fe-logoFebruary 2014 marked a special occasion with the first Australian national Fresh Expressions/Mission Shaped Ministry Conference taking place.

Fresh Expressions is a term describing creativity and innovation in approaches to church and faith community. The term emerged from the UK over the last 10 years after a ground-breaking report (Mission Shaped Church) set the Church of England, Methodist and later the United Reformed Church on a path exploring fresh approaches.

One of the training tools developed in the UK to help local leadership groups plan and establish fresh expressions is called Mission Shaped Ministry. The course has been trialled in Australia (specifically in Adelaide, Canberra and Melbourne) by a collaboration of churches (Lutheran, Anglican, Uniting, Baptist) over the past few years.

This year’s conference grew from that collaboration and drew a variety of participants including  (a) pioneer leaders planning or leading ‘fresh expressions’; (b) ministers or leaders of the traditional church wanting to make space for fresh expressions; (c) denominational mission staff; and (d) those who have been involved in the pilot MSM courses.

The gathering was resourced by the UK’s Dave Male and Ben Edson. Dave and Ben have broad experience in both leading fresh expressions themselves and in supporting or training other pioneer leaders. Here’s a few of the highlights:

  • The pioneer leader is one who with others responds to the Spirit’s promptings to open up new horizons for the church.
  • Imagination is a critical skill for the pioneer leader; it enables us to identify new possibilities and to nurture imagination in others.
  • Five habits for innovative leaders include questioning, observing, networking, experimenting and associational thinking (drawing connections between disparate fields). These might be categorised as ‘discovery skills’ and differ from the ‘delivery skills’ of analysing, planning, detail-oriented implementation and disciplined executing.
  • Pioneer leaders shouldn’t be sent out on solo missions but as part of a team.
  • Training pioneer leaders isn’t an easy task. We need to develop the natural instincts of leaders and to support, coach, mentor and encourage them. It is important that we protect the pioneer while they go about their work.
  • What can the traditional/denominational church do to encourage fresh expressions? Cultivate an environment that is conducive to their growth by providing resources, prayer, and partnership. We also need to acknowledge that fresh expression of church are valuable and valid in their own right and not merely an outreach tool to get people into ‘real’ church.
  • Fresh expressions and pioneer leaders are vulnerable to the same icebergs that can sink the established church: expectations, measurement, losing focus, loss of leadership, isolation, domestication, focus on the urgent over the important.
  • One of the biggest drivers of fresh expressions is that our communities are filled with people who have spiritual questions, but for whom (weirdly) the church just isn’t a suitable/safe place to ask them. Fresh expressions of church aim to be part of that conversation.
  • Fresh expressions are not about challenging the status quo, or changing the church. Fresh expressions should be seen as part of the church; one that operates in different ways and encounters different parts of our community, but part of the body of Christ.
  • When planning for fresh expressions, some of the critical factors include: be visible, be communal (including in spiritual practices), be purposeful, be reproducible, find a suitable starting point (place of connection).
  • The ‘mixed economy’ of new alongside old is not easy. There is inherent tension and we need to be careful to be people of grace and generosity as fresh expression lives alongside the traditional church. The structures of our church might need to be revisited to help us live in this way.

One helpful story shared with the conference was that of the Port Phillip West (PPW) Presbytery of the Uniting Church (Victoria). PPW are embarked upon a strategic journey called ‘Regenerating the Church’. The plan incorporates several elements designed to foster and facilitate the emergence of fresh expressions:

  • Embrace the language of fresh expressions and introduce the mission shaped ministry course to a large group (over 100 – the largest MSM course in the world) of the Presbytery’s key leaders.
  • Engage a mission development strategist to help the presbytery and its congregations bring the strategy to life.
  • Place missional coaches to support local leaders who are developing local initiatives; a small group coaching model aiming for 30 leaders from 16 congregations by the end of 2014.
  • New approach to ministry placements: wherever possible identify placements as ‘regeneration ministries’ that include new initiatives, fresh expressions and the task of transformation within the role description. Aiming for eight placements of this nature by the end of 2014 (and on track to achieve it).
  • Communication strategies that share stories about what is happening.

This is a bold initiative for a Uniting Church Presbytery, and one they (and we) are excited about.  Read the documents and follow the story at the Port Phillip West Presbytery website.

If you’d like to know more about Fresh Expressions in Australia join the conversation over on facebook as a starting point. For information particularly related to the Uniting Church in Queensland, shoot me a message and I’ll add you to a small but growing e-mail list.