From Rev Andrew Smith
Presbytery Minister - Congregation Futures
As I engage with church folk in making a start to fresh expressions of church our conversations can fall anywhere in between looking at a congregation wide big idea for a fresh expression, through to fresh expressions arising from a small team of perhaps only two people. The congregation wide approach necessarily involves hearing from a larger group of people, is more complex and takes longer than the small team approach, which can be more agile and responsive to what it is discerning as it begins experimenting with fresh expressions.
Wherever the conversation falls across that spectrum, there is the common practice of discerning who and how we might lovingly serve as part of getting started. That discerning involves listening: listening to God in prayer and worship; listening to those who you might serve; listening to the wider church for what they have learnt about fresh expressions; and listening to your team.
This listening and discerning is very important, and in many ways never finishes. But there is the danger of getting stuck in it, and never moving beyond it. In this case, the listening and discerning can become paralysing, particularly if we are believing that the will of God for this fresh expression is some narrow, specific thing that is devilishly hard to discern.
In his book The Innovative Church – How Leaders and Their Congregations can adapt in an Ever-Changing World, Scott Cormode describes the Christian practice of discernment arguing that the will of God is rarely a specific thing. Rather, “the will of God is a way of life”. He comments on the examples in Scripture where leaders asked God for a specific answer to a specific question and received a clear and specific response (eg Gideon and the fleece), and concludes that these isolated situations are relatively rare in Scripture and stand out because they are extraordinary.
Cormode views God’s will as being wide. He writes: “When I think of God’s will, I think of being on a sprawling river in a small boat. The goal is to head downstream. And the parameters of the river (ie, the riverbanks) are quite clear. But I can sail along anywhere I like on the river. I can be near the riverbank or in the middle of the wide river, anywhere I’d like, so long as I am headed downriver. I have lots of freedom.”
He notes that discernment begins with listening (he is very big on listening), and when we do that “we have the freedom to act in any way that conforms to God’s reconciling acts – that is, in any way so that we love God, love neighbour, care for the marginalised, and enact the Sermon on the Mount”.
There is certainly freedom in what Cormode is talking about. He links this to what the apostle Paul says in Galatians 5:1 “for freedom …. Christ has set us free”. Cormode goes on “We are free to love God; free to love neighbour, free to care for the widow and orphan, and the alien; free to be generous; free to be poor in spirit, meek and merciful; free to turn the other cheek; and free to be holy.”
I think this freedom is important in starting fresh expressions for overcoming the paralysis of analysis we might find in listening if we are believing that the will of God for a fresh expression is some narrow, specific thing that is devilishly hard to discern. Rather the will of God is wide. There are many possibilities for lovingly serving people … so let’s get started.
Get started with multiple little ideas and experiments rather than looking for the one big idea. For innovation, Cormode encourages us to try a lot of stuff and keep what works. Don’t put all your energy in one idea, but instead nurture many ideas until you see which ones will bear fruit.
Cormode notes that sadly Christian organisations tend to do the opposite: “we tend to try one big (expensive and loud) plan. We announce it before it is fully formed – often with a logo and theme music. We put enormous pressure on [it]. And when it does not take immediate root, our churches complain and abandon the project – having learned the lesson that such innovations do not work.”
Small teams of people experimenting with multiple ideas within the wide will of God seems to be a good way to get started.