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Creative approach brings growth to Hampshire diocese

Innovative ways of being church across Portsmouth’s Church of England diocese are helping congregations to grow, research has found ...

Innovative ways of being church across Portsmouth’s Church of England diocese are helping congregations to grow, research has found.

A survey of 21 different fresh expressions of church in the diocese revealed that attendance had quadrupled in these new worshipping communities.

Almost 1,300 people now worship in fresh expressions of church in this diocese, half of whom are adults, and half children and young people. These groups started with a total of just 250 adults and 66 children. Researchers from the Church Army who conducted the survey concluded that this four-fold increase was high, even by the standards of fresh expressions.

This figure is almost 10 per cent of the average weekly attendance across Portsmouth diocese. Many of those worshipping in these fresh expressions groups are not usually counted in normal church attendance figures.

Portsmouth diocese was among 11 chosen by the Church Army for the first ever in-depth survey of fresh expressions of church. It was one strand of a national Church Growth Research Project, which looked over the past 18 months at factors affecting growth in fresh expressions, cathedrals and team ministry. The research was presented today (Thurs 16) at a conference in London, and concluded that nothing else the Church does has the same impact as fresh expressions.

Fresh expressions of Church are worshipping communities that don’t match the traditional model of church. They may meet at alternative times, offer different styles of worship, and deliberately attempt to reach those who don’t attend traditional services.

In Portsmouth diocese, the 21 fresh expressions surveyed included:

  • 14 Messy Churches, which welcome families for art and craft activities on a spiritual theme, a meal and a short act of worship. The high proportion of Messy Churches was attributed to the fact that the concept began at St Wilfrid’s Church, Cowplain, in 2004. One Messy Church, which meets at St Mary’s Church, Hook-with-Warsash, started in 2011 with 24 people and now welcomes an average of 90. Another, at All Saints Church, Denmead, started in 2011 with 22 people and now attracts 170 each month
  • Café Lite, a monthly café-style church at Droxford Village Hall in the Meon Valley, which mixes coffee, chat and informal worship. It began with 11 people in 2011 and the average attendance is now 70
  • Sunday Sanctuary, the congregation of St Luke’s Church in inner-city Portsmouth, which started meeting in a tower block and now meets in a nearby church hall for creative worship. It began with 17 people in 2009 and now welcomes around 27 people each week
  • Breakthru, a weekly self-help group at St Simon’s, Southsea, for people who want to learn new skills. It combines training in cookery, literacy and work skills, with a shared meal and spiritual support. It started in 2012 with eight people and now welcomes an average of 23 each Friday.

One new fresh expression of church is due to be launched this week. Or? alternative worship has been created by husband and wife team Kev and Nicky Pybus (pictured top) at St Cuthbert’s Church, Copnor. Its first regular, monthly service happens this Sunday (January 19) from 7.30pm, and will include creative prayer and worship stations, interactive video, ambient lighting and music, all exploring the theme of forgiveness and starting afresh.

The name ‘fresh expressions’ was applied to such groups after the 2004 report Mission-Oriented Church encouraged the Church of England and other denominations to embrace a mixture of traditional congregations and fresh expressions of church.

Diocesan mission development officer the Rev Charlie Peer said: “We’re pleased that these new ways of helping people to engage with God are bringing fresh people into church.

“One defining factor about fresh expressions is that they are created by people in parishes to respond to the need they see around them. They simply don’t work if a formula is imposed from the centre. But we’re keen to support these new worshipping communities as they nurture these new contacts and help them to develop spiritually.”

The director of the Church Army’s Research Unit, Canon George Lings, said: “One in eight parishes in Portsmouth diocese have current or recent fresh expressions of church. This counters impressions that they are only peripheral to the life of the Church of England.

“The four-fold increase in attendance is high even by fresh expression standards and is worth highlighting and celebrating. It will be rare that a parish can show this kind of progress. Fresh expressions of Church in Portsmouth have succeeded in reaching families.

“Eighteen of its current fresh expressions were begun between 2006 and 2012, whereas only three before then, showing a clear increase in the rate at which this trend has been happening.

“We asked the leaders of each fresh expression in Portsmouth who they were aiming to reach and whether they had done so. The results show that the number of Christians present is less than a quarter of overall attendance. This contradicts the myth that fresh expressions only attract overwhelming numbers of existing Christians.”

The Church Army research also showed that the reason cited most often for creating a new fresh expression was that worshippers felt a distinct group of people weren’t been catered for by existing services.

In this diocese, around 40 per cent of such groups use a church building, 40 per cent use a church hall and 17 per cent use a secular venue. More than half of the groups are led by lay people and 45 per cent by clergy. The research also showed that 71 per cent of fresh expressions in this diocese are taking steps to deepen the discipleship of those attending.

(top) Kev and Nicky Pybus preparing to launch ‘Or?’ alternative worship on Sunday
(above) Brothers Oscar (left) and Oli Titcombe at Messy Church in St Mary’s Church, Warsash

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