As you may know, the sixth annual Vital Church Planting conference is coming up in February 2012—Thursday 2nd to Saturday 4th. I hope you will be able to make it for at least part of the time. The last few years, George has kindly agreed to cover half the cost for Wycliffe students. See the great new-look website, designed by Wycliffe grad Ryan Sim, here.
A couple of times recently, people have said to me, “Why don’t you drop the term ‘church planting,’ and just call it ‘the Vital Church conference’ or something like that?” I guess their thinking is that so much about the conference is applicable to any church looking for renewal and revitalization. So why not broaden the appeal by dropping the idea of church planting, or at least moving it to the margins, since so many don’t see it as relevant?
So far we have resisted the idea, and I’ll tell you why. The goal of Fresh Expressions is simple: it is to start new Christian communities which we trust will grow in time into mature churches. Pete Atkins, a medical doctor and a leader of Fresh Expressions in the UK, says, “Fresh Expressions is really just a name for church planting in a post-Christendom world.”
(If we just called it “church planting,” people would assume we meant putting up new buildings in new subdivisions, putting in a priest, beginning services and hoping that, since we have built it, they will recognise their responsibility to come. The term “fresh expressions of church” avoids that danger.)
Of course, the fact that the term “fresh expressions” is not well-known or understood is part of the problem. It has been applied to everything from the introduction of a coffee hour after a service to the replacement of an organ with a music group (“a fresh expression of organs” as Rowan Williams has joked). Although that kind of change may be helpful to the church’s mission, the term is most authentically applied to fresh expressions of CHURCH.
What the VCP conference offers—and which is unique—is the insight that many Canadians (perhaps most?) will never be reached by existing churches, however missional and outward-oriented, and that they will only be reached by new Christian communities which are formed by and within their culture, not ours. (Those of you who have read Vincent Donovan will understand this, since it is what he was aiming at among the Maasai.)
Rowan Williams affirms this distinction when he says:
“Renewal for the Christian community is never simply a matter of doing the same things better, though that is an essential part of it; it’s also about finding what new shapes for our life together are created under the pressure of mission. New wines and new wineskins, you might say; the idea is firmly rooted in the Gospel itself.” (My emphasis. See his article in Mixed Economy: the Journal of Fresh Expressions here.)
This is why we have had speakers at VCP who have actually planted new churches, like Beth Fellinger and Pernell Goodyear and Connie denBok, and (this year) Dave Male from Ridley Hall, Cambridge. Because they are experienced practitioners, they are able to hold our feet to the fire on this issue.
If we changed the name—and the focus—of the conference, it would become yet another conference to help churches become renewed, revitalized, and missionally oriented. That is worth a million dollars, of course, but there are ALREADY all sorts of resources for doing that, from the Alban Institute to Al Roxburgh’s Missional Network, and there have been such for over 25 years.
So, for the time being, at least, the conference will remain the Vital Church Planting conference and will encourage and equip people to begin fresh expressions of CHURCH. I hope to see you there!