From the Revd Dr Stephen Brian
Sir, - You have recently published some correspondence (24
and 31 October)
regarding the church-growth research programme From Anecdote to
Evidence. This programme includes reports available on the website
One piece of research, conducted by the Church Army's Research
Unit, is Strand 3b, analysing "fresh expressions of Church and
church plants". I downloaded and read the report because I was
particularly interested in the methodology - which is critical, but
often poor in this kind of research.
I was surprised to learn that not a single participant in a
Fresh Expression (FE) was interviewed in the course of the
research. This means that the "data" collected was not really data
at all, but simply the impressions and judgements of the leaders,
who are hardly disinterested observers of their own practice. These
leaders then make easy judgements about who in the FE is a
Christian (page 6) and who, by implication, isn't, without
bothering to ask the individuals concerned.
I wonder how many of the participants would be happy to know
they were not classified as Christians. My own research (into
Alpha) reveals that the claims made by leaders can be very
different from the views expressed by the participants for whom the
claims are being made, when they are actually given a voice.
The researchers further reveal their own strongly partisan
theological stance on page 13, without actually acknowledging it
(as good researchers should): "it is arguable that there is
considerable biblical illiteracy in existing churches, as well as
deep ignorance of how the Gospel is understood, and some intolerant
liberalism, parts of which may be heretical."
David Watson is quoted, without comment, describing churchgoers
as "pew-fillers", and "not true disciples of Christ". Yet Fresh
Expressions still largely rely on these ignorant, heretical,
liberal pew-fillers for their resources to keep functioning,
including their "pioneer" ministers.
The report admits that there is a great deal of confusion about
what constitutes a Fresh Expression, and yet the report itself only
adds to the confusion. Can a Fresh Expression be set up by an
existing church or not? The second of the "Ten Parameters" (page
10) implies not. It must not be "an outreach project from an
existing church". And yet there are numerous references that imply
the opposite, e.g. from the "Summary of 4.1" (page 30, third
bullet-point): "The vast majority begin from, and stay within a
parish. They have ongoing connection with this sending church." Or,
from page 23: "What Church Army's Research Unit thinks is being
created is a new, large, relationally based fringe."
Surely, if the FE is set up by a member of an existing church,
then it must be a form of outreach. If it goes on to break all
links with the existing parish church, then it may in due course
become a completely independent church with its own governance
(apparently a desired outcome), but could no longer be part of the
Church of England unless we are going to redefine what the Church
of England is. Independent churches are nothing new.
Parameter number 8 says: "At least the majority of members (who
are part of the public gathering) see it as their major expression
of being church." Yet the members are not asked about this, and, if
they were, I suspect they wouldn't have the first idea what "major
expression of being church" meant. This dropping of the definite
article and reducing the Church to a concept rather than something
substantial is lost on people not engaged in this kind of debate. I
doubt very much if most "unchurched" (as they are called) would
recognise a crèche with glue and paper, Bible stories, and a prayer
as basically the same thing as attending a family communion on a
Sunday. We have, of course, had Sunday schools for many years - but
we didn't use to count them in as those attending church.
Most hilarious is the implication that the adoption of new
jargon is in itself evidence of success (see "adoption of new
vocabulary" in the final bullet-point on page 30).
This "research" looks suspiciously like propaganda, and the only
"evidence" appears to be of a Fresh Expressions agenda.
All clergy these days are under pressure to come up with Fresh
Expressions, and undoubtedly some churches are undertaking exciting
new initiatives. They always have. There have always been all kinds
of groups and organisations linked to, or set up by, the local
church, many of them involving prayer, talks, discussions,
epilogues, and the like. Of course it is to be encouraged and
celebrated; but to feel the need to brand such things as Fresh
Expressions that meet certain criteria is unnecessary - especially
when there is such confusion about what those criteria are.
The desire to categorise them as church attendance must look to
the outsider like a rather feeble attempt to boost the head-count.
I'm sure that can't possibly be the case.
The Rectory, Church Lane
Earl Soham, Woodbridge
Suffolk IP13 7SD