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Fresh Expressions report – new evidence for church growth

Major research is pointing to Fresh Expressions being responsible for the greatest church growth impact in the Church of England ...

Findings of The Church Growth Research Programme, reported this week at the Faith in Research Conference in London, show that churches are growing all over the country.

The report, produced by Church Army’s Research Unit as part of the Church of England’s 18-month Church Growth Research Programme, examined all the fresh expressions of church in 10 representative dioceses.

On average within a diocese, fresh expressions make up 15% of the churches and 10% of the attendance.

Between January 2012 and October 2013, Church Army’s Research Unit spoke to the leaders of 518 fresh expressions in the dioceses of Liverpool, Canterbury, Leicester, Derby, Chelmsford, Norwich, Ripon and Leeds, Blackburn, Bristol and Portsmouth.

Against a background of wider church decline, the report found that these young churches are showing signs of growth. For every one person sent out from an existing church to start a fresh expression, there are now two and half more people. Nothing else in the Church of England has this impact. It is also interesting to note that 66 per cent of them either continue to grow numerically or maintain the growth gained.

As some people within the Church have anticipated, the report found that many of the fresh expressions of church (52%) are led by those who are not ordained, but what is new is that 40% are led by people without any church accreditation and often without formal training. They are also equally likely to be led by women as men. Most often the men are ordained, working full-time and paid, whereas the women are not ordained, spare-time and voluntary.

George Lings, Church Army’s Research Unit Leader (pictured above), said: “As we conducted the research here at Church Army, it was energising to hear the fresh expressions leaders talk about the growth they are seeing. My view is that the fresh expressions movement is very important for the future life of the Church of England – and now for the first time we have harder evidence to back up that conviction, as we move from reliance on stories to having statistics as well.”

In the report, the pace of change is quite striking:

  • 40% of the fresh expressions of church researched had started in the last three years
  • by 2012 more than four times as many per year were being started compared to 2004 and the launch of the Mission-shaped Church report

The diversity of fresh expressions of church is also significant. There is no one way to do them and it is a world of many, young, diverse and small communities. Their average size is 44 people and they occur in all kinds of social contexts – from deeply rural to city centre and richer to poorer areas.

Reflecting on what has been unearthed by the report and what still may need to be done, George Lings, said: “Although we have made a good start on assessing the impact of fresh expressions of church, our team feels that further research is advisable. The feedback we’ve received from the dioceses surveyed is very positive, enabling them to evaluate progress and sharpen strategy. Therefore, it would be good sense to do similar work with more dioceses. Also, to build a more holistic view, we would like to spend time interviewing some members of fresh expressions of church.

“The work completed is also a relational base from which we plan to do in-depth interviews about sustainability of fresh expressions of church. To this end, Church Army has appointed a further team member.

“As a team we have been energised by what has been discovered – and our hope and prayer is that the findings are an encouragement and gift to the Church. This is especially apt as Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, has made ‘evangelism and witness’ one of his three top priorities.”

Church Army Chief Executive, Mark Russell, said: “Fresh expressions of church are a huge part of our response to the evangelistic challenge facing the Church. For some time we have lacked hard data on the effectiveness of fresh expressions. Church Army’s work provides the answer: fresh expressions work! This cutting edge research will shape all our thinking for years to come.”

Church Army’s Research Unit is part of the Cranmer Hall, St John's College, Durham Consortium. Topics covered included growth at cathedrals and larger churches, fresh expressions of church and the effect of amalgamations and team ministries.

To read the full report on fresh expressions of church and to watch a film about the report’s findings, please visit www.churcharmy.org.uk/fxCresearch

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