New research on the Fresh Expressions movement in the Church of England was released this month, suggesting that new forms of church will not solve the problem of declining church attendance. In a small-scale study, the Rev. Dr. John Walker compared five fresh expressions – creative, highly-contextual ministries like pub churches or child-friendly “messy” churches – with five traditional parishes, observing that both the traditional and innovative churches seemed equally successful at “attracting the non-churched.” Translation: changing your worship style isn’t the way to bring unchurched people sitting in your pews.
On one level, this isn’t news. In Fresh Expressions’ language, we need a “mixed economy” of traditional and innovative ministries to faithfully proclaim the Gospel to diverse peoples. Though Walker’s observations could sound antagonistic toward pioneers of new forms of ministry, Walker writes in support of the mixed economy, arguing that the Church needs both traditional and new models of mission. Again, new worship styles aren’t the solution to declining church attendance.
But the reaction to this news reveals the anxiety latent in our shrinking churches. In a world where the Church is experiencing declining worship attendance and waning public influence, the Church fretfully waits for news of any way we can draw. The anxiety is captured well by Canon Kerry Thorpe, a leader of a fresh expression who was studied by Walker, who opened a review of Walker’s book by saying “Well, do they pass or don’t they?” People want to know: will new worshiping communities save our denominations?
Thorpe summarizes Walker’s findings, saying the answer is both “Yes, and no.” But Thorpe helpfully notes a constructive finding in Walker’s work, the finding that new Christians in these communities shared a common journey which Walker called the “Transformative Cycle.”
In the Transformative Cycle, these women and men had experienced significant life-events which, when processed in relationship with a Christian community, led them to come to a new self-understanding that included a deepened Christian identity. For example, a recent divorcee is invited to a small group where she experiences loving community. That community, in turn, responds to her questions about faith and journeys alongside her. Over time, the love of the community and the Gospel communicated to her through them leads the woman to make a new commitment to follow Christ. An earlier version of Walker’s study noted that the Transformative Cycle happened most often in congregations with a strong “culture of care” and an ability to communicate the tradition of the Church through that care (p. 117). Translation: Relationships with committed Christians lead to personal transformation.
Walker’s work on the Transformative Cycle is much more detailed and nuanced, but churches where the Transformative Cycle takes place share a culture of hospitality and deep relationships. This should inform the questions we’re asking about our churches, whether they were planted one year ago or one hundred years ago.
First, we should begin with relationships. With whom has God already put us in relationship? Are we hospitable to our neighbors? Do we habitually invite new people deeper into our circles? Then we ought to ask ourselves about what gospel is communicated through those relationships. Do we speak naturally about what God has done and is doing in our lives? Do we preach ourselves, or do we speak and act as loving servants of Christ the Lord (2 Cor 4:5)? Regardless of the outward form or worship style of our churches, are we a people who communicate Gospel in community?
Starting with these questions reframes the earlier question about Fresh Expressions: “Well, do they lead to transformed lives or don’t they?” Many do, and we should pray for the grace to become part of transformative Christian communities ourselves. May the Holy Spirit lead us forward in faithful mission, to the glory of the One who underwent the transformative cycle of death and resurrection for us and our salvation.
The Rev. Christopher Brown (MDiv, 2008) is the coordinator of the Church Planting Initiative at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and is co-pastor of The Upper Room Presbyterian Church.