Friday, December 11, 2020

celebrating First Expressions with my graduating department

celebrating The Theology Department at Otago University have a lovely tradition, an annual end of year celebration of books written by Faculty and former post-graduates. Since I was a PhD post-graduate student of Theology at Otago back in the day, I was invited (back!) to celebrate First Expressions: Innovation and the Mission of God, the book I had published late in December, 2019. Here is my “celebration” speech, trying to link the book with the PhD research.

First Expressions: Innovation and the Mission of God is the 2nd book to emerge from my PhD research. I graduated with my PhD from Otago in 2004. As I finished my PhD, I wanted to make the research accessible to the wider church. So I wrote The Out of Bounds Church?: Learning to Create a Community of Faith in a Culture of Change. This was published by Zondervan, USA in 2005 and translated into Korean in 2008. I’ve even been to visit a new church plant in Korea named “Out of Bounds Church” in honour of the book!

There was a large chunk of empirical research – ethnography, interviews, focus groups – I had to drop out of my PhD thesis. Because it was already too big. So I was keen to find a way to do something with that PhD research. So I sought ethics approval and did a longitudinal study. This involved returning 10 years later to the church’s I’d researched in my PhD.

I found that half of the new forms of church were no longer meeting as gathered communities. Which raised ecclesiology questions. Does it matter if innovation doesn’t endure? How might Easter – dying and rising –shape our ecclesiology?

During that 10 year period, the wider denominations – Church of England and Methodists in the UK – had affirmed these new forms of church. They had developed structures like Fresh Expressions to partner with them. So that raised another set of ecclesiology questions – How do organisations discern what is of God and what isn’t? How do churches as organisations best partner with grassroots innovation?

So I interviewed denominational leaders –Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury and Stephen Cottrell who’s now the Archbishop of York.

Then I found a publisher – SCM. They have been great to work with.

According to Ecclesiology and international ecumenical journal – First Expressions is a “radical re-conceptualization of the marks of the Church” (more here).

According to the Scottish Episcopal Journal, First Expressions offers “in-depth theological hermeneutic, firmly grounded in Scripture and ecclesiology” (more here).

According to Rowan Williams, who emailed in January, saying he was – “impressed with the theological analysis .. [First Expressions is] an important book.”

Thanks to the University of Otago, who provided PhD scholarships and post-graduate conference funding. Thanks to the Theology Department for celebrating books emerging from PhD research. Thanks to any of you who might want to review it for Anglican Taonga or Methodist Touchstone!

Photo by Matthieu Joannon on Unsplash

Posted by steve at 05:32 PM


  1. Great to know you are continuing and building the direction you have been travelling.
    I’m about to make a move on a third experiment in this direction. It already involves ‘outsiders’ as key participants, which will probably cause plenty of hands held up in horror!
    My reflection on the short term nature of many if not most of these movements is that the changes of lives that take place have been deep and profound and remain. But increases the alienation from the institutional church.

    Comment by Geoff boyce — December 11, 2020 @ 7:07 pm

  2. Thanks Geoff. Lovely to hear from you

    I do think the TOLLS experiment is worth writing up .. and I nearly talked about it in the book, but it wasn’t strictly longitudinal as I was defining it in the book.

    Part of my research was individuals who had moved on from first expressions. It was a blog comment actually here on this blog that alerted me to the profound gratitude folk had for these communities, even if they moved on.

    But it is certainly worth further research – life histories of First expression disciples? first expression migrants? …

    steve taylor

    Comment by steve — December 12, 2020 @ 10:35 am

  3. I’ll have to leave that to others.
    But it would be worth a coffee if ever our paths cross again.
    Doug Gay reckons the legacy of the LLS iGlasgow was the uptake of visual imagery in the wider church. Yes but I think he’s being modest. Greenbelt is also tied in with this history.

    I’m more interested now in ‘the church where we are’ outside buildings and picking up on new wave organisational principles recognising complexity. About to start 6 month action-research at Pilgrim and with outside community development innovators.

    Comment by Geoff Boyce — December 15, 2020 @ 5:10 pm

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