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October 15, Bishop Robert: That is amazing

Astonishingly (and wonderfully) we now know that across our diocese those new styles of church that are labelled fresh expressions account for one in ten of all Anglican church attenders. I am an enthusiast for ‘fresh expressions’ and even I find it overwhelming.

In 2003 the Church of England and other denominations adopted this way of offering an experience of church or Christian community. In just twelve years this movement and insight has shifted from being a novelty to being a core part of our life as a diocese.

Behind fresh expressions in Cumbria is the idea of seeing our communities in the way missionaries would look at them. Instead of trying to get people to come and join us doing church in the way to which we have become accustomed, rather we ponder and pray and listen to what ‘church’ and the gospel might mean for those with little understanding or experience of church or Christianity.

If missionaries went to a foreign country they would not start with ‘church’ as it was back home. They would know that, if people who are unconnected to church are going to discover the reality of God then God needs to be offered and experienced by them in a way that makes sense in their culture rather than ‘our’ culture. Missionaries in foreign places would plant new churches that reflect the culture and style of the local communities where they are and that connect with those people in their ordinary lives.

Fresh expressions, in different ways and with different emphases, are doing just that. Whether it is a Messy Church, or a Deanery Network Church, or a church for students, or people who come together because they like knitting or running, it starts with the people themselves and ‘where they are’, rather than expecting them to ‘come to where we are’. It takes its motivation from Jesus’ command to ‘Go’ into all the world. Go to where (and how) people are rather than expect them to make the big leap to come to us and join in with how we like doing things.

Of course just as these more missionary styles of church are being fruitful and bringing people to faith, so also are more conventional ways of doing church. It is not that one approach is better than the other. It is that a mixture of styles and approaches are needed if we are going to help the diversity of people in Cumbria connect with the reality of the love and truth of God.

So what has triggered this astonishing statistic – that 10% of Anglican churchgoers in Cumbria are doing that through a fresh expression? Over the last few years the national Church of England has triggered some in-depth research in order the check-out and understand what is actually happening through fresh expressions. Ten dioceses from across the country were part of the first study and Cumbria has been part of the second round of review.

This exercise has been carried out externally to the diocese, and with careful rigour (it is sometimes too easy for Christians to gently exaggerate what is happening locally). But amazingly, despite that rigour, we discover that one in ten of people who go to a Church of England-based church do so through a fresh expression, and that most of those have had no previous (or no recent) involvement with church.

The Report of this survey is still be studied so that we can learn lessons and insights from it. Some of those lessons and insights are more sobering – fresh expressions can be quite challenging initiatives. It is very timely that Richard Passmore is about to join us as Fresh Expressions Enabler. He is coming to help catalyse this approach, and to ‘enable’ us in this. If you would like a copy of the report than please email me and I will happily let you have a copy. How amazing and wonderful to discover all this growth, and the affirmation it brings to our emphasis on Deanery Network Youth Church and Messy Church and whatever incredible crossing-cultures initiative God may prompt in you and your church.

Robert Freeman
The Bishop of Penrith

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