Wednesday, October 19, 2011

a starter for 10: fresh expressions and Uniting ministry

On Monday I gave a 90 minute opening address to the National Ministers Fresh Expressions conference. I called it A starter for 10. With about 110 Uniting Church ministers attending, I wanted to provide some ways to think about fresh expressions, but also to explore some ways to understand fresh expressions from within Uniting Church history and theology.

For those interested in fresh expressions, Aussie and Uniting style, here are some of my headings, along with the resources I drew on.


Story: Somewhere Else bread making fresh expression. I drew on research by Christine Dutton, “Liberation Theology and Fresh Expressions,” Paper delivered at Urban Theology Unit, Institute for Contextual and Urban Theology, July 2011.

A (UK) definition

A fresh expression is a form of church for our changing culture established primarily for the benefit of people who are not yet members of any church. It will come into being through principles of listening, service, incarnational mission and making disciples. It will have the potential to become a mature expression of church shaped by the gospel and the enduring marks of the church and for its cultural context.”

1. Fresh expressions begins with mission

This section explored mission as an expression of God’s love – in creation, in forming the people of Israel, in Jesus, in Pentecost.

“Translatability became the characteristic mode of Christian expansion through history. Christianity has no single revealed language, and historical experience traces this fact to the Pentecost event when the believers testified of God in their native tongues” (Lamin Sanneh, Translating the Message: The Missionary Impact on Culture, 214).

2. Fresh expressions expect a body

Fresh expressions is not about getting people into existing church, but about, like Jesus, forming community around the mission of God.

It finished with a story of a body beginning in mission, to highlight how mission begins with listening to the local. Simon Carey Holt, God Next Door, Acorn Press, 2008, 108-9.

3. Fresh expressions needs some history

This section began with a pub quiz, 6 questions about the global mission of God. It then told stories from Celtic mission in the 5th century, mission in Azherbijan in the 12th and Vietnam in the 15th. Each story brought what I think are essential fresh expression values to the surface – risk, wholistic mission, contextualisation, radical discipleship. Each story, deliberately, was a “non=Western” story, designed to subvert the predominantly Western shape of much Fresh expressions talk.

Key resources were

This section finished with a hands on activity, a 5 minute pause while people made boats from origami (linked with 5th century Celtic mission of Brendan). Pattern from here. This generated some unexpected discussion, a number of folk commented how they found the activity difficult and how they needed each other in the process. (This itself suggested some important values in mission IMHO).

Folk who’ve heard me speak before on mission might recognise bits and pieces in the above. I then moved into stuff I’ve been pondering recently.

4. Fresh expression needs some Uniting Preamble history

The Uniting Church has adopted a Preamble to its constitution, which tells a story from an indigenous perspective. I explored it from how it might guide us from a mission perspective. How to be missional, How to be missional badly.

Article 3. The First Peoples had already encountered the Creator God before the arrival of the colonisers; the Spirit was already in the land revealing God to the people through law, custom and ceremony. The same love and grace that was finally and fully revealed in Jesus Christ sustained the First Peoples and gave them particular insights into God’s ways.

Article 5. Many in the uniting churches, however, shared the values and relationships of the emerging colonial society including paternalism and racism towards the First Peoples. They were complicit in the injustice that resulted in many of the First Peoples being dispossessed from their land, their language, their culture and spirituality, becoming strangers in their own land.

I focused on two articles and phrases like

  • How to be missional and the relationship between “already encountered” and “same love and grace that was finally and fully revealed in Jesus Christ”
  • How to be missional badly, “paternalism and racism” and perhaps some guidance for Fresh expressions if we come not as a package, once again from mother England, but choosing to become “strangers in their own land”, ie see ourselves as guests, not hosts.

A key resource here was Wilbur Shenk’s essay in “Recasting Theology of Mission. Impulses from the Non-Western World” in Landmark Essays in Mission and World Christianity, 116-132. I also read the story of Eric in Shaun Tan, Tales From Outer Suburbia, to evoke what being guest, not host might look like.

What does Fresh expressions mean for local Uniting churches?

I then tried to ground this with some stories. I imagined what might happen to my 4 local Uniting churches if they took Fresh expressions seriously, what they might risk in mission. I imagined a faith community in a Uniting school, a messy church building around a kids programme, a spirituality gathering and a community service gathering.

I related this to some of the founding documents of the Uniting Church, which I suggested anticipated fresh expressions. Look at these quotes:

  • “We must be ready to experiment with forms of congregational life.” (The Church. It’s Nature, Function and Ordering. Being the Second Report of the Joint Commission on Church Union. 1960, 42)
  • “the ‘region’ in which such congregations are to be formed, is today not only the place where people reside but also the other sociological units in which gather for important activities and decisions.” (The Church, 43)
  • “Since the rise of new forms of the congregation would require new forms of the presbyterate to provide for their oversight, we must take care that the order of the church remains sufficiently flexible and open to allow these needs to be met.” (The Church, 42)

In reference to this last quote, I wondered what new forms of the presbyterate might be needed? Is it time for an Australian missionary order (Order of St Eric, someone suggested!) as part of Uniting structure and polity?

So many questions! But my task was to offer an opening, a starter for 10, which I hoped I was doing.  The President, Alistair McRae, commented that it was deeply evocative and deeply, deeply, provocative, which was some encouragement.

We finished with the boats. We stood, asking God to speak fresh to us over the conference. After a minute in silence, I asked them to swap boats with their neighbour, to hold their neighbours boat, and to pray for them, their charism, what God was doing in them.

Posted by steve at 08:29 AM


  1. Hi Steve. I arrived for the tail end of your talk so it’s good to catch up on what you shared here. The preamble, with its affirmation that God was actively engaging with the Aboriginal people, has excellent starting points for conversation re the many other indigenous cultures that have found their home in Australia, along with the more freshly developed subcultures we’re encountering in city and country. Maybe a book?

    Comment by Duncan — October 21, 2011 @ 3:04 pm

  2. thanks duncan.

    re book – i wonder if need to find a way to sit with those who gave the taonga (gift) of the preamble first. they need to give their blessing, else i run the risk of being yet another coloniser ripping up indigenous folk,


    Comment by steve — October 21, 2011 @ 5:15 pm

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