FIVE years after the launch of a £2.1-million project, the diocese of Leicester is reporting that one-quarter (26 per cent) of people attending weekly worship do so at a Fresh Expression — up from one in nine in 2011.
It follows similar figures from the diocese of Carlisle (News, 6 September 2019). The research also highlights evolving definitions, the symbiotic relationship between “traditional” churches and fresh expressions, and the growth of unlicensed lay leadership.
Thousands of “fresh expressions of church” have been planted since the launch of the report Mission-shaped Church in 2004, and are defined by the ecumenical charity Fresh Expressions as a “new gathering or network that engages mainly with people who have never been to church”.
Research conducted by Leicester in partnership with the Church Army’s Research Unit (CARU), published this week in a report, God at Work, suggests that the number of fresh expressions has grown by 60 per cent since 2011, from 47 to 75. In total, 2959 people are attending, up from 1811 in 2011.
The original target for autumn 2019 — set out when the diocese secured a grant from the Strategic Development Fund grant of £809,000 from the Church Commissioners in 2014 (towards the £2.1-million project) — was 180 Fresh Expressions with 7000 members.
During the course of the project, the diocese agreed to count all “Pioneering Missional Activities” (PMAs), not just those that met the Church Army’s definition, which has ten criteria, including meeting at least monthly and having “intention to be Church”.
PMAs include “bridges back to church”, which exist alongside the inherited church from which they were begun, and “Edgelands”: those gatherings too new, or not regular enough, to meet all the criteria.
The diocese reports that, if the PMAs are added to fresh expressions, the total comes to 216, and that half of those attending PMAs are “not Christians”. God at Work reports that, in total, 4378 people are attending 99 worshipping communities (comprising both Fresh Expressions and PMAs). It is to this combined figure that the figure of one in four worshippers relates.
A 2017 interim report on the SDF project, conducted by the diocese and written for senior leaders and the Commissioners, described a “merged” rather than “mixed” economy in Leicester — 40 per cent of the fresh expressions were involved with a parish church.
Growth had “not conformed to expectations, with larger than expected growth in missional activities, but not many conforming to the original expectation of what a Fresh Expressions would look like”, it said. It found that almost 40 per cent of churches and 60 per cent of clergy were involved in “enabling and releasing” fresh expressions, which were becoming a “normalised part of diocesan life”.
“The inherited churches, simply seen as silent partners who would each have an equivalent Fresh Expression in the original proposal, are waking up to the ticking clock of their own death knell,” the report said.
This “merged” economy raises questions about statistics pitting traditional churches against fresh expressions, suggesting that a clear binary may not reflect practice on the ground.
“When we began to analyse our pioneering missional activities in 2017, we decided not to try to force them into becoming fresh expressions of Church but to honour them for what they are,” the lead pioneer development worker for the diocese, Jonathan Dowman said this week.
“Adding the wider pioneering missional activities to our recognised [fresh expressions], we get to where we hoped to be, but making the distinction makes the story of God’s activity far richer. . . We’ve learnt that wider pioneering mission and fresh expressions of Church are part of the same journey, and need to be treasured and encouraged in equal measure.”
There are signs of progress in the health of fresh expressions since 2017, when the diocese reported a “death rate” of 33 per cent. This week, the diocese reported that the mortality rate had fallen to just seven per cent.
God At Work is based on a survey of the leaders of the 75 Fresh Expressions. They report that 17 per cent of those attending are “de-churched” (defined as “those whose last regular experience of traditional church was more than a year ago”), and that 37 per cent are “non-churched” (“those who have no regular experience of traditional church whatsoever”).
Two-thirds of all core leaders are women, 85 per cent are unpaid, and 74 per cent are unlicensed “lay-lay” leaders.
The original 2014 target when the grant was announced was for a growth in the number of licensed pioneer ministers from 15 to 250-300. There are currently 51 licensed lay pioneers, but Mr Dowman said that there were 359 people “engaged in various forms of leadership in our fresh expressions of Church”. A third of licensed lay pioneers had moved away to other ministries, from paid pioneer roles elsewhere in the country to ordination training.
“We have found that pioneers are less likely to want to pursue licensing than was first envisaged but we recognise God at work in lots of the pioneering missional activities we see springing up, whether led by licensed on unlicensed pioneers,” he said.
Commenting on the findings on Thursday, the Revd Heather Cracknell, head of development at Fresh Expressions (Interview, 29 March 2019), said that the Church should be “hugely grateful” to the diocese for being a “vanguard of learning”.
“The SDF projects are about learning what works,” she said. “We are in a changing world, changing culture, and we don’t really know what it is that is going to work. One of the really exciting parts of the research is saying ‘we discovered something new — a lot of pioneering mission work happens, and doesn’t become a fresh expressions and that is okay.’ It’s not about diluting the criteria or category, but saying anything that is doing pioneering mission is to be celebrated.”
Another lesson was that, “not everybody needs to be licensed, or wants to be licensed”. Noting the Setting Gods People Free initiative (News, 12 July 2019), she suggested that there was much that could be learned from Leicester about lay leadership: “how we release that, how we support it, and how we recruit safely.”
Lay leaders needed training, personal and spiritual support, and accountability. “They don’t need licensing — that kind of formal recognition — but they are accountable through relationships. . . If we want to include those who do not have a university degree in our leadership, which we need to do, we need to think more widely about how we train people. There are really exciting things to learn about lay leadership training that is contextual and relational.”
Leicester had illustrated the importance of relationships between fresh expressions and the inherited church, she said. “The sacraments are celebrated as a wider family, not necessarily in the gathering of fresh expressions, but lots of them are exploring what sacramentality of life looks like. It’s taking that understanding of God meeting us in those daily things like bread and wine, but also a wider understanding of everyday faith, having a life of expecting encounter with God.”