusions. Fresh Expressions, rather than showing how to reach unchurched adults in any unique way, are in fact leading the way in laying the foundations for the next generation of growth. Where growth is now happening, and that means both Parish Churches and Fresh Expressions, there are clear and easily transferrable lessons to be learned. This is not the book to turn to for theological point-scoring, but it might just facilitate more intentional mission action planning in pursuit of numerical and spiritual growth, re-imagined ministry and meaningful community partnership.

Canon Kerry Thorpe. Canterbury Diocesan Mission & Growth Advisor.

A summary of John Walker’s research can be found on the Diocesan Website here:

https://www.canterburydiocese.org/media/missionministryandgrowth/walkershortdraftreport.pdf

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