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May 2009

Urgent need to create new disciples says Fresh Expressions missioner

By Paul Titus

In a world of change and diversity, the Church must give way to the spirit of creativity and blur some its traditional boundaries.

This means initiating fresh new ways to make the good news of Jesus relevant to different groups of people. And churches must take these initiatives quickly because they are now in a serious state of decline.

This is the view of Rev Pete Pillinger, missioner in the British Methodist Church’s Fresh Expressions team. Fresh Expressions is a joint Anglican-Methodist initiative in England to create new ways of being church.

The British Methodist Church is investing ?7 million into Fresh Expressions, much of that money coming from the sale of excess property. It will also begin ordaining people specifically to engage in Fresh Expression ministry.

In February, Pete was in New Zealand to share his knowledge of Fresh Expressions with Kiwi Methodists and learn about the creative things happening here.

Pete says in their daily lives people see change blossoming all around them and are well used to diversity. The Church, however, has been much slower to change.

For more than 1000 years it was buttressed by the Christendom establishment. The Church and the State were hand-in-hand, and most people in Western societies were Christian.

Beginning in the 1960s, Pete believes, the churches began devoting more of their resources to maintaining what they had rather than to mission. As a result, numbers declined and now there is a whole generation that has little knowledge of the Church.

For the Church to reach out to young people and others, it must go where they are, talk the language they talk, and do things with them that are not Church in the traditional sense.

"We will not reach young people who are less involved in church if we sit back and say ‘come and be like us’. They aren’t going to come.

"Instead, why shouldn’t we have church at a skateboard park or use BMX bicycles in worship? Doing that type of worship well is no different than being good at liturgical worship for traditional churchgoers."

On one hand, creating new styles of worship requires empowering people who will start new initiatives in their communities. On the other hand, it requires helping the established church become more open to new things.

Pete says people who create the new initiatives emerging under Fresh Expressions come from a range of theological positions – evangelical, conservative, liberal and progressives. In fact, because the leadership of the church has been in the hands of liberals for in recent decades, some of the more radical ideas have come out of evangelical circles.

"Some of the theological basis for Fresh Expressions comes from Rolland Allen, a missionary in China during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Rolland’s basic thesis was that we should plant missions, not churches.

"He was opposed to colonial models. He wanted to return to first principles and create indigenous churches in the proper Pauline style. Paul went to foreign cultures, lived there, discovered leaders, established a faith community, and then moved on. After you initiate something you have to leave and trust in God."

Whereas lots of people have lost their faith in the Church, they have not lost faith in Jesus. The problem comes when the Church has lost its relevance for people, Pete says.

"Our primary calling from Jesus is to make disciples, not churches. Church should be the place where people go to help each other follow Jesus. ‘Church’ is a collective noun, like a flock of birds.

"Church is not an activity, or a building, or an organisation. It is group of disciples.

"Liturgy done well can help people’s discipleship through worship. We must encourage what already exists in the Church but we have to allow new expressions to emerge to create new disciples."

The British Methodist church is putting a large chunk of money into supporting pioneering teams develop new types of ministry. It will seek to provide them the appropriate cultural support they need. But, Pete says, there is no guarantee of success and the Church must be prepared to fail.

"There is no resurrection without death. The Church has to be able to embrace dying if it expects to embrace resurrection as well. Neither institutions or individuals like dying but we cannot have resurrection without death."

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