One of the definitions of mission is ‘finding out what God is doing and joining in.’ It seems that Barnabas was well aware of the wisdom of this strategy. Sent by the church in Jerusalem to investigate affairs in Antioch where Greeks were being taught about Jesus, he detected the work of God and decided to be part of it. Not content to encourage the new church alone, he went to collect Paul who then spent a year giving the people of Antioch the benefit of his wonderful teaching.
To find out more, read my reflection below. The readings were Psalm 87, Acts 11:19-26, John 10:22-30.
I wonder if the term ‘fresh expression of church’ means anything to you. It’s fairly well known in churches in the UK and is beginning to spread across the world gradually.
So, what is a fresh expression of church? To answer this I turned to the ‘official’ definition on the Share website is well worth a look if this sort of thing interests you. You might also like to look at the Fresh Expressions website.
“A fresh expression is a form of church for our changing culture, established primarily for the benefit of people who are not yet members of any church.
• It will come into being through principles of listening, service, incarnational mission and making disciples.
• It will have the potential to become a mature expression of church shaped by the gospel and the enduring marks of the church and for its cultural context.”
From this definition four particular features of a fresh expression are distilled. They are:
• missional – serving people outside church;
• incarnational – listening to people and entering their culture, embodying the Gospel;
• educational – making discipleship a priority;
• ecclesial – forming church.
The Anglican Cathedral here in SL is a registered fresh expression. We are trying to be church in SL, living the Gospel in this context and seeking to help people become disciples.
There are many different fresh expressions of church around; it’s not peculiar to online ministry. In fact, even in the fresh expressions community some would say that online ministry IS peculiar! In 2004 a report came out called Mission-shaped Church, which looked at the various forms of fresh expression. It found several different categories of fresh expression including café church, school based churches, student churches, work based churches, monastic orders, network churches.
The report also highlighted the need for training for those involved in such churches. As a response to this need, the one year course Mission Shaped Ministry came into being. The course is for those running a fresh expression of church or those who hope to start one. MSM currently runs in 30 places in the UK. I wouldn’t be surprised if it reaches other countries eventually. I completed this course last year and found it very helpful.
We were given huge amounts of information which I need to return to time and again. One of the topics we looked at was mission. We discussed the ‘Five Marks of Mission’ of the Anglican Communion which have also been adopted by other churches. These are:
• To proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom
• To teach, baptise and nurture new believers
• To respond to human need by loving service
• To seek to transform unjust structures of society
• To strive to safeguard the integrity of creation and sustain and renew the life of the earth
We also considered some quotes about mission. ‘It is not the church of God that has a mission in the world but the God of mission who has a church in the world.’ ‘The church is by nature missionary to the extent that, if it ceases to be missionary, it has not just failed in one of its tasks, it has ceased to be church.’ ‘Mission is finding out what God is doing and joining in.’
There were no fresh expressions courses around at the time when the Acts of the Apostles was written of course, but Barnabas could have read that last quote or even written it. It seems that the followers of Jesus had been seeking out the Jews in all the places that they scattered to and teaching only them about Jesus. Some, however, chose to speak to the Greeks. I have to wonder if the fact that some of this group came from Cyrene had anything to do with Simon of Cyrene who carried Jesus’ cross but I suppose we will never know. It seems those teaching the Greeks found a ready audience and made many converts. News reached Jerusalem of their unorthodox approach and Barnabas was dispatched to investigate.
It’s easy to see why Barnabas gained his nickname, meaning ‘son of encouragement’. He could so easily have gone to this group in Antioch and told them they had got it all wrong. Instead he had eyes to see what God was doing there among the Greeks. He saw the grace of God at work, found out what God was doing and joined in, rejoicing. We’re told that Barnabas was full of the Holy Spirit and faith. It seems he was prompted by the Spirit to encourage Paul to move to Antioch and also join in with the mission of God. Thus began a whole year of teaching and bringing many people to the Lord. By going with what God was doing already, they had great success.
Those who became involved early in the existence of Second Life soon realised that the church should be here as part of this new world. The fact that so many churches have sprung up suggests that God is at work here. Some of the churches are simply buildings of course, rather than homes for Christian communities. Those churches which are active belong to different denominations and have different ways of doing things, rather like some early believers reached out to Jews and some to Gentiles, but hopefully all are listening to the prompting of God.
Jesus said that his followers would hear his voice, as sheep recognise the voice of the shepherd. Just as we can do that individually, we need to do that as a community. It’s really wonderful when members of the community make suggestions about activities we should be engaged in, or changes we should make. Jesus will speak in many ways and one of them will be through those who benefit from this ministry.
This ministry is probably at a point which the Mission Shaped Ministry course described as ‘growing a Fresh Expression to maturity.’ We are around three years old now. It’s a challenging time and many ministries founder at this point.
The first challenge we were pointed to is that of staying in mission mode as the purpose of fresh expressions of church is to share in God’s mission. It’s very easy to begin to settle down and become more like any other church. As much of what we do here at the Cathedral is very similar to what happens in offline churches, I can see that we are in great danger from this. Much of our life is centred around worship, very much like the old monastic communities. This has been a feature of many other emerging churches and seems to speak to the need of many to have a spiritual dimension in their daily lives. As long as we are prepared to keep looking at ourselves and listening to the guidance of Jesus however it comes, we should be all right but we can never afford to become complacent.
The second challenge is that of growing a transforming community. It’s not easy to build community online because of the transient nature of everything. I do believe we are building community and I hope and pray that that will continue. I think part of our task is to continue to be here, solid and dependable. Of course, we could be so busy being a community that we cease to be counter cultural and just become a cosy club for members. Jesus needs to be at the centre of all that we do, challenging and guiding, and we need a way to share that with new people who come to Epiphany, as they do often.
I have no sense that this ministry has in any way ‘arrived’ at where God wants it to be. Like each of us as individuals, we are a work in progress. I urge you to pray that we will continue to listen to God and allow ourselves to be guided by him, for the benefit of all in SL who need to hear the Good News.
Helene Milena – Lay Pastor