What is it like to play with new models of religious community?

“Most people who reject faith don’t understand faith as a journey, but as a choice or affirmation.”  Ben Norton was speaking in the parish hall of Saint Stephen’s Episcopal Church, to a full crowd for our last Ministerium meeting of the academic year.  Ben is a pioneer minister from England, who was visiting the U.S. at the invitation of the Diocese of Southern Ohio to talk about the Fresh Expressions movement and everything that the Church of England has learned from exploring new ways of being church in the last ten years.  He was ordained with the first class of pioneer ministers, so his story is the movement’s story.

Fresh Expressions began with a 2004 report that posited that parish churches alone are no longer able to meet the needs of the highly mobile society of today, and that we need a range of expressions of church to engage with the variety of networks in our communities.  The report advocated for a “mixed economy” of traditional parish churches and new network churches in active partnership across a wide geographical area.  Ben’s work has been creating and sustaining these new network churches, which have commonly come to be called “fresh expressions.”  He’s established Christian communities that meet in bars and homes, creative communities that enact live-action Advent Calendars in abandoned beach huts, and he’s expanded the reach of his ministry to the army, where he serves as a reservist chaplain.  Throughout it all, he’s spent a great deal of time listening to the communities that he works in, assessing their needs and finding ways to collaborate with others to meet those needs.

The American church hasn’t felt the strictures of decline as keenly as the Church of England has, so we’re just beginning our own process of fostering mixed economies.  Yet everyone feels the pressures of societal changes, and it was out of a desire to understand and respond to these changes that we formed the Ministerium.  So Ben was the perfect speaker to close our first year of thinking together and talking together.  How do we help people reimagine faith as a journey, rather than as a set of choices?  If communities are where we learn the lessons of faith, how do foster communities that help their members reflect on those lessons and go out to teach them to others?  In a world of many choices, how do we help people recognize the power of choice and negotiate its dangers and anxieties?  In a society that prefers activity to contemplation and rewards accomplishment and not relationship, how do we convince people to take time for community?  How do we share expertise within faith community structures that are traditionally hierarchical?

At our first Ministerium meeting, we sat together and created a list of very similar questions.  We’ve now spent a year examining some of them, and it can come as no surprise that they’ve generated more questions in their wake.  The questions that loom over us are huge, but as Ben pointed out, we understand them best within community, and within the journey of community we find some, if not all, of the answers we need.  “We need to say, ‘we are the changed world,’” Ben told us, “not, ‘we want to change the world.’”  The world we want, and the understanding we seek, is something that we enact together while journeying together.  Thank you for joining us for this journey, and stay with us next year, as we ask many more questions, and find at least a few answers.

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