Xpressions Café—Looking Forward [pdf]
Part One: Foundations
Richard Seel, November 2009
Xpressions Café has been running at Chedgrave for almost two years. This is the first of three papers in which I reflect and also look forward. Here I look at the purpose and approach of Xpressions Café; and try to set out why we do it the way we do.
Xpressions Café was conceived in the summer of 2007 and the story of its birth has been told elsewhere. Briefly, it is a form of liquid café church which meets on the first Sunday of each month in the village of Chedgrave in Norfolk from 09:30 to 12:00. Xpressions café takes place in both the medieval church of All Saints and also in the Church Centre, which is built onto the church.
There are four ‘zones’, which operate simultaneously throughout the morning: Xpresso, a café offering extravagant hospitality with unlimited free tea and coffee, cakes and Sunday papers; Xpressions, which focuses on families; Xplore, which tries to explore aspects of faith in a way which will connect with the nonchurched; and Xperience—our newest zone—which offers a contemplative approach to the month’s theme. People come and go as they please.
In August 2009 we made a movie, which gives a flavour of how Xpressions Café works (this was shot before we introduced the Xperience zone).
The target audience
“What is our target audience?” asked one of our new leaders in Xpressions Café. It’s a really good question and one which we haven’t answered clearly enough throughout our parishes. For me, though, there is a clear answer: “The target audience is those who have little or no contact with church as adults—the dechurched and unchurched people who live within our group of villages.”
To explain these terms and their significance for the way we do Xpressions Café we can look at some work done by Philip Richter and Leslie Francis in the late 1990s and quoted in the Mission-Shaped Church report (Cray 2001). They researched patterns of church attendance in the population and found that the ‘mission field’ in this country looks something like this:
· The Core attend about 5-8 times in a two month period.
· The Fringe attend about 1-3 times in a two month period.
· The Open Dechurched have left church but are open to return if suitably contacted and invited.
· The Closed Dechurched left church damaged or disillusioned and have no intention of returning.
· The Unchurched are those who have no contact with the church except perhaps for the occasional wedding or funeral. The unchurched slice of the pie is getting bigger with each passing year.
Because Xpressions Café aims to reach those who have little or no contact with church it was always intended to be missional rather than attractional. Both approaches are valid and both are necessary. Attractional church seeks to invite people to join us in our existing traditional ways of being church. An attractional approach is appropriate for those on the fringe and for many of the open dechurched group. If we can make traditional church relevant and welcoming then many will come—Back to Church Sunday is one example of an attractional approach to evangelism.
Missional church seeks to reach out into different cultures or subcultures and provide a way of finding God and following Jesus which is authentic for that culture (and also for the gospel). In today’s fragmented society there are many subcultures but one key distinction is between traditional or ‘inherited’ culture and what is sometimes known as ‘postmodern’ culture. The bulk of the unchurched are affected to a greater or lesser degree by postmodern culture and a set of values and attitudes which are very different from those shared by most Christians.
The missional approach which we need to reach the closed dechurched and unchurched people implies that the way we do church with them will have to be different from the traditional ways. We are still exploring how to do this and have further to go which is why I will be offering some suggestions and options in the third paper in this series. What we have done so far is to try to acknowledge some of the characteristics of the unchurched ‘postmodern’ culture which we hope to reach and the design of the Café reflects this in a number of ways.
We took seriously the research (by Nick Spencer and others) which shows that many of the unchurched are afraid of being ‘Godded-up’ by Christians. As a result of this we decided that the café (Xpresso) should be a ‘neutral’ zone. We do not go as far as the Cottage Beck Café Church in Scunthorpe, who ban all talk of God or religion in their café, but we want Xpresso to be a place where any non-Christian can come without any fear of being ‘got at’. Some people just come to Xpresso to drink the coffee, read the papers or chat to friends. They never visit Xpressions, Xplore or Xperience and that is absolutely fine with us.
This is because we know that Xpresso is not a ‘God-free zone’ even if it is a ‘Godtalk-free zone’ (though if people want to initiate a conversation with us about God or religion, that is fine). Right from the start it was clear to us that Xpresso is the heart of Xpressions Café. The watchword of Xpresso is ‘extravagant hospitality’ (Luke 6:38). It is here that people experience warmth, welcome, acceptance and service; it is here that they begin to encounter God’s love in action. One woman, who travels some miles to come to Xpressions Café, said, “Coming here is like having a hug…”
Do It Yourself
The postmodern mindset is powerfully focused on being in charge. People want to drive themselves rather than being driven by others. A customised experience is something which appeals and that is what we offer. Xpresso and events in Xpressions and Xplore happen simultaneously and each individual decides when to arrive at Xpresso (any time between 09:30 and 12:00) and when or whether to visit Xpressions, Xplore , or Xperience. The menu on the café tables gives starting times for the different sessions with a brief indication of content. The rest is up to the individual.
‘Don’t tell, show me’ used to be the mantra. Now it is ‘Don’t tell or show me, involve me.’ Much of what we do in Xpressions (focused on, but not exclusively for, children and families) and Xplore (focused on adults) is participative in nature. In Xpressions we use craft, cooking and games as well as singing and storytelling. In Xplore we use prayer stations, activities, discussion, singing, reading, and individual reflection as key parts of our sessions. There is some stuff ‘from the front’ but it is deliberately kept to a minimum.
Spirituality not Religion
We are aware that many see the church as peddling ‘religion’, which by their definition is boring, soulless, unspiritual, old-fashioned, autocratic, moralistic and hypocritical! We try to combat some of these prejudices by providing lively, varied, provocative, thoughtful and playful approaches to God. We deliberately take risks and are not afraid of failure. The fact that nearly everything is led by lay people rather than clergy also helps to dispel misconceptions of what church is.
Twenty-first century culture is overwhelmingly multimedia. There is an emphasis on image and icon which would have shocked the reformers (Luther is reputed to have said that the ear is the only organ for the Christian). Xpressions Café uses video and PowerPoint as appropriate. We try neither to force its use nor to avoid it and will often find or make a movie as an integral part of an Xplore session (so far, Xpressions has not used video in its sessions, I think). We also invite people to paint, draw, model, touch, taste and smell as part of our sessions.
Perhaps most importantly of all, we do not see Xpressions Café as a way of filtering people into ‘proper church’. Instead it is our hope that it will become church in its own right; developing as one congregation meeting in two centres: Chedgrave and Loddon. We anticipate that the way we do things will change and evolve and hope that as people become regular at Xpressions Café they will become an active part of this process so that together we can truly create a church which enables them to worship God in spirit and truth.
Having said this. It is quite possible that some who come to Xpressions Café will end up in traditional church because that is what helps them to worship God most effectively. Conversely, they may be some who have been used to traditional church for a number of years who come to find that Xpressions Café works better for them. Both of these transitions are to be welcomed but I suspect that they are unlikely to be anything other than a minority.
Who actually comes?
The categories of unchurched and dechurched are all very well but they are very abstract. It would be good to know who actually comes to Xpressions Café. At present I can’t give anything like a definitive answer but there appear to be four main groups (apart from the leaders who are almost all core church attenders).
The largest group is parents with pre-teen children, many of whom we have come into contact with through schools work, Noah’s Ark and Xpressions events. Many of the parents have had little or no formal contact with Christianity or church in their adult life (though they may have had some degree of contact as children)—and so would qualify as unchurched. A smaller number have had adult experience of church but left for various reasons and see Xpressions Café as a way back. At present this group is mainly to be found in Xpressions or Xpresso, with a somewhat smaller number in joint Xpressions/Xplore sessions. They tend to be younger than the other three groups.
The next largest group is made up of members of traditional Chet Valley congregations. Most of these come because it is ‘their’ church and they want to support it. A few come because Café works better for them as a way of doing church. This group will mainly be found in Xpresso or Xplore. They will also go to joint sessions.
The next group is made up of mainly dechurched people who have found traditional church very difficult. They find the lack of pressure in the Café very empowering and will visit some Xplore sessions and the occasional joint session.
Finally there is a group which will come to Xpresso and nothing else. They are probably mainly closed dechurched people just dipping a toe into the water. My guess is that if they were to ‘cross the threshold’ they would probably be most at home in traditional church—but I could be very wrong about this.
The ‘target audience’ for Xpressions Café is groups one and three. It is these people who will provide the core of any maturing expression of church which will develop over the next few years.
Cray, Graham et al 2004, Mission-Shaped Church, London: Church House Publishing.
Spencer, Nick 2003, Beyond Belief?: Barriers and Bridges to Faith Today, London: London Institute of Contemporary Christianity.