CONGREGATIONS in parish churches are the main determinant of the success or failure of pioneer “mixed ecology” ministries, and the main source of frustration for ministers, suggests a new study.
Mixed environmentalists, which is part of the Ministry Council’s Living Ministry study, is based on interviews a year ago with 17 clergy engaged in “mixed ecological ministry” (MEM) – serving in parish churches throughout. by developing pioneer ministries and / or fresh expressions in their parish. According to the report, an increasing number of people are engaged in such ministries, “feeling a call to expand the reach of the parish.”
These people are “particularly interested in exploring the relationships between pioneer and inherited expressions of the church, and passionate about maintaining their distinctiveness, but will want to keep them together in a local community or ecosystem. This often seems to stem from a desire to reach out to people who, for many reasons, will not cross the threshold of the inherited church or who find the transition from a community event to church too difficult.
The 10-year Vision and Strategy for the Church of England, presented to the General Synod by the Archbishop of York in November last year (News, November 17, 2020), has “a church where mixed ecology is the standard ”as one of its three priorities. the Mixed ecologists The report contains a series of recommendations for national church institutions, dioceses and theological education institutes to strengthen these ministries. It’s very positive about them, concluding that MEM “offers wonderful opportunities to connect with new people in new ways. It has the ability to bring new life to discipleship and the missionary vision of existing “inherited” congregations with the potential to transform ward life. “
A central conclusion of the report is that the attitude of congregations in “inherited” parish churches is one of the main determinants of the development of MEM. While this ranged from enthusiasm to resistance, it was the source of frustration most frequently mentioned by those interviewed, who spoke of a reluctance to change, a lack of understanding of the mission, or discipleship. , and an expectation that the clergy should spend all of their time looking after their congregation.
The report speaks of “a common need to deepen the missionary insight and personal discipleship of members of the congregation, challenging introspection and the belief that things do not need or indeed cannot change.”
Many of those interviewed described having to “unlock the structures of power” in relation to the CCP, churchwardens and ordained colleagues. Others spoke of desperation: “No one believed that change was possible, or that their efforts could make a difference in levels of deprivation or spiritual apathy. They wanted a change but felt powerless to contribute and were either resigned or wanted the clergy to do it. Another factor was the lack of confidence in the gospel, or in themselves and in their ability to articulate it.
It was common for congregations to view Fresh Expressions as a way to “restock on Sundays”; but these ministries had tended to become separate communities rather than a bridge to traditional church forms, where only the leaders, or a few individuals from the “inherited” congregation, provided a link.
Despite this, the report concludes that MEMs can “encourage legacy congregations to be flexible, outward-looking, and to grow in faith and trust.” Members of Fresh Expressions had often made it clear that they also saw the parish church as “theirs”. Almost all of the clergy interviewed spoke of the importance of empowering lay leaders; and, in many cases, retired members of the “middle of the road congregations” were at the very heart of the pioneer activity. But the report says that often those devotees with “confidence, ability and initiative” were “already busy, engaged in other things with limited ability to engage in the vanguard.”
The report is part of a series of central initiatives that seek to develop what Vision and Strategy describes as a “church of missionary disciples”, with the ambition of encouraging lay people to “move away from the mainstream. participants. . . to lawyers and apprentices turned outward and confident in their faith and their church ”(News, February 9, 2019).
As dioceses face cuts in the number of paid clergy, more lay people are also expected to take on leadership positions. Mixed environmentalists suggests that it may take a lot of change to make this a reality on the ground. Several of those interviewed described low aspirations and low confidence and the importance of “creating a culture of honor and assertiveness”.
One said of their congregation: “Very few of them really understood a concept of mission or discipleship, and many of them actually showed themselves to have no pattern of prayer. or personal worship. They relied entirely on Sunday.
But the investment paid off: many of those interviewed told stories of “unlikely individuals who flourished and became leaders with so much time and support”; for some it was “the culmination of their current ministry.”
Interviewees came from diverse backgrounds – coastal, rural, market town, estates, suburban and urban parishes – and their legacy ministries ranged from large evangelical urban churches to rural profit with multiple, small traditional congregations. They have also held a wide range of responsibilities and positions.
The nature of the pioneering ministries developed by those interviewed also varied, ranging from “hugely innovative” initiatives at Messy Church, to food banks and to young children’s groups. One commented, “This is exactly what I would call standard parish work that any good Baptist church would do, that Catholic priests in inner cities once did. It is only a pioneer because the Church, [at] both ends of the spectrum simply pulled out when the state took power: that’s the only reason most seem to be pioneers.
Hospitality and generosity were at the heart of successful ministries: sharing food was a common theme. Several people “spoke of how difficult it was for non-ecclesiastical people to access formal religious activity; it was simply ‘too big a leap’, and traditional services were ‘just too foreign’ ‘.
The cool expressions had often attracted the “fallen” and tended to be “informal, friendly, creative and relevant to those who were disillusioned, hurt or annoyed by the inherited forms of worship.”
Although “presenting the gospel in an accessible and relevant way” was the goal of pioneer ministries, many interviewees saw themselves as having “stepped back” on the road traveled. “At the same time, they continued to build relationships, build trust with the community, and try to shift the perspective of their inherited congregation, or identify people who might be willing and able to participate in the process. sensitization. “
Many were keen to stress that “bringing people to church on Sunday” was not the goal of their pioneering ministry or of Fresh Expression.
The report notes that engaging in MEM is “demanding and exhausting”. Several of those interviewed said they felt “misunderstood or alone, irritated at having to repeatedly explain the rationale for what they were trying to accomplish to both congregations and fellow clergy.”
Others felt “like second-class citizens” to church planters or pioneers. “The resources that were given to them were paltry, along with the grants and support offered to other types of ministries. Many felt it was because what they were doing was slow and relational, in rural or underprivileged areas – neglected parts of the country.
But those interviewed were also optimistic: almost all spoke of “the joy of seeing people grow, whether in faith, in trust, or in vision and ministry.”
One of the recommendations is that dioceses “recognize, celebrate and affirm the specific ministry of MEM, incorporating it into their vision design and policy making, with permission for the clergy to stop things. and to reshape their roles ”.