Fresh expressions attracting de-churched and non-churched

Fresh expressions of church are attracting a mixed bag of believers and non-believers, according to a new report.

Church Army’s Sheffield Centre has released the results of research into fresh expressions in the Diocese of Liverpool and is currently carrying out surveys on other dioceses to broaden its understanding of the place of fresh expressions (FEs) in the church today.

The report draws from interviews with leaders of fresh expressions (FEs) across the diocese conducted over a three month period earlier in the year.

It finds that the number of FEs has dramatically increased across Liverpool in recent years, from just 19 launched between 1999 and 2005, to 54 started in the years 2006 to 2011.

FEs currently account for just under a third of the total number of churches in the Liverpool Diocese (30.4%) – a “sizeable aspect of diocesan life,” researchers note.

“This may come as a surprise and counters the sense that fresh expressions of church are but peripheral to the life of the Church of England,” the report states.

“We do not assert that this proportion is true nationally but in this case it is.”

In 2010, some 2,885 people were attending fresh expressions, accounting for just over 10% of the diocese’s attendance. Out of the 78 cases analysed, 54% met weekly, 12% fortnightly and 35% monthly.

The attendance of adults only slightly outnumbered that of children, at 1,679 and 1,206 respectively.

The report also looked at the aims of the fresh expressions and the people they were hoping to attract.

It found that fresh expressions drew significantly more Christians and slightly more de-churched people than they aimed for, but a fifth less than the non-churched people they had anticipated.

Overall, Christians accounted for a quarter of those present, including the team members running the fresh expression.

“From the statistics known of those sent out, the team make up the predominance of Christians present,” the report states.

The de-churched made up around a third of the overall number of people attending, while the non-churched accounted for two in five.

“The data, in this diocese, contradicts the impression given by some that fresh expressions of church overwhelmingly attract the de-churched and existing Christians.”

It continued: “The number of children and the high proportion of cases intended to be all age communities indicates that the movement has succeeded in attracting families.”

Of the meetings surveyed, only 29% took place on a Sunday, with two-thirds (66%) taking place midweek, and 5% on a Saturday.

“This looks like evidence of a desire to fit with local and cultural realities and recognising the social factors against meeting on Sunday, like sport, work and divided or extended families,” the report said.

According to the report, the average group size was just under 35. Researchers found that most fresh expressions tend to grow quickly to a certain size and then “plateau”.

Researchers admitted they were uncertain as to why this was the case but suggested that some of the causes could lie in limited capacity of lay spare time leaders, an unavailability of public buildings to grow into, the lack of a relational fringe in a small congregation, the choice of fresh expression, or a lack of vision or leadership.

Most fresh expressions in the Liverpool Diocese (60%) were not being held in the parish church but rather “at some distance, culturally or geographically, from it”.

Twenty-three per cent were being held in a church and 37% were taking place in a secular venue, including homes.

Researchers noted a rise in the number of local lay people leading FEs, with the leadership split roughly half and half between lay and ordained.

Just under half of the FEs (46%) had held communion services, while just over a fifth (20.5%) had held baptisms.

“It appears that the different kinds of fresh expression either set a different value on this, or it may be that they mature ecclesially at different rates, depending on the people and age group they work with ... patterns are not clearly established,” the report stated.

Of the leaders surveyed, only 20% said they did not mentor one-to-one, provide courses, run groups or draw people into working teams. One-to-one work and small groups were the most common choices for discipling.

The report stated: “Here are some indicators that fresh expressions of church are not merely interested in attendance and are trying to form disciples.

“Discipleship is an area of growing concern in all churches and deeper questions of what happens and what works will continue to matter.”

It concluded: “Now that fresh expressions plants are being discovered and analysed, we will be able for the first time to give a more fully informed indication of the nature of their contribution to overall diocesan growth and decline and the part they play within the mixed economy.”