MORE than 50,600 people attend Fresh Expressions of Church across half of the dioceses in the Church of England, two extensive new reports from the Church Army suggest. The majority of those who attend are women, and younger than the average parish congregation.
The term “Fresh Expression of Church” (fxC) was coined in a report on church-planting, Mission-shaped Church, in 2004, although forms of fresh expressions had existed previously. An fxC is defined by the Fresh Expressions organisation as a “new gathering or network that engages mainly with people who have never been to church”.
There are currently more than 3400 reported fxCs of all denominations across the UK, of which more than half, about 2100, are C of E. The first of the reports, The Day of Small Things, released by the Church Army’s research unit last week, analyses about 1100 of these, across 21 dioceses in the Church of England, including London, in 233 pages.
It suggests that there are about 20 different types of fxC, with an average weekly attendance of 50 people (up from 44 two years ago), and that about nine per cent have a congregation of 100 or more. Of all those surveyed in the report, 41 per cent were between the ages of 15 and 55. There was also a higher number of fxCs on poorer council estates than the overall distribution of parishes, it says.
“No one of these small young churches is going to make a dent in a century of ecclesial numerical decline,” the director of Church Army Research, Canon George Lings, warned. They could contribute, however, to “a reforming re-imagination” of the Church in the spirit of the Renewal and Reform vision, not least in the emergence of 574 “lay-lay” leaders of fxCs (those who have no official authorisation or training in the C of E).
The second, 80-page report, Who’s There? looks in more detail at the age, gender, and background of those who attend fxCs. In its survey of 66 fxCs in the C of E, 38 per cent of those who attended in 1997, including those who used to belong to another church but left, were not existing churchgoers. In January 2014, this figure was 60 per cent.
In a related questionnaire, church leaders underestimated by about ten per cent the number of their congregation who had come directly from, and had previously attended, another church (59 per cent). This included children who had transferred from, or attended simultaneously, another church (five per cent).
Of this majority, however, 42 per cent said that they were attending more than one church, compared with 14 per cent who had chosen to leave their previous church altogether. This, Canon Lings said, put an end to the “myth” that fxCs mainly “steal” members from traditional church congregations.
There was also evidence of a family demographic: 30 per cent of all fxC churchgoers were under the age of ten; 37 per cent under the age of 16; and 43 per under the age of 25. Eight per cent of all fxC churchgoers had grown up there, and had therefore known no other worship. This was compared with a controlled sample of parish churches at which around 12 per cent of the congregation were under 16.
Of the 66 fxC surveyed in the second report, 57 were established by, and had close links with, the parish church. In a separate analysis of 24 of these “inherited Sunday congregations”, the report found that they were more likely than fxCs to attract those who had previously been to church (though not for a number of years), but less likely to attract those who had never attended church before.
The survey was carried out over two years to February last year. Analysis from the first report, The Day of Small Things, was taken from a number of surveys and case studies over 22 years from 1992. A further two reports on the sustainability of fxC, and best use of the research, were published by Church Army simultaneously (see below).
Read the full reports here: bit.ly/2eAP7jH
Sustainability and previous research IN TANDEM with the two Church Army reports on Fresh Expressions of Church (fxC) in the C of E, two more were published concerning their sustainability, and the usefulness of previous research.
The first report, Sustaining Young Churches, focuses on 12 case studies across the dioceses of Derby and Liverpool, two of which were started from scratch without input from the parish church. Leaders from these “seed” churches, and four others, were “confident” in their sustainability, since more effort had gone into their making, it says.
But the other half of the case studies were not so sure. Two Friendship groups established in the 1980s and ’90s (before the term fxC was coined) were concerned by an ageing congregation; and a leader from an fxC formed specifically for LGBT people said: “Long-term, ideally our job is to make ourselves redundant. That’s the ‘promised land’ picture — that a ministry like ours doesn’t need to exist.”
The report also showed that two of the 12 case studies had a full-time paid leader, and eight had unpaid or hourly rated leaders. Nine fxCs were responsible to the PCC of the parish church. The loss of leadership was a concern for future sustainability.
The second report, What Happens After Research?, published the results of questionnaires that had been issued as a follow-up to the 11 dioceses that took part in two earlier surveys by the Church Army on fxC, in 2011 and 2013.
The longevity of fxCs, and reasons for their closure since those findings, were mixed. Seven of the dioceses said that, in most cases, closure was a result of a leader leaving the church; five quoted “weaknesses in structure”, and four said that the fxCs had simply “run their course”.
Four dioceses said that they had used the results of the surveys to decide whether or not various initiatives could be classified as fxC. Four expanded the usual criteria to include other missional activities, and seven used the information to raise awareness of new fxCs. One diocese had made no use of the definitions laid out in the reports.
The majority, however, said that their involvement in the research had helped to expand their knowledge and vocabulary about fxCs, resulting in a raised profile, formal recognition, and better training and practice. Only two dioceses said that the reports had had no repercussions regarding the growth or decline of fxC in the area.