Expressing Church

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Expressing Church in a Postmodern World

The Context

Britain is now a mission field. The notion of Christendom—a country so thoroughly Christianised that everybody knows the gospel—may never have actually been a reality but there is no doubt that Britain in the early 21st century is a pagan country which has little contact with the good news of Jesus.

The following chart gives an indication of how things were in the mid-1990s:


Richter & Leslie’s research suggests that 40% of the population have no experience of church at all. I suspect that this gives too rosy a picture because this number is rising every year. Very few children (4% according to Church Trends, cited in Cray et al 2004:41) now attend Sunday School and the church is simply an unknown for them. This is not all bad news as we shall see, but it is certainly enough to confirm that Christendom is no more. It is also not just—or principally—about numbers, as Graham Cray reminds us: “The numbers are merely a warning sign that we are out of touch with our God-given context.” (2002:17)

Nick Spencer’s small-scale focus group study (2000) help to put a bit of flesh on these bare bones. He talked to five small groups of people who all identified themselves as neither committed believers nor committed unbelievers. Two of the groups were 18-24, two 24-45 and one 45+; two were male only, two female-only and one mixed. Socioeconomically, all participants were B, C1 or C2.

Some of Spencer’s key findings were:

Spencer’s study, though small, graphically illustrates the gulf between the church and the world which has opened up. It also offers some grounds for optimism: there is a desire to believe, spirituality is increasingly important, people still yearn for the numinous and some people are beginning to sense that new forms of church are emerging. The big question is, how should the church respond to all this? (The even bigger question is, “How is the church responding?”)

The Church

What is the church?

Before considering how the church should respond I will take a brief look at the nature of the church itself. What is the church? Who is a member? Although according to the OED church is derived from Old English circe and ultimately from kuriakon meaning Lord’s (house), giving etymological justification for those who use it primarily to refer to a building, in this discussion I am more interested in the ecclesia, the assembly of God’s people.

Even so, there are considerable difficulties since we are still prone to make a series of assumptions which may not be justified. For instance, does an assembly have to be co-located? If so, in what way? Modern habits of association—few physical meetings but much contact by texting, for instance (Ward 2002:88ff)—and recent reflections on the nature of community (Myers 2003) have started some to challenge the importance of physical intimacy and contiguity in being church. I am persuaded that these ideas are worth taking further but for the time being I will focus on somewhat more traditional models.

So, who is part of the church? Once more, a plethora of definitions suggest themselves. Since the notion of definition is a rather modern one (though the question engaged the primitive church too) I am drawn to the suggestion of Graham Cray (2002) and Pete Ward (2002) that the church is made up of all those who are ‘in Christ’. From this it may follow that ‘churches’ are assemblies (whether in physical or virtual) of those who are in Christ. The assembly will also contain a number of people who are not yet in Christ but who are drawn towards him in some way.

But this brings up another key question: if the church is the communion of all those saints who are ‘in Christ’, whether here on earth or in the hereafter, what is a church? Is the church (assembly) in a parish all those people who live in the parish and worship regularly at the parish church? I doubt if this applies to many churches today. At Bacton at least five core members do not live in the village but would be considered as much a part of the local church as those who do.

If a church has several services on a Sunday (or even during the week) and these develop into separate (though possibly overlapping) congregations, is each congregation to be considered as a separate church (see Lings 2001 for a discussion)? Or is the 10:30 congregation superior to the 8:00 congregation or the youth congregation? When I was at St Mary’s, Ealing I very much enjoyed worshipping with Grace, one of the first of the alt.worship congregations. But it used to worry me that they did not integrate better with the ‘main’ church.

I have come to believe that this was wrong thinking; each congregation should be respected as its own authentic expression of Christ’s body here on earth (unless it is clearly apostate, of course—the Nine O’clock service provides an example of this). Each has the potential to develop the marks of church—worship, mission & community (Lings 2001) or, as Bob Hopkins (2000) suggests, “a Jesus community of disciple-making disciples.” On the other hand, Cray et al offer three marks of church which may not be applicable to individual congregations—self-propagating, self-financing & self-governing. (2004:121ff).

Small groups also challenge traditional ways of thinking about a church. Whether they are cell groups (Astin 2002, Hopkins 2000) or base communities (Hinton 1998, Price 1998), transforming communities (Croft 2002)  or just good old-fashioned home groups, small groups need to be considered as more than incidental assemblies in the wider life of the church. In some cases they may be the church. In others they are not.

Perhaps in the end we shouldn’t worry so much. If we can move away from using the phrase ‘a church’ and instead speak of something like ‘expression of church’ we will be better able to embrace Rowan Williams’ ‘mixed economy’: there are many authentic expressions of church—some are small groups, some are traditional congregations, some look very different from either.

What is an authentic expression of church?

But if there can be many expressions of church, how can we tell if they are authentic? One test might be to see how closely they conform to the 4D model (adapted from Cray et al 2004:98). This suggests that there are four dimensions by which any Christian community can test its own authenticity:


An authentic expression of church is focused on God through Jesus. If Jesus is not at the heart of all it does then it needs to ask some serious questions. We are not here to thrive and be successful; we are not here to complement the work of social services; we are not here to provide a social club or church preservation society—we are here to worship God and be fellow workers with him in the work of the kingdom.


Through Jesus we experience a transforming relationship with God. An authentic expression of church takes this experience of communion and builds on it, so that a community is created which is mutually supportive, encouraging, and seeks to live out a life of love.


The church of Christ exists to participate in God’s work of bringing about his kingdom. The great commission is binding on all expressions of church and a community of disciples which is not also seeking to be disciple-making is missing a dimension. An authentic expression of church will actively seek to help others come to a saving knowledge and relationship with Jesus, no matter where they are.

The work of God’s people also requires care for God’s people wherever they are (e.g. James 1:28). Ministering to the wider community is a feature of the authentic expression of church.  Neither doing good to nor preaching the good news at will be effective but building relationships of genuine caring and a real desire to listen and empathise will enable the sharing of the good news of Jesus to be offered without causing resistance.

Of or With

The fourth dimension is somewhat different from the others but no less important. Any expression of church must remember that it is just that—an expression of something which is timeless, universal and rooted in an absolute truth (no matter how partially we may grasp that truth). The church is the body of Christ, the community of all those in communion with him. Any expression which forgets this and starts to ‘do its own thing’ will quickly become a sect or even a cult. Any group of Christians may get together to become an expression of church but if they lose their links to the one holy catholic and apostolic church they will surely founder on the rocks of heresy.

Some expressions of church

Having been liberated from the tyranny of the notion that there can be a church rather than expressions of the church, we can start to look at how these expressions might be made manifest. If we assume, following the thrust of Article 24, that it is “a thing plainly repugnant to the Word of God” that church should be expressed “in a tongue not understanded of the people” then each expression should be culturally relevant. In a fragmented culture this inevitably means that we need a multiplicity of expressions. This is the only way in which the church can respond to its current situation; attempting to privilege one form over all the others will simply lead us further along the path of irrelevance.

Traditional expressions

It is important to recognise that traditional expressions of church continue to be culturally relevant to a large number of people. We must respect that. I worry about attempts to impose a ‘one size fits all’ approach to traditional church. It would be better to offer diversity, either within a single parish or at different parishes within a benefice—BCP, happy-clappy, straight Common Worship, child-friendly, catholic, contemplative and so on. The Church of England has a rich liturgical heritage, which enables it naturally to find a number of different ways of expressing church.

Many of the denominational battles of the past, with their liturgical totems, are coming to be seen as irrelevant to a postmodern sensibility. Postdenomenationalism is gradually becoming a fact of life for an increasing number of Christians; the battle lines drawn in a modernist past are losing their meaning for even the average person in the pew—let alone those outside the church. Choosing to focus on one traditional expression has the effect of ‘forbidding the little children’ who do not respond to that expression. Our Lord may not look too kindly on us if we do this.

It goes beyond matters of liturgical style into pastoral care and spiritual development. A BCP congregation may thrive but it would be unrealistic to expect it to behave in the same way as a happy-clappy congregation. The latter may thrive on mid-week small group meetings, the former may require an entirely different approach towards their spiritual formation. There is, especially in evangelical circles, an assumption that intimacy is the only appropriate mode of relationship for truly spiritual Christians. This assumption needs to be examined and possibly challenged (see Myers 2003 and Ward 2003). It may be that each traditional expression needs its own kind of pastoring and its own modalities of spiritual growth.

I believe that many of the open de-churched would be more likely to re-connect if there were fewer compromises and more genuine options in the parish setting. We see in our villages that many core members ‘vote with their feet’, only attending certain types of service. We could berate them for their lack of faithfulness or we could respect their own sense of how they can best come into communion with God. If we do the latter then it will change the whole way we relate to them (in this I speak more to myself than to others).

Fresh expressions of church

Although traditional expressions of church are still relevant to many, it is obvious that they have no relevance to the majority. I believe that we need to conduct ‘holy experiments’, seeking to discover what will connect to different segments of society. Some will succeed, some will fail; that’s OK in this context. There are many examples of such holy experiments (though those involved in them may not have conceptualised them this way)—the bibliography gives a little information about some of them; look in particular at George Lings’ Encounters on the Edge and some of the Grove Booklets. Here I will explore a few of the themes which seem to be emerging from these examples.

Small groups

In the fresh expressions of church there is an increasing emphasis on the value of small groups. Indeed, it is the proliferation of small group expressions which has led to a lot of the ecclesiological questioning. There is, however, no consensus on the role or purpose of such groups. Most agree that the traditional home group or bible study group is not radical enough to effect transformation or fresh expression because the missionary emphasis has largely been lost though John Mallison, for instance, includes preparation for mission as one of the seven core roles of a small Christian group mission (1989:7ff).

More radical expressions of small group come from South America (base ecclesial communities) and South Asia (cell churches). The base ecclesial communities grew from the experience of disenfranchised groups in South America who took matters into their own hands. They are usually lay led and take their inspiration from liberation theology.

In this country the ‘New Way of Being Church’ movement, led by Bishop Peter Price, is perhaps the best known manifestation of the base community approach. The focus is practical: “Small groups exist to make a difference, to bring about change.” (Hinton 1998:29) and focused on transforming the local community in some way.

In contrast, the focus of the cell group approach (Astin 2002, Hopkins 2000, Lings 2003b) is growth, both growth of the individual members and of the cell itself. The cell approach includes the explicit assumption that cells will grow and divide just as living cells do. Thus there is a constant pressure is to grow new leaders who can guide the newly budded cell after division.

Most cell groups follow some sort of ‘4W’ format as the basic structure for their meetings, though the exact phases vary. Howard Astin uses Welcome, Worship, Word, Works, while Paul Bayes uses Welcome, Worship, Witness & Word (Lings 2003b). The basic intent is the same, though, the group pays attention to itself in the welcome (the ‘in’ dimension), worships (the ‘up’ dimension), studies the word (the ‘with’ dimension) and witnesses to others (the ‘out’ dimension).

It could be suggested that base and cell each offer only a partial exposition of the ‘out’ dimension: one emphasising proclamation, the other social action. Both are crucial to the churches work as a partner with God in the bringing in of the kingdom and it would be good to have small groups which explicitly recognise the need for each even though base and cell come from two different traditions.

Midweek church

Does the community always have to meet on a Sunday? There is no biblical injunction to that effect although it was clearly the practice of the early church. Today there are many people for whom Sunday is difficult or impossible—shift workers, single parents who can only see their children on a Sunday, families who only have Sunday together, and so on. There are others, such as parents of children who want to do sports on a Sunday morning, who choose children over church. Perhaps they should not, but they do.

One way to acknowledge this is to offer the opportunity to gather together for worship and teaching at a different time. George Lings (2001) offers some examples and I know of a successful after-school gathering which meets on a Wednesday afternoon with a very child-friendly service. Many of the mums were previously unchurched but have now become regular and faithful members.

Midweek church often meets in a venue other than the regular church building. This is not essential but it can offer a way in for some people (we have observed that there are some people who will come to our beach services who will not come into the building).


Some writers (e.g. Hunter 2000) distinguish Roman and Celtic models of evangelism. The Roman model assumes that existing church practice is the best and requires converts to adopt it. The Celtic model tries to create new models which remain faithful to the core beliefs of the church but which translate these into cultural forms which speak the language of the people.

The alternative worship movement (often known as alt.worship in homage to alt. news groups on the internet) adopts the Celtic perspective, arguing that we must develop worship forms which are more accessible to a postmodern generation: participatory, postliterate, exploratory and eclectic.

Alternative worship (Baker & Gay 2003, Kimball 2003, Miller 2003, Pagitt 2003) will use contemporary music—both Christian and secular—and the style may be upbeat dance music or chilled-out ambient style. Video projection, of both still and moving images, is common and PowerPoint presentations are often used very creatively (unlike in business!). There is a richness of symbolism and although most alt.worship groups spring from an evangelical home they make great use of traditional catholic rituals such as stations of the cross.

Participation and choice are key components in alternative worship. It is common for there to be times in a service when participants can choose to visit one of a number of ‘prayer stations’. Each prayer station will contain some activity to engage the senses, such as lighting an incense stick, washing of hands or feet, drawing or working with plasticene, lighting candles, and so on. Great attention is also paid to the environment. Many alt.worship groups meet in church buildings but they often transform them with drapes, gauzes and lighting effects.


Recently I was musing on the use of our church building at St Andrew’s. We know that many people come and visit during the week, some regularly, some just passing through. There seem to be two main things which draw them—a love of history and the sense of peace which they experience there. The two are not necessarily entirely disconnected as each is about connecting with something other, the imagined past or the numinous.

What if these visits are an expression of church too? Of course, there is no sense of gathered community but is that always necessary (see above)? And even if they are not, it is still relevant to ask what we can offer to such people. As I was contemplating this I was reminded of another ancient ritual which has been taken up by the some of the alternative worship groups—walking the labyrinth. It seemed to me that we could use some aspects of this to offer a more complete experience of spirituality to those who visit our building.

Indeed, we could tie the historical and spiritual together with a guided tour around the church, offering both a guide to the history in the form of a booklet (we do have one but it is out of print, waiting for me to revise it) and a number of ‘prayer stations’ around the church. We have already made a start on this with the candle stand and prayer request book but we could take it further: for instance, we could have a pile of stones and a bowl near to the font. We could invite people to take a stone to symbolise sort part of themselves which they were dissatisfied with and which needed cleansing and to place it into the water as a symbolic form of confession.

Many other ideas crowd in but I want to leave them for a time and get together a small creative group to work on this; the results will be much richer and there will be a greater ownership of the idea. I will broach it with the ministry team at the presentation.


The ideal, then, as portrayed in this essay is for each ecclesial centre to offer a wide range of expressions of church, some traditional, some modern, some postmodern. This is a formidable challenge in terms of resources, especially leadership resources. Each separate expression requires a different form of pastoral support and style of leadership.

I believe that the church can cope with this but it will require bold thinking and a great deal of courage, especially on the part of stipendiary clergy who have to learn new ways of relating to their parishioners. As Paul Bayes, the newly appointed National Advisor for Mission & Evangelism, said at the Mission-Shaped Church Conference on 23rd June 2004, stipendiary priests are going to have to be more episcopal while locally ordained ministers will become the ‘elders’ of local congregations.

Yet even this will not be enough; there will also have to be a significant increase in lay leadership, though not everyone will go as far as Martin Goldsmith of All Nations College who wrote recently in the Church of England Newspaper: “The laity should be set free not just to do the non-sacramental work which the ordained person has not the time or energy to do. They should be placed in full charge of their congregations with decision-making powers. This must include the right to officiate in the sacraments.” (17th June 2004, p6)

I would quarrel with the use of the phrase ‘in full charge’ as it suggests a style of leadership far removed from Jesus’ ideal (Luke 22:24ff) and it is also clear that the Church of England is still not ready for lay presidency. Yet the pressure for this will certainly grow as fresh expressions of church flourish. Rowan Williams was challenged about this at the Mission Shaped Church Conference on behalf of youth leaders who find it awkward to have to call in a priest whenever they want to celebrate the Eucharist.

I am unconvinced at present. The arguments for lay presidency may be strong but they are not yet overwhelming. Indeed, it seems to me that if fresh expressions flourish this will be one way in which the ‘with’ dimension can be emphasised. Ordained clergy—and especially stipendiary clergy—will find themselves taking on yet another episcopal role: that of the early bishop who would preside at the Eucharist in local churches as a sign of their catholicity.

Whether the Church of England can respond to the challenges of a postmodern society is still in the balance. There is much goodwill in the senior echelons but in many ways it is easier for them; their way of working is not being challenged so much. There is also still a lack of resources available for ‘pump priming’ fresh expressions of church. Perhaps until the C of E is ready to put its money where its mouth is the question marks will remain.

Richard Seel June 2004