steve taylor was celebrating the launch of first expressions last night. sadly i couldn’t join him as it was in new zealand (though i am hoping to see him next week as i am off on some travels!). first expressions is a reflection on some of the first wave of new expressions of church that back then were either called alternative worship or emerging church. the language of fresh expressions had not yet landed. steve researched these back when he was doing his phd in 2001. he then revisited the communities in 2013 and met with those involved. i have a personal interest as grace is one of the communities in the research, one of the first expressions, and steve came and had a meal and conversation with a group of us as part of that.
it’s so interesting and such a gift to have someone external take the time to research and write and reflect back to you on what they observe and notice in the sense making they do of what was really you and a bunch of others making some stuff up as you went along. steve posits that the birthing and becoming back then has contributed so richly to the wider life and mission of the church, to the becoming of the church in the west. steve is a creative thinker, writer, and theologian who is close to the ground as someone involved in mission practice and someone who also can navigate the theory. this is what makes it have such a ring of authenticity.
he frames the whole book through a lens of innovation and the mission of god. i really like innovation as a frame. i have blogged about others writing on innovation and mission - it seems to be a growing conversation. steve takes four approaches to innovation - growth, ecology, indigenous and craft. this immediately begins to open up a broader ecclesiology than the usual narrow ‘gathered and grow’ one that seems to dominate (not that there is anything wrong with gathering or growing per se), what he calls a woven ecclesiology. in conversation with tim nash of nomad i recently explored the wider ecosystem of church life and think this broadening of the landscape helps see that trying new things, innovating, making fresh connections, building communities, sharing ideas and so on seeds all sorts of things in the wider environment. in the natural world it is entirely normal that things grow and age and die and seed other things. i can’t help wondering if a big part of our church challenge is there is not enough permission for dying as well as birthing because we have so many buildings we just seem to have to keep going for ever!!!
steve researches 10 first expressions. half of them no longer exist. steve explores this in detail as he too founded a fresh expression that no longer exists as a gathered community. and it’s lovely to read research that is able to show the immense value in birthing, trying and becoming and how it contributes richly to the wider church producing lots of good in and of itself. it’s hard to know what impacts what but these first expressions have been followed by an amazing amount of innovation and life through fresh expressions and so on. steve takes an organisational look with an interview with rowan williams, a reflection on fresh expressions and how that has helped institutional change, and also how mission is organised. i found the last part very interesting as i work for a mission organisation. it is interesting how challenging the way that first expressions structure and organise is for institutions to marry with their institutional ways ways of being and organising. steve comes back to this in a further chapter where he uses the eucharist as an example of the relationship between innovation and order and how existing governance structures might need to be broken and remade.
there are so many layers and ideas and reflections in the book. this is really just a hasty blog post to say the book’s out and it’s really worth a read and conversation with others. i think it’s valuable for those of us who were involved at whatever stage, there’s loads to learn for those who have pioneered and are pioneering since, and there is plenty for the wider church in mission to ponder. steve concludes by suggesting that ecclesial innovation is the ants in the pants of the body of christ!
Ecclesial innovation is the ants in the pants of the body of Christ. Ecclesial innovation enables a becoming as one, apostolic, holy and catholic church. It makes visible the reality that is the conversion of the Spirit in individuals, communities and organisational structures. Hence innovation has value as it makes the church be the church, awakening the essentiality of becoming as one, apostolic, holy and catholic church. Such is the mission of God through first expressions.
big thanks to steve for taking the time to do the research and offer this into the wider conversation. and it was a reminder to me of how much fun it has been to be part of a first expression grace, and my life since has been committed to enabling that innovation in mission to be encouraged and catalysed and multiplied elsewhere. i guess i have never thought of myself as the ants in the pants but it's probably fairly accurate :) . there’s lots of hope but also a long way to go, and a lot more becoming to be done.