Creating Gospel Communities Where Life Happens
By Michael Moynagh
Posted by Darren Cronshaw
I turned to this book looking for a text to help make pioneering leadership and organic church planting accessible to more people. It is ideal for this purpose.
Michael Moynagh is a researcher and advocate for Fresh Expressions UK. His previous books analyse how the world is changing and how church is changing to be more relevant and holistic in a post-Christendom world. This latest volume continues these themes, but focusing on fostering grassroots witnessing communities in all sorts of spaces and places. The key theme of the book is how Christians can witness as “gospel communities where life happens” rather than as gathered churches on the one hand or individual Christians on the other. Moynagh encourages people to start with who they are, and their natural networks of who they do life with.
Recent research on a quarter of the dioceses of the Church of England shows “fresh expressions of church” are 15% of the churches with 10% of attendance, mostly started in the last 10 years and growing. According to their leaders, a quarter are “churched” background, a third are “de-churched” and two fifths “unchurched”. These communities have often started by listening to their context and beginning with serving people in need and gathering a community around this missional service, rather than starting a worship service to attract people. That is, they often begin with worship in action more than worship in song.
The Fresh Expressions movement does not jettison tradition or advocate ignoring existing churches, but wants to see a variety of new churches offering different pathways and signposts for people to explore faith. The essence of being church, according to Moynagh, is four sets of relationships centred on Jesus: UP to God, OUT to the world, IN with our local church, and being OF the broader body of Christ. Church is a gathering that fosters these relationships. Moynagh tells dozens of stories of people starting simply and starting communities at schools, gyms, cafes, workplaces, and online and with hobbies or mindfulness classes (cf. www.freshexpressions.org.uk/stories). For example, a meal-based church for students in Paris, where they catch up over entrée, have a discussion over main course, and pray over dessert makes church accessible for that student group, and the convener hopes gives them a reproducible model of church. At their best the groups are “missional” in working with people outside churches, “contextual” in fitting their circumstances, “formational” in making disciples, and “ecclesial” in that they offer a real experience of church, not just a stepping stone. They are not all fully representing church, but then “normal” church does not necessarily live up to the ideal of all church is meant to be either. Charles Darwin commented “It is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the most responsive to change.” (p.116) Moynagh urges changing some forms of church to make it more accessible and engaged with a greater proportion of people.
As well as inspiring stories, the book is full of practical advice on how to start a community, how to prioritise disciple-making, how to creatively redesign worship practices, the importance of listening to your neighbourhood and people involved, and working with and alongside existing churches. There is advice for teams wanting to start a group, local churches wanting to multiply fresh expressions and denominational leaders working catalytically with whole groups of churches. It underlines the importance of leadership that hosts imaginative conversations, gives permission for trying new experiments, and generates a narrative of hope.
The book concludes by urging evaluation based on new matrices, especially ones that focus evaluation on what a pioneer learning is learning and not just other specific countable outcomes. However it also offers several pages of helpful broader signs of vibrant life too that can be counted; for example, the numbers of listening conversations, stories of service, growth in volunteers, and people involved in spiritual practices which are all helpful matrices. For leaders wanting to organically start new ways of doing church wherever life happens, it is impossible to be completely in control and avoid chaos altogether. But the inspiration by stories of others who have gone before, some idea of the sort of directions that are helpful, and insightful questions for evaluating how things are going are an invaluable contribution.
Being Church Doing Life is an inspiring volume and accessible manual for pioneer leaders and those responsible for motivating, training and resourcing them.
MOYNAGH, Michael. 2014. Being Church, Doing Life: Creating Gospel Communities Where Life Happens. Oxford, UK: Monarch Books. 352pp. pbk. ISBN 978 0 85721 493 5. £9.99.
This review was originally published in Practical Theology 8:1 (March 2015).