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Out of nothing: A cross-shaped approach to Fresh Expressions, by Andrew Dunlop

05 April 2019

Stephen Cottrell finds a book’s practicalities its most interesting part

THOSE who promote fresh expressions of church and church-planting are sometimes dismissed as being theologically naïve or ecclesiologically defective. Such charges are usually made by those who are overly defensive about protecting the vested interest of their own expression of church, and forgetful that every church was planted once. Such charges cannot be made of this book.

On the contrary, the pendulum may have swung too far the other way: there may be rather too much theology here. Although Andrew Dunlop’s review of the different ecclesiological models that underpin fresh expressions, and his survey of different types of atonement theology and how they support his own practice, is interesting, I’m not sure it really gets us anywhere.

He readily acknowledges that no one atonement theology can capture the mysterious beauty of the redemption that we have through Christ’s atoning death. So, why can’t it be the same for ecclesiologies? As he leads us towards the model that he favours, some others are dismissed a little too easily. Nevertheless, what he says is engaging.

For me, however, the book becomes most helpful in the final chapter, in which Dunlop puts the theological models to one side and just tells us what happened in the church-plant that he pioneered. What I find particularly interesting is the discussion about what constitutes success.

This is very relevant for the Church today. Through what is known as the Strategic Development Fund, the Church Commissioners are conducting the largest experiment in trying centrally to fund growth, and often church-planting, that the Church of England can remember. It is an admirable objective. Bids for grants from this fund, however, usually require dioceses to predict what sort of growth will be achieved. As any evangelist or church-planter will tell you, this is not an exact science. Nevertheless, I know of dioceses that have confidently claimed that within a few years new congregations of several hundred will have been established.

With refreshing honesty, Dunlop tells us that, after five years, the worshipping community that he pioneered numbered 35. He then goes on to tell us who these people are, so that the head count quickly becomes a heart count.

This discussion of what constitutes success and how much success costs is soberingly interesting and relevant for our Church today. I wish that he had said more. Taken that Dunlop now teaches pioneer ministry at Ridley Hall, and has been involved in theological education for several years, I was also a little disappointed that he had not gone back to discover how the church that he planted was managing, and growing or declining, a few years on.

The central motif of the book is that God works out of nothing. I find this only helpful in parts. I wonder how it translates into a culture that has everything. I should have liked to see further dialogue with sacramental and incarnational models of mission which, like the miracle at Cana, or the loaves and fishes, started with something; but this may appear to be quibbling.

Out of Nothing is a good, honest, and helpful account of how a fresh expression of church is conceived and brought to life, and is a useful contribution to the growing theological discussion of emerging models of church.

The Rt Revd Stephen Cottrell is the Bishop of Chelmsford.

Out of Nothing: A cross-shaped approach to Fresh Expressions
Andrew Dunlop
SCM Press £19.99
Church Times Bookshop special price £15

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