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Flaws in research into Fresh Expressions

21 November 2014


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 www.churchgrowthresearch.org.uk.

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

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