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Fresh expressions – engaging with context or theological liberalism rebranded?

February 2014 | by William Wade

With continuing claims of declining attendance in churches across the UK, it is commendable that some within the church are not only saddened by these statistics, but also moved to respond to them. One such movement is ‘Fresh Expressions’ (www.freshexpressions.org.uk).

This movement is largely maintained and championed by Bishop Graham Cray, and came out of Cray’s work in his seminal Mission shaped church report which was published in 2004 (London: Church House Publishing).

Cray’s findings in this report helped to shape what has now become the Fresh Expressions movement. Here are a few findings from that report.

Smaller groups

Setting out a basis for a new, fresh approach to doing church, it is proposed that Fresh Expressions favour fellowshipping in smaller groups, rather than larger, more formal settings.

Mission is not based on a message but on relationship, and is termed by Cray as ‘relational mission’ (this has now become the much-used term, ‘missional’).

Many Fresh Expressions do not meet on Sundays, but as and when they desire, and are based on network similarities. They are post-denominational and frown on institutional and often traditional expressions of church (Cray, p.43).

In defence of these Fresh Expressions, Cray suggests that they fill the gap for those who are desirous of creativity in worship and experimentation in local church practice (Cray, p.80).

He confirms this defence by highlighting the work of Vincent Donovan, Catholic missionary to the Masai in the 1960s. In highlighting this missionary’s methodology, Cray affirms his view that context not only shapes the method of mission, but also shapes how the redemptive message must change in order to bow to the local context (Cray, pp.92-93).

Emerging church

The Fresh Expressions movement falls firmly under the emerging church banner. In defining the emerging church, Ryan Bolger and Eddie Gibbs write: ‘Emerging churches are missional communities arising from within postmodern culture and consisting of followers of Jesus who are seeking to be faithful in their space and time’ (Emerging churches, London: SPCK, 2006, p.28).

Being missional, seeking to follow Jesus and faithfulness are of course, on the surface at least, honourable pursuits. However, under the surface there is a theology which underpins these new catchphrases.

Speaking of the gospel message, Bolger and Gibbs state: ‘At the outset of the gospel narrative, the good news was not that Jesus was to die on the cross to forgive sins, but that God had returned and all were invited to participate with him in this new way of life, in this redemption of the world’ (p.54).

This is a bold statement concerning a re-definition of the gospel. However, as bold and as seemingly insightful as it is, is it actually true? Let us look at both the method of and the message in what the emerging church and, specifically, Fresh Expressions are claiming.

Moving fellowship from larger into smaller groups may not necessarily be a bad thing. In fact, many churches now operate on a Sunday meeting, with smaller groups during the week.

Community

Yet, what is offered by the Fresh Expressions movement is the abandoning of the larger meeting and the finding of what it refers to as ‘community’, which can only, it seems, be found in the smaller gathering.

Of course, this assumption is simply untrue, as many larger gatherings not only have a sense of community, but more importantly, a sense of God’s presence even though large in size.

The push for ‘relational mission’ also seems quite harmless, but, again, it infers that the more traditional churches do not engage in mission at all and, if they do, then it is non-relational.

However, whilst we may all have the ability to recount stories of irrelevant approaches to mission from certain church groups, I would argue, along with John Stott, that the evangelical wing of the church is by its very nature a missionary grouping, concerned with not only sharing the good news of Jesus Christ, but by and large doing it in such a fashion as to be understood, as well as proclaimed.

The fact that many Fresh Expressions are not interested in meeting on Sundays seems to portray more of a reaction to what this movement feels is ‘traditional’, rather than any progressive approach to engaging with its local context.

And, as for basing church around networks rather than on the common ground of the gospel, if networks dictate the shape of a church, then it stands to reason that there is a real danger of having a church full of people just like you — in other words, people of the same age range, with the same hobbies and the same circle of friends.

Message

However, the church of Jesus Christ is larger than age, personal taste and social status. It encompasses every nation, tribe and tongue, including every individual within a local context.

A Fresh Expressions view of what constitutes a networks-based local church is actually a lot more exclusive than inclusive, and that in itself stands against what the gospel has to offer to all of humanity.

What we also find in Fresh Expressions is that the gospel message is reduced to following what it and the emerging church term the ‘way of Jesus’.

The basic proposal of following in the way of Jesus is that when we can encourage others to do what Jesus did — in the form of good works, loving our neighbours, becoming involved in social action and the redemption of creation — then we lead others to become Jesus’ followers, or disciples. But is this the biblical definition of becoming a disciple?

We need to remember that, no matter how contextual the local church is to become, the gospel message is that Jesus Christ was wounded for our transgressions (Isaiah 53:5) and that the reason for Jesus coming to the earth was to save people from their sins (Matthew 1:21).

A quick glance at the ‘stories’ section on the Fresh Expressions website will reveal many innovative and creative experiments, and even missional approaches, but there will be little talk of conversion, sin, the cross, repentance or the blood of Christ.

True conversion

Also of great alarm is that, if the gospel is spoken of, it is spoken of in terms of the life of Jesus and the great pursuit of living as he did. In other words, if a person can somehow emulate his loving ways, then that person gradually becomes a disciple, by deeds rather than by repentance.

There is no room within the Fresh Expressions movement for the old practice of crisis conversion. This has been clearly pushed aside for the ‘journey’ approach. The alarm here is that Pauline theology and the wider salvation story found in the rest of the New Testament is largely ignored and preferred less than the Gospels.

Does this then mean that the rest of the New Testament is less inspired than the Gospels? This is the worrying stance that the Fresh Expressions movement is taking, as it relegates the discipline of biblical theology to the realm of the ‘past’.

Faced with the challenge of culture, I would argue that the cross actually supersedes culture and is not to be shaped by culture. This has been the stand taken by the likes of the apostle Paul, St Patrick, Martin Luther, John Owen, John Wesley, C. H. Spurgeon, William Booth and John Stott.

We have a rich heritage of those who have placed the cross above culture and, interestingly, culture has under the challenge of that clear stance often embraced that cross in crisis conversion. 

Liberalism

When we and, specifically, when Fresh Expressions (or any expression which sacrifices truth on the altar of engaging with the local context) encourage culture to shape the gospel message, then we simply present a re-branded liberalism to a world lost in sin and seeking true redemption.

I pray that we as evangelicals would not shrink back, because of current cultural pressures, and retreat from our biblical and historical roots, but re-engage with those roots and march into the current chapter of history, lifting high the cross as we do.

William Wade