The process of developing Fresh Expressions of church is nothing short of missional experimentation in the absolute best sense of the term “experimentation”.
One may bristle at the thought of experimenting in ministry, as it defies the certainty we so often want to bring into new efforts. New effort means new investments of every sort. When faced with the prospect of generating new or redirecting existing resources towards new ministry efforts the risk of failure, for many, is too costly unless we approach the endeavor with a degree of certainty that it will “work.”
The problem is certainty is an illusion.
We are mistaken to expect that there are direct answers to direct questions like: How do you do it? How long will it take? How much will it cost? How will we measure its success? Rather than pursuing certainty, we ought to pursue hope.
In order to have certainty, we must maintain control to ensure our desired outcome. As you have undoubtedly experienced in your ministries and personal life, when we grab for control, we are often reminded of the Spirit’s propensity to “blow where it will”. The Spirit is free and we are free to follow. Our desire for control is a denial of the Spirit’s radical freedom and our radical dependence upon him.
Fresh Expressions of church don’t happen by accident. But their inception doesn’t come from a place or process of certainty. This is where the language of experimentation can be helpful. It bridges the gap between what is known and what is hoped for.
An experiment is not a guess. It is not a “throw it on the wall and see if it sticks” mentality. It is not a “Hail Mary” lob into unknown and unexplored territory with your back against the wall.
An experiment IS a thoughtful, directed willingness to consider existing variables and new possibilities. It IS an attempt to discover something new or move beyond something known. It involves risk and uncertainty.
Lessons from the Scientific Method
Consider the process of experimentation in the scientific sense –
Research – Develop Hypothesis
Research – Identify Variables
Research – Test Hypothesis/Experiment
Reflect – Repeat with new hypothesis or variables/Apply new findings
It is helpful to see that the test step in this model, actually hitting “go”, is not the first (and arguably) not the most important part of the process. We must pay close attention to the front end research and back end reflection. To translate this into ministry terms we would call this prayerful observation and discernment.
The Spirit moves us to pay attention to a new group people or new place in our community. We prayerfully learn (research) by asking lots of questions, meeting lots of people, exploring and engaging the context. What we might call prayerfully paying attention.
After this we prayerfully consider how our ministry and this new context might intersect in meaningful ways.
Engagement is the “test” phase. This is where most of us get hung up with our ‘How?’ questions. Hopefully you see that in this model the ‘How?’ concerns should by now be subdued by an overwhelming sense of ‘Why?’ When we know ‘Why’ then we are determined to work through the ‘How.’
One mistake is to think that engagement is the only part in the process where we actually “do something.” Each step of the Fresh Expressions process has its own integrity and is valuable to the church community in its own unique way. Praying, watching, listening, worshiping, meeting, loving, discerning are not merely necessary precursors to engagement – they are fundamental formational practices.
After engaging we reflect on what we learned and how we are compelled to proceed.
At this point we are uniquely challenged in our church culture of “doing” ministry. The “doing” is not the end.
A Fresh Expression of church is an ongoing process of new insights, new crossroads and new possibilities. As displayed in the scientific method, the insights we gain from the process provoke us to new action and new discovery.
Possibility and Permission
Sound exciting? It should!
But without an environment of permission-giving and risk-taking, none of the above will happen.
Unless disciples within the community are regularly encouraged in their freedom to prayerfully explore and discern where the Spirit is moving, the above process will at best fizzle and fade and at worst create division and conflict within the community.
How do we cultivate such a culture of permission-giving and risk-taking when we are so constantly corrected by the concern for certainty?
Welford Orrock coordinates the Kairos Initiative of the Virginia Baptist Mission Board. Kairos exists to facilitate a culture of permission-giving in churches and ministries who relate to college students and young adults.