“Fresh Expressions of Christian Community: Where the Spirit Blows.”

balloon(July 7, 2012)

In the Book of Common Prayer, we can find these words, “The mission of the Church is to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.” (BCP p. 855) It is interesting today, to observe how the Church wrestles with her mission in the world. There are some communities of faith that are working diligently to restore ALL people to God and each other by being Christ-like and doing so, in their own backyards; feeding, serving, teaching, loving, sharing, and transforming. There are some communities of faith, who equally live out their mission by becoming spiritual respites for the broken, distraught, and lonely around them. Traditions of service and transformation found in many of our existing parishes and mission churches, serve as beacons of hope. Even so, there are communities in our family that require re-visioning, re-freshing, re-planting, and re-imagining, so they might discover how the Spirit is calling them to serve and proclaim Good News in the years to come. This process of “Re” is vital and absolutely necessary for the Church to continue her mission of “restoring all people to unity with God and each other in Christ,” but “Re” may not be enough, there may be more we can and there is more we must do.

Two words in our mission statement may become merely an nice “addendum,” if we continue down the path we are on today. (ALL People) Our mission statement alludes to a mission that is vast, diverse, broad, deep, and multi-faceted and embraces way of accomplishing our purpose. There are many people in the Church today, who believe that the Spirit is calling us now, to embrace a pioneering approach to being Church. These folks work diligently to birth, alongside traditional expressions of the faith, new forms of Christian community. At the most recent General Convention, the Episcopal Church affirmed, as Tom Brackett (Officer for Church Planting and Ministry Re-Development) asserts in his blog, “Over the last ten days, the legislative and deliberative processes of the 77th General Convention clarified two priorities (among many): develop new ministries as well as nurture new and innovative expressions of ministry.” (Church Planting Central Blog)

Several years ago, the Church of England recognized that there were previously unobserved shifts in the culture that were influencing the church’s ability to continue reaching “ALL PEOPLE.” In Europe, there is a growing decline in the number of people, who proclaim a faith community affiliation. In response, the leadership of the Church of England began a process of discernment with hope and a pioneering spirit. Eventually, leaders committed to investing resources and began to empower ministry pioneers to respond to the Spirit’s call to evangelize in fresh ways. This initiative was not about revitalizing, re-imagining, re-planting, or re-visioning existing parishes, but the focus of this pioneering, entrepreneurial approach was to reach into the cultural context, and allow the Spirit to birth new communities of faith. Out of this discernment process, a renewed evangelistic fervor birthed what has become known as the “Fresh Expressions” movement.

This movement of the Spirit is not limited to the UK or Europe, but it has been in motion here in the United States for two decades or more. At the National Church level, The Rev. Tom Brackett in his unique leadership role, offers resources and networking opportunities for pioneer mission planters throughout the Episcopal Church. In addition, the Diocese of Southern Ohio’s The Right Reverend Briedenthal (Diocesan Bishop) has recognized the need to explore, support, and engage “Fresh Expressions” of the faith. The Rev. Jane Gerdsen serves the Diocese of Southern Ohio as “Missioner for Fresh Expressions” and in her ministry, she serves as a link between the Bishop’s office and the faith communities who are emerging out of a unique community ethos. There are many other “grass root” efforts sprouting throughout the Church today, and our work has just begun.

A recent ARIS (American Religious Institute Study) indicated that in the last two years, the number of people in the United States who proclaimed “NO RELIGIOUS AFFILIATION” grew from 8% to 16%.  A more recent 2012 Pew Survey asserts that 1 in 5 (20%) of Americans acknowledge they have no religious affliilation at all. I imagine that if most of our congregations took a survey next Sunday, they would realize that we are missing a few generations from our worship services. Where are “ALL the PEOPLE?” We must act, we must take risks, and we must innovate and recapture an entrepreneurial spirit in our evangelism efforts, in our response to Our Lord’s mandate to “make disciples of all nations.”

We must with caution, undertake this great journey, not with an expected outcome of “putting young people back into our pews.” We must not take this path believing that one of these emerging communities will look like St. Swithins, once it matures. The Right Reverend Graham Cray, the “Fresh Expressions” pioneering leader in the Church of England, cautions us about our expectations of these emerging communities. He states, “Maturity will not mean they become like the churches which planted them. They must remain relevant to their cultural context.”[1] He also reminds us that we must be innovators, entrepreneurs, pioneers, and risk takers. He states, “Because there is no standard model of fresh expression of church, they cannot and should not be cloned! Rather there is a process, which is normally followed when they are established. It begins with listening – to God and to the community or network, you are trying to reach. It is more about discernment than strategic planning: Looking for the Holy Spirit’s opportunities, and obeying his call.”[2]

A “Fresh Expressions” initiative is not about creating a model of church planting, and implementing it repeatedly, until we reach some pre-determined benchmark. We need a fresh way of engaging in community building, and it may require us to do it in new, fresh, never-tried paths.

As a licensed Commercial Pilot and Certified Flight Instructor, I have made several “cross country” flights to distant airports. I have taught hundreds of flight students to traverse the skies of Florida from Naples to Miami, Venice to Jacksonville, and Marco to Key West. When my students prepared for a flight, it was crucial for them to research the weather along the route of flight, explore the conditions of the destination airport, eliminate mechanical risks by thoroughly checking out the airplane, and insure that the route taken to the destination would be followed with great precision using the navigation aids along the way. I offer this lesson about aviation training as a metaphor for how in the past, we may have used a particular model of church planting. We may have used a “tried and true” method of birthing new faith communities. Like planning for a long flight, we knew where we wanted to go and we knew what we wanted the community to look like on the other side. Like any good pilot, we may looked over our craft, our route, and the weather, we knew the pitfalls along the way, and we tried to reduce the risks of failure associated with birthing the new community. Using the navigation aids along the way, we may have established set “benchmarks of growth” and along the way, we evaluated the progress of the little community as she grew and matured. Finally, we arrived at our destination, and the congregation was welcomed into the Diocese as a parish. We landed safely.

Pioneering new forms of Christian community may look a lot different and it will require a fresh approach. As we consider our response to the Spirit’s beckoning to support multi-faceted and fresh ways of birthing new communities of the faith, maybe we should consider another metaphor for church planting; “Balloon Flight. The difference between piloting an aircraft and a hot air balloon is simple. The pilot of the hot air balloon can only control two phases of flight; liftoff and touchdown. The balloon pilot must depend less on solid planning and “tried and true” methods of years past, and more on the wild, wooly, and uncertain movement of the wind. Once the balloon becomes airborne, it lazily and yet with purpose, rides the wind to where ever she might lead. The pilot responds to the wind and either adds or reduces the heated air which helps the craft rise to stronger streams, or descends into calmer paths. The pilot has no control over the direction of flight because the balloon is at the mercy of the wind.

When we take on the challenge to engage in new forms of community building, we must be willing to take a risk and ride the movement of “Pneuma,” wind, breath, Spirit. The Spirit blows where she wills. The Spirit is blowing and calling us aloft and when we make the choice to jump into the basket and take flight, we will surely find ourselves on an adventure, a journey that may take winding turns, achieve unexpected heights, recoil into uncertain descents, and maybe even offer us a unique surprise or two. The Spirit is blowing and calling us aloft. May we have the courage, commitment, and patience to pull the cord that releases this craft aloft, and through our pioneer response, may we continue to “restore ALL people to unity with God and each other in Christ.” (BCP p. 855)

[1] http://www.freshexpressions.org.uk/about/introduction

[2] IBID

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