Friday, July 30, 2010

planting fresh expressions down under: a tale of seven churches

Here in South Australia we recently enjoyed the visit by Dave Male. One of the big helps for me was when Dave talked about the size of the core team in planting fresh expressions. He was making the point that the smaller the team, the slower the progress, but the more likely it would be radical re-expression of missional life. In contrast, the larger the core team, the more quickly the plant might grow, yet the more likely the new plant can end up look like it’s planting parent.

It helped me make sense of my fresh expressions experience.

My partner and I planted Graceway in 1994. That was last millennium, when noone was talking about fresh expressions or emerging church. But we knew that our mates were dialling out of church, yet still were encountering God. We started reading the literature on cultural shift and out of that emerged Graceway. We had values of community and creativity and participation, so we met cafe style, always had food, had a barstool for open sharing and explored the whole-body in worship. The planting team was small and it was such a long, hard slog, real pioneering.

There was simply none of the infrastructure and conversations and books that there are around now. We endured at times quite active hostility. But we learnt heaps and plugged away. We made mistakes but we saw God move. We saw some unchurched find faith, developed a distinctive way of life, built networks with the community and found ways to serve and love people. After 9 years we moved on. Graceway was fragile but had some good leaders.

We moved to Opawa in 2004. We were at Opawa six years and in that time had a go a planting six fresh expressions. One per year is good going when you think about it! (I talk about the multi-congregational ethos, which gave this initial shape elsewhere on this blog).

First was espresso, a Tuesday night discussion community for those wanting to explore faith questions is a conversational, open way.

Then came the hymn service, soup on Sunday afternoon, choosing of favourite hymns, a testimony and a sermon. connecting with those for whom hymns was an important part of faith formation.

We tried a number of experiments for spiritual seekers, running a journalling course in a local cafe, offering Sense Making Faith course. Each was important in connecting us with spiritual seekers, but none developed into a cohesive congregation. (Still important, still a great learning, still saw folk baptised.)

We re-planted our evening service in two different forms. One was a monthly Soak service, as a time to “soak” in God. Not so much a pioneering work, but more a contemplative space for people to make time to engage (soak in) God. Sung worship, lectio divina and then a range of stations. Lot of attention paid to the space, which, being in main auditorium was always big and worked really well in terms of contemplation.

The other was Grow which used the table as the main metaphor. People gathered in groups and on each table was an A3 sheet of paper in which people were invited to reflect on two theological questions – who is God and who are humans. Grow had a three week focus and each evening used multiple inputs – video clips, interviews, during the week challenges, top 10 quiz, sermon, prayer.

Another trial was made with the Gathering, which used a local community cottage to work with folks local and close to the church building. Lots of food, gathered around a big wooden table, Bible open.

Looking back, using Dave Male’s lens, helped me see that Opawa was a totally different way of planting fresh expressions than Graceway. Rather than lone “ordained” pioneers, we were involving teams of lay people. (Which you simply don’t have when you are the lone pioneer). Each expression looked for 4-5 people who gathered around an “itch” to explore new possibilities. Each faced the downside, the danger, of becoming a new form of worship, rather than a genuinely missional new form of church.

As Dave says, both types have their strengths and weaknesses. Multiple congregational planting with lay teams is much easier, while pioneering is much more radical.

I’m not sure what the point of this post is. (In fact, I’m not actually often sure what the point of this blog is.) Perhaps someone might find some resonance in one of these tales of seven fresh expression churches.

Posted by steve at 09:04 AM