What Makes a Healthy Church: Cultivation Over Corporation

Dr. Martyn Atkins once noted that the term “mixed economy” was transitioning to “mixed ecology.” Although the common presence of the word “mixed” allows for diversity of ecclesial forms, an ecological metaphor seems more organic and less commercial. At the same time, it also yields itself to conversation with key biblical texts that speak of faithfulness and fruitfulness:

  • the laborer in the vineyard (Matthew 20)
  • the sower, the seed, and the soil (Mark 4)
  • the vine and the branches (John 15)
  • the tree planted by rivers of living water (Psalm 1)

The Spirit Yields the Fruit

I have felt for some time that these (or comparable) texts could also serve us in the rediscovery of the art of making disciples. They could be helpful for those persons just beginning to find their way in the Christian life through encouragement to see an unfolding growth before them.

The passages could be helpful to those who have become “de-churched” through purging their imaginations of damaging and judgmental stereotypes about God’s presence in their lives and through grasping aspects of patience and mercy more fully. And the passages could resource leaders in their catechesis (teaching) in simple and biblical ways.

What form the seed takes, once it is planted and when it bears fruit, is finally the miraculous and creative work of the Master Gardener. It is beyond control. As spiritual guides, we simply search for pathways by which the Holy Spirit yields fruit (Galatians 5).

A More Sensitive Expression

This distinction is at the heart of Mission Shaped Church (MSC) in discussions of new church planting and Fresh Expressions. In an earlier generation of new-church development, a particular outcome was envisioned (numbers of participants within a specific time frame), and a standardized method was often employed (launching activities, for example) regardless of cultural or geographic differentiation.

But Fresh Expressions of church take shape in the environments in which they are undertaken and are less likely to be easily categorized. Our task (borrowing from Vincent Donovan’s classic Christianity Rediscovered) is simply to preach and teach the gospel clearly and faithfully, so that it can be understood and embraced in every language and culture. We plant, another waters, but God gives the growth (1 Corinthians 3:6).

No Going Back

My friend Gannon Sims of Fresh Expressions U.S. has reminded me that both economy and ecology have their roots in the Greek word oikos, from which we also get our word household. In our time people are searching for a sense of place, belonging, and home. At the same time, our culture is in the midst of profound shifts. Some of these are related to mobility, migration, technology and globalization.

The distinction here between neighborhoods and networks, where people sleep and where they actually live, is especially helpful. The institutional church must acknowledge that we have failed to create community in the places where people increasingly live. Instead, we have hoped that lifestyle patterns would eventually reverse themselves and individuals and families would eventually return to predictable patterns of parish allegiance and communal conformity.

Such a return seems unlikely in either the U.S. or the U.K.

The Fresh Expressions movement is a bold attempt to plant the gospel, organically, in the networks inhabited by the unchurched and de-churched, the “nones,” the “dones,” and the “spiritual but not religious.”

So How Is It Going?

Even after more than ten years of substantial investments of resources, it still remains too early to tell. However, reports such as the following from Bishop Steven Croft of the Sheffield Diocese of the Church of England are illuminating:

Over the last 12 years this movement has grown and multiplied and has been resourced in different ways and different places. There are now thousands of Fresh Expressions of church across every part of the Church of England. Ten dioceses (out of 42) were surveyed for a major study published in 2014. In those dioceses:

  • Fresh expressions account for 15% of churches and 10% of attendance.
  • In 7 out of 10 dioceses, growth of Fresh Expressions cancels out decline.
  • In terms of numbers, these Fresh Expressions add a further diocese to the Church of England.
  • 52% of fresh expressions are lay led.
  • Most are small and growing, and part of an existing parish.

In the British Methodist Church, 16% of reported attendance in October 2013 was found in Fresh Expressions, all of whom were less than ten years old.  Clearly the church is to be commended for planting new expressions of the gospel in the shifting cultural soil of Great Britain, rather than passively witnessing the decline of participation in traditional forms of church.

Questions

How would you describe the culture in which your church is planted? Has that culture changed? Has the church adapted its mission to the needs and rhythms of the people who live around your church?

Another version of this post appears on Bishop Ken Carter’s blog as “From ‘Mixed Economy’ to ‘Mixed Ecology’ of Church.” 

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Ken Carter

Ken Carter is the United Methodist Bishop appointed to the Florida Episcopal Area. He hails from Georgia with an M.Div. from Duke Divinity School and a D.Min. from Princeton Theological Seminary. Ken and his wife Pam live in Lakeland, Florida.

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