With its theme of “Church for Every Context,” the annual Vital Church Planting (VCP) conference launched on January 30 at St. Paul’s, Bloor Street, in Toronto. Sponsored by the Anglican diocese of Toronto and Wycliffe College’s Institute of Evangelism, the conference brings inspirational speakers and how-to workshop leaders together each year to explore new directions for the missional church.
After greetings from Archbishop Colin Johnson of Toronto, Wycliffe College’s Dr. John Bowen introduced the opening plenary speaker, the Rev. Dr. Mike Moynagh of Fresh Expressions U.K. The author of several books, one whose title provided the conference with its theme, Moynagh outlined the explosion of fresh expressions of church in Britain’s 42 Anglican dioceses.
Calling the annual VCP conference a “wonderful multi-denominational phenomenon” with no counterpart in the U.K., he cited recent Church Army research from 10 CofE (Church of England) dioceses, showing that 15 per cent of all Anglican churches qualified as fresh expressions of church (FEC) and nearly 10 per cent of average weekly church attendance was in FEC, accounting for 21,000 attendees, the approximate equivalent of an average-sized diocese. “The majority of these have been started in the last 10 years, and the rate of increase has been accelerating,” Moyhagh said, noting that a comparison of five-year periods shows that each five years has more FEC growth than its predecessor. “And the majority are long-lasting, with some going back to 1992. Only 10 per cent have died.”
FEC start-ups take creative but often simple forms. In one instance, parishioners set up an after-school hospitality centre for children and parents in their church. Bible stories and prayer were introduced, and when regular attendance grew to more than 30, members began to say, “This is our church.” In a rural village, a church’s mid-week luncheon club invited lunchers to a short gathering around the holy table after the meal, including candle lighting, scripture, prayers and music. Almost all accepted, and as their comfort level increased, the seeds of a new congregation were sown. “You see, it’s very easy to take a small step and turn an existing group into a group that begins its journey toward Jesus,” he said.
During a talk on FEC at Oxford University’s Wycliffe Hall, an audience member said he belonged to a heavy-metal FEC congregation. The rocker congregation had recently discovered an Anglo-Catholic church, worshipped in for 1,000 years, across the street, and the two disparate flocks were now meeting once a month. “Heavy metal meets Anglo-Catholic-just imagine what happens!” said Moynagh.
He conceded that in the early days, imprecise definitions debased the concept of FEC, allowing the most minor novelty to qualify. “Even a change to a church notice board became a fresh expression of church!” he said. “You do need to put boundaries around this term.”
The Church Army now has four defining criteria for FEC. Is the new community missional, that is, working with those who do not normally attend church? Is the FEC contextual, taking different shapes to fit different contexts, including service churches? Is it formational, seeking to make disciples of Jesus through the spirit as the heart of what it seeks to do? Is it ecclesial, that is, calling people to be church where they are and not using FEC as a stepping stone into mainline church?
The U.K.’s incremental growth statistics are being driven by the evolution of the church planting model. In the earliest paradigm-“Worship First”-a core team of 30 or 40 went out from a parish and acquired new premises. Then, relying on it networks, it advertised the new church as a worship venue to newcomers. This worked well in some contexts, said Moynagh, among those returning to church, people between churches and young professionals in London.
Less well served by this prototype were areas lacking large planting teams or people with little or no church background. So that model evolved into a newer relationship-based paradigm-“Relationships First”-in which a group of three or four started listening and building ties with people in a particular context, then gradually introduced explicit Christian content and exploring discipleship. He cited the example of Thirst Café, near Cambridge, England, an FEC for mothers that began in 2007 in a CofE school staff room and has since open a second site. ‘This approach seems to work best among people who want to connect or reconnect with the Christian faith,” he said.
More contemporary still is the “Service First” model, in which the journey starts with listening and fulfilling a concrete need by loving service in a specific activity. A community forms around that activity; signposts to Jesus are slowly introduced; and eventually participants are invited to explore intentional discipleship. An example of this is a language café in northwest London, which teaches English to immigrants and has gradually introduced confidential prayer requests. “The models can overlap,” Moynagh said.
He stressed that a missional church serving community needs has theological underpinnings in God’s triune community with Christ and the Holy Spirit, the gift of his son to the world and the public ministry of Jesus and his apostles. “God is missionary…God is communion,” he said.
“Church must be at the epicentre of life; we need to be where church is in all segments of life,” he said, citing the example of Peter, a U.K. man who shares his Christian faith in a bicycle repair project for kids in low-income housing projects. “God is all in all,” said Moynagh.