Churches can get stuck in doing things ‘the old way’ simply because that’s how it’s always been done. It’s not unheard of for innovative ideas or experimental forms of church to get blocked by tedious approval processes or institutional resistance to change.
There are likely to always be aspects of church that focus on traditions and familiar ritual – but many people long for a breath of fresh air in their congregational or worship life.
Some of these people attended the FX-MSM – Fresh Expressions and Mission Shaped Ministry – conference in January at the Centre for Theology and Ministry.
They met to network, churn up new ideas and hear from two leaders within the Fresh Expressions movement in the UK, Dave Male and Ben Edson. Both shared their ideas, wisdom and experiences of non-traditional approaches to church.
According to Mr Male, tweaking current settings within our churches is not the way forward. Neither is Fresh Expressions a movement that centres on the old aim of simply getting a higher number of people to turn up to church on a Sunday.
Mr Male quoted the late Catholic Bishop, Vincent Donovan on his view of new ways the Church can reach out to people: “Do not try to call them back to where they were, and do not try to call them to where you are, beautiful as that place may seem to you. You must have the courage to go with them to a place that neither you nor they have been before.”
By opening up to new ways of thinking and different approaches, the church can invite people on a journey rather than attempting to integrate them into a parish.
“The danger in doing this is ending up with just a new set of rules,” Mr Male said.
He acknowledged the fact that the Fresh Expressions movement continues on from a history of voices in the church calling for change. The Uniting Church has a history of re-thinking traditional aspects of its union churches, reconsidering organisational structures and questioning long-held beliefs about women, sexuality and other faiths. These changes are usually accompanied by an effort to uphold strong ties with tradition, ritual and even retaining some elements of ‘high church’.
Mr Male also quoted Marist priest and anthropologist Gerald Arbuckle in stating that new incarnations of the church are not about ‘leaving the tradition, but driving to its heart.’
He emphasised the need for church practices to support relationships, not vice versa.
“Too often churches try to create first then have to relate to people to get them to go, and then love them… when the order should be: love first, then relate – then create,” he said.
Mr Edson spoke about the trap of well-established church institutions becoming inward-looking and maintenance-focused.
“The shift needs to be going from an attractional model to a missional one; from congregation focused to community focused,” he said.
When it comes to fresh expressions of church, Mr Edson advised FX-MSM delegates to not wait for permission but “get the program blessed by the institution afterwards”.
Discussions also touched on practical matters such as the problem of measuring success or knowing when an approach is worthwhile – and the tendency for missional activities to become separated from the life of the settled church.
Carlynne Nunn, Community and Outreach Worker at Brunswick Uniting Church, attended the conference to explore strategies of engaging with people beyond the traditional model of church.
“I like the possibility that you could engage people with an idea of the spiritual, give people space to investigate and ask questions – without being within the four walls of the church, which might make them uncomfortable,” she said.
“Having a grounding in an institutionalised church may be important, and it’s necessary to have that backing you up, but for those who are alienated from the institution, there are missed opportunities to connect. What excites me is providing a space for people in a secular world to engage with questions and notions of spirituality that they may have forsaken.”