Go outside the church to reach non-churchgoers

MISSIONImagination, innovation and a focus on community context are key to creating ministries for non-churchgoers, says British priest Dave Male.

By Chris Shearer

August 2 2015

Imagination, innovation and a focus on community context are key to creating ministries for non-churchgoers, says British Anglican priest David Male, Director of the Centre for Pioneer Learning.

Revd Male, in Melbourne to host the Pioneer Learning Intensive in July, said the example set by the fresh expression movement in the UK demonstrated the potential of community-focused, atypical churches to attract people that would otherwise shy away from Christian services.

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Revd Male has been involved in the fresh expressions movement for some 20 years and has seen the importance of these churches grow significantly, with national research from the UK finding plenty of encouraging data.

“Within 11 years [of beginning] we’ve found that 10 per cent of people going to Church of England churches are going to these kind of fresh expressions, and that 15 per cent of church communities in the Church of England are fresh expressions,” he told TMA.

He said those figures were remarkable in their own right, but the most surprising and encouraging of statistic of all was that 75 per cent of people attending these fresh expressions weren’t churchgoers beforehand. “We’re not exactly sure why this is connecting but there is something about it which seems to connect with people, and to use a kind of hackneyed phrase, meets them where they are and is helping them as they begin to explore who Jesus is and what he might meant to them.”

One example of how successful such approaches can be comes from one of Revd Male’s students at the Anglican Theological College in Cambridge. She began by meeting other mums in a school playground in a difficult area, discussing their troubles with two or three other Christians. The casual meeting developed into a fixed meeting time on Friday mornings, and from there they began to explore more about Christianity and had opportunities for prayer.

“Over the next four or five years probably 30 or 40 of those people began to be followers of Jesus as they explored faith but also found help and healing and transformation in their lives,” says Revd Male. For him, though, the most interesting thing was that the mothers had responded so well that the congregation began to meet on Saturdays so that their children and partners could also attend. Today they have over a hundred people regularly participating.

Yet even with this level of success Revd Male says fresh expression churches are no “quick fix”, and that the future of the faith lies in “a mixed-economy”.

“Nobody here is saying we need to dump traditional church. What we’re saying is we need both traditional church and these new forms of church and they actually need each other. These new churches are always informed by tradition because the questions we are asking are not new questions, but also we’re finding that more and more the traditional church is revitalised by these new forms of church.”

“The big thing I’d want to say to people is that this is fresh, not new,” he says. “In a sense this is part of a missionary movement that has gone on for the last 2000 years.”

The Pioneer Learning Intensive was organised to capitalise on these fresh approaches, bringing together a small group of Australians who have tried pioneering approaches to ministry so that they can learn from one another. By hearing about how others have adapted to the context of their communities, Revd Male hopes that each may be better equipped to approach their own challenges and opportunities.

“The danger I think has been that we’ve almost locked ourselves inside our buildings from which we shout out ‘come and join us’,” he said. What fresh expression churches have taught us, he says, is that the best way to reach non-churchgoers is outside the church.

If you are interested in hearing more about pioneering ministry and fresh expression you can find more details in Revd Male’s new booklet “Pioneering Leadership: Disturbing the Status Quo?”, available in print or digital here