What exactly is Fresh Expressions? More than anything, it seems to be a spontaneous initiative of the Holy Spirit—if that doesn’t sound too presumptuous. One thing it is not, however, is a program. There is no Fresh Expressions manual with a one-two-three handy-dandy guide to setting up a wonderful fresh expression of church. In some ways, of course, that might be easier, but the Holy Spirit seems not to be into the kind of cookie-cutter solutions that many programs provide. The Mission Shaped Church report in 2004 says with some bemusement:
Only three fresh expressions of church were planted in 1978 . . . It is not clear why, by 1983, this number of church plants had trebled to nine, or in 1985 fifteen examples were begun. . . . The number of churches planted each year continued to rise, reaching about 40 per year in 1990.
In other words, nobody really understands what caused this movement to begin—hence the thought that it might just be something to do with the Spirit.
The year of the report, 2004, was also the year that Fresh Expressions began to be spelled with capital initial letters, since that was the year when the Archbishops of Canterbury and York adopted the term, “the Fresh Expressions Initiative,” and Steve Croft was appointed Team Leader of Fresh Expressions UK.
One of the best things about the transition from grassroots movement to official Archbishops’ Initiative has been the determination of the official organisation of Fresh Expressions (upper case) not to quench or control the grassroots spontaneity of fresh expressions of church (lower case). Instead Fresh Expressions has sought to resource the movement with whatever is needed, but to do so with a light touch and without creating a lot of rules and procedures.
In particular, Fresh Expressions has drawn on the wisdom of practitioners to offer three levels of training for any who wish it. First of all, there is the Vision Day, usually on a Saturday, which is an orientation to the whole idea of missional church. Then, for those who want to explore further, there is a course of six sessions called Mission Shaped Intro. And finally, for those actually moving to begin a fresh expression of church, there is an eight month hands-on course called Mission Shaped Ministry. The whole thing has been well thought out, in terms of both the content and the teaching style, and is in constant process of revision and improvement. After all, a missional movement in a rapidly changing culture cannot afford to get stuck in a rut.
So where does this leave Canada? As the Institute of Evangelism has sought to help Canadians discover what the Fresh Expressions initiative is all about, we have begin to introduce the three levels of training over here, adapting them for the Canadian context as we go along—also a necessity if we are to be truly missional.
Nick Brotherwood, Team Leader for Fresh Expressions Canada, has led several Vision Days, and trained others to “go and do likewise.” As a result, there have now been Vision Days in Sutton QC, Rosemere QC, Toronto, Dundas ON, Peterborough ON, Ottawa, and Kingston, and more are planned for the coming months.
Nick has also pioneered the teaching of Mission Shaped Intro (MSI) with his colleague Tim Smart in the Montreal diocese, when forty people attended. Now Ontario has got on board: in September and October, Jenny Andison (Archbishop’s Officer for Mission in the Diocese of Toronto) and I team-taught the six week course as part of the Wycliffe College Diploma of Lay Ministry program.
The experience of teaching this course was very stimulating, and unlike anything Jenny or I had been involved in before. We had to learn to move quickly from showing video clips of fresh expressions of church to reading passages of scripture, from group discussion around the tables to innovative worship times, and from explaining PowerPoint diagrams to encouraging participants to write on newsprint around the walls of the Cody Library where we met. One Wednesday night, we made bread, timing it so that the smell filled the room as we talked, and we were able to close the evening by sharing fresh bread together. On another evening, a classroom was transformed into a chapel, with various worship stations around the walls, where participants could experience worship in new formats. Several times we showed clips from movies (Sister Act, Whale Rider, and The Color Purple) and discussed what they said about such topics as leadership and spirituality. Not that it was all fun and games: students also learned that “Christology” leads to “missiology,” which leads in turn to “ecclesiology”—and (even better) what those terms mean.
Was a good time had by all? Here are some of the things the students wrote in their evaluations that they specially appreciated:
- Good mix of inspirational, spiritual and practical concepts
- The opportunity to discuss with fellow students
- New ideas, encouraging, and very welcoming
- Relaxed/casual learning style
- Helpful videos
- Allowing me to understand much better the process of FX
- Stimulating—team teaching effective, good presentation
- At first I was not too sure how Fresh Expressions will work in the Anglican realm of things, but by week 5 I could clearly see how we can use some of the information in my church
- I will recommend it to others, particularly those seeking postulancy in the Anglican church
- I thoroughly enjoyed this course and am prayerfully hopeful to implement it in my my church
Where to begin
If you or your church are wondering about fresh expressions of church, the place to begin is with a Vision Day for churches in your area, preferably of all denominations. Contact Sue Kalbfleisch, National Co-ordinator for Vision Days here, and she will be only too pleased to get you started.
Then, when there is a big enough critical mass in your area, you can begin to think about running a Mission Shaped Intro course. For that, contact Nick Brotherwood here.
And if you are looking for the eight-month Mission Shaped Ministry course, the plan is that it will be run for the first time in Canada next September, in Toronto. Watch this website and the FreshExpressions.ca website for details as they unfold.
But if this is truly the work of the Spirit, training, however good, is not enough. We need also to be prayerful, that God will lead us into ways of vitality and mission, so that “fresh expressions of church” will not just be a trendy phrase, but truly fresh expressions of the Holy Spirit.
 Graham Cray (ed.), Mission Shaped Church (London: Church House Publishing 2004), 16-17.