Presentation On Fresh Expressions And Pioneering by Luke Larner
Good evening everyone, thanks so much for having me.
As Andrew has said my name is Luke, I’m Anglican Lay Pioneer Minister working in the centre of Luton and beyond. Also I had a bit of good news on Thursday that’ll I’ll be starting ordination training in September. In case you don’t know what an Anglican Lay Pioneer Minster is - A good rule of thumb in the CofE is that the more words it takes to describe your role, the less important you are…
The working definition for a pioneer in the Church of England is that we are:
“people called by God who are the first to see and creatively respond to the Holy Spirit’s initiatives with those outside the church; gathering others around them as they seek to establish new contextual Christian community.”
That’s a bit wordy and hard to remember for me - I prefer Richard Rohr’s definition - that pioneers are people who stand on the outside edge of the inside circle.
Wearing Different Hats
I’m going to share a bit with you about what I’m up to, working alongside my wife Jeni and diverse teams in diverse contexts.
You may be wondering about my unusual vestments - I’m a member of God’s Squad Christian motorcycle club, we’re an organisation that started in the early ‘70s in Australia, our mission statement is to be “An accepted and relevant expression of the Church who’s primary mission is to minister to the ‘Outlaw Biker Fraternity’ and other associated groups”
What we do is built on an incarnational understanding of mission - that the best way to reach motorcycle clubs is to be a motorcycle club - hang out in the places they hang out, be relatable enough to make a connection but distinct enough to cause people to ask big questions
In Luton my work fits largely into two areas - mission as a guest and mission as a host:
So some of it is being in other people’s places in chaplain type roles - part of that has been supporting a local homeless day centre for the last 3 1/2 years, coming alongside people, loving and serving.
The other part is mission as host - gathering people together in community -largely through fresh expressions of Church. If you’re not familiar with the term I’ll be talking a lot more about that next!
Finally one of my great joys is to be able to serve the wider body the Church - sometimes by doing things like this! More often by preaching in the churches in our area, having a hand in the raising of emerging leaders. I’m part of a national programme that’s just started called Urban Change Makers which seeks to recognise, equip and empower Christian leaders from urban working class backgrounds like myself. I was a bricklayer for 10 years before training for ministry, I can tell you it’s not easy for people who’ve come from where I’ve come from to believe we have a place to serve, never mind to lead in the Church. If you’d like to know more about this and how to get involved I’ll share an event we have coming up at the end.
What Are Fresh Expressions Of Church?
You heard me use this term “fresh expressions of Church” a moment ago - could I have a quick “hands up” of people who have heard of or are familiar with this term?
“Fresh Expressions are new forms of church that emerge within contemporary culture and engage primarily with those who don’t ‘go to church”
There are a couple of core principles behind this - missio dei? The idea that God is at work in the world, going about his mission - and we get to join in.
A couple of years ago I took a week of training with a Jesuit organisation on Spiritual Direction - and they taught us that the key to accompanying someone on their walk with God was threefold - Listen, Notice, Stay. Listen closely to the person, Notice where God seems to be at work, stay with the place where God seems to be at work and journey with them. It got me thinking that this is a good way to do mission - listen deeply to our contexts, notice where God is at work doing God’s mission - where the tender shoots of the Kingdom are breaking ground, and stay with where God is at work, rather than trying to do our own thing. If you remember one thing from tonight - that would be a good one : listen, notice, stay.
The second principle is the one I mentioned earlier about incarnation - that Jesus became like us to reach us - and that he said “as the Father sent me, so am I sending you..” I’m simplifying here of course due to time, but if you’d like more info I can point you in the direction of some good books and resources.
So fresh expressions are new communities of faith which begin with the understanding that in our heads Jesus is always wearing cultural garments (picture) Have you ever wondered why there’s a little caucasian baby in your Nativity scene? The host culture always has an influence on the way the gospel is transmitted and the church is shaped, it’s impossible to stop this from happening.
In a multi-cultural society like ours it makes sense for Churches to be shaped by the different contexts they are in - there is no longer a powerful enough over-riding culture for one-size-fits all Church which will be relevant to all those who don’t yet believe.
God Is Not Very Far From Any One Of Us
A good example of this posture for doing mission is St Paul preaching at the Areopagus in Athens in Acts chapter 17. There are some interesting things we can notice from that story -
1. Paul becomes closely acquainted with the culture he is attempting to reach - so much so that he can quote their own literature at them
2. Paul starts with the expectation of finding God at work among the people- he says “People of Athens, I perceive that you are very religious in every way” and later that God is “not very far from any one of us”. If we really believe this idea of Missio Dei - if we really believe this story that God made and loved the world, and has a master plan of redeeming and restoring what he has made, then we should expect to find signs of hope!
3. A Key tactic of St Paul - speaks into the active questions of the people, rather than answering questions that nobody is asking. - Something we are often guilty of - a large number of people today - especially in places like Luton, have no Christian heritage they know of, no sunday school, no clear beliefs about heaven and hell - and so often we give answers to abstract theological questions that they simply are not asking. The key being then - that we need to find the questions they are asking “Can I be loved?” “Does my life matter?” “Is there any reason to have hope?” “What will become of the world?”
Now this is all very nice theory, and pretty idealistic - like if we just do all the right stuff and are culturally relevant then renewal will happen, the Kingdom will come, and we’ll all be home in time for tea and tiffin.
But as we all know it doesn’t really work that way - so I’ll share an example or two, and give some suggestions how we as leaders and members of Christian communities can explore some different ways forward for the future.
Diamonds In The Rough
The first one is an audio clip from a radio 4 piece on our Fellowship of Lost sheep project. The project started after a few people from an addiction recovery group meeting in a parish church building started asking lots of questions about Jesus. In fact some of them saw Jesus as the ‘higher power’ that was helping them get free from their addiction to drugs.
The vicar tried to get them to come to Church on a sunday morning - but the culture clash was too big - they didn’t connect with the wordy liturgy, they didn’t understand why they had to sit still and be quiet, and stand up a few times in between.
So the vicar came to two bold conclusions - 1. We should stop trying to get them to church, we should take church to them. 2. That he didn’t have the right skills to do that.
So he got on the phone to me and some others, and we got together with some of these people from the addiction recovery group to brainstorm ideas and share our stories.
In the first meeting we introduced ourselves - two members of group - wouldn’t call myself a christian etc etc - I’ve got some bad news for you!
Anyway, we started gathering together, simple liturgies and prayers, bible studies with lots of discussion, sometimes with pizza. It was slow, frustrating, and at times incredible. Out of that group within a year a number of people committed to Christ, four got baptised, and to my knowledge many are now attending more mainstream expressions of Church. We tried to create a sustainable congregation - and after couple of years realised it wasn’t realistic - we meet sporadically when there is need - we’re a bit of a diaspora tribe!
Trying new stuff means being ready to fail - on paper what we did was a failure because it never turned into a thriving congregation - do I think it was a failure? Absolutely not!
Let’s a hear a bit from one of the members of that group, along with some photos from different FX projects I’m involved in.
What I’ve learned from the experience of that project is this:
We saw God at work
Leaders made courageous decisions - including being ready to fail and enabling lay-leaders
We journeyed with people where they were at - not where we wanted them to be
We were realistic, and were ready to let it die when it ran it’s course - which in this case was only a couple of years - although we still get together from time to time
What Does This Mean For Us?
This might sound quite run of the mill to you, or it might sound quite far-fetched. Really all we’ve done is respond to the context we’re in - and the problems and opportunities that come with it - and more importantly to the gentle nudge of the Spirit.
But for all of us in our different contexts of ministry, be that in a 9-5 job or as the leader of a congregation - will have opportunities to serve the communities around us. Fresh Expressions are not a ‘niche’ thing - research suggests that there are well over 1,000 FXs in the UK today, which is the equivalent of an entire diocese in numbers. And they are not just anglican - the baptist Church, the methodist Church, many other denominations and free churches are experimenting with FXs.
In the anglican Diocese of St Albans we are hoping to see 300 new Fresh Expressions emerge over the next 10 years, partly by enabling 1,200 lay leaders - some of whom like me might be recognised and trained lay workers, others will be like I was when we started - regular people with regular jobs. All of these people will be best supported when Church leaders get behind them, equip and empower them, and take the risk of letting people dream. Inevitably that can be scary, even intimidating to us!
And it’s important to note that this isn’t a values judgment about inherited ways of being Church - it’s both/and - in fact research suggests that inherited churches which release people to start FXs often experience growth and refreshing in their existing congregations.
I’m finishing my degree in theology at the moment and writing a dissertation on working class leadership in the Weslyan revival - what I’ve learned is that most if not all of the major renewal movements of the Church have been largely driven by new communities, most of which were lay-led, many of which were largely comprised of the regular every-day people, not just the educated and elite.
My encouragement to you all is this - in your congregations, contexts and communities - listen deeply to the places and people you serve, the best advice for ministry I have ever been given was behind the bar chatting to an outlaw biker, and I was as green as grass, and a friend said “you’ve got two ears and one mouth, act accordingly!”. After listening, notice where God may be at work, where tender shoots might be breaking through the ground. That group of young mums and tots that might be asking faith questions, that 12 step group meeting in the parish hall, the kids kicking footballs against the church doors after school. And stay with the places God is at work - even if it means taking some calculated risks. Even if it costs us.
If you’d like to know any more come and chat to me afterwards, also search on Google for the Fresh Expressions website - there are some excellent resources on there.
Prayer Of St Brendan The Navigator
In closing I’d like to pray a brief prayer attributed to St Brendan the Navigator, my hope is that God will lead each of us by the Spirit on journeys of faith and courage, that will challenge and encourage our faith, and will give us stories to tell.
Thank you for listening.
Help me to journey beyond the familiar
and into the unknown.
Give me the faith to leave old ways
and break fresh ground with You.
Christ of the mysteries, I trust You
to be stronger than each storm within me.
I will trust in the darkness and know
that my times, even now, are in Your hand.
Tune my spirit to the music of heaven,
and somehow, make my obedience count for You.
The full radio piece recorded for BBC R4 can be listened to here: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p04dls70
More info about Urban Change Makers can be found here: https://urbanchangemakers.org