Book review: First Expressions

Anvil journal of theology and mission

Steve Taylor, First Expressions: Innovation and the Mission of God, (London: SCM Press, 2019)

by James Butler, Church Mission Society

First Expressions is an important contribution to the conversation around Fresh Expressions and new forms of church. By returning to alternative worship and emerging church groups that he had spent time with over 11 years previously, Taylor is able to provide a longitudinal study and begin to respond to the questions Fresh Expressions continually face around longevity and sustainability. Starting from his own experience of leading a “first expression” of church and seeing it grow and thrive and then come to an end, Taylor takes a fascinating journey exploring different experiences of these experimental Christian communities. He helpfully distinguishes between these “first expressions” of church and the institutional body seeking to learn from and resource these kinds of churches, “Fresh Expressions”. I found this a particularly significant insight which recognises their unique and valuable contributions.

The book is laid out in four parts. The first part, consisting of three chapters, introduces first expressions, processes of innovation and the practical theology underpinning the project. It is about paying attention to the particular and the church “body-ing forth in innovation”. Taylor firmly locates first expressions within innovation. The exploration of innovation moves it beyond what we might consider a Silicon Valley approach, drawing insights from ecosystems, indigenous understandings of innovation and from craft. These provide lenses through which innovation in Scripture can be seen afresh. His evaluative questions, which he forms through the chapter, are particularly helpful for drawing churches and communities into much more helpful and sustainable ways of being.

The second part revisits the 11 communities Taylor first researched in 2001, of which only five are still in existence. In chapter 4 he reflects on spending time with each of those five and begins to identify key themes around sustainability. In chapter 5 he spends time talking to those who were involved in the first expressions that came to an end, like the one he had led. Again, there is wisdom drawn from these experiences, both in what might have helped the first expressions to develop differently, and from the ecclesiology which is being revealed in these stories. An ecclesiology that reveals the models of church-as-gathered and church-as-growing to be deficient.

Part three focuses on the role of Fresh Expressions as organisational innovation. In the three chapters, Taylor spends time developing the theology that rooted Rowan William’s approach to Fresh Expressions, the ways in which Fresh Expressions brought about ecclesial innovation and the organisational structures that enable mission.

Chapter four begins to draw out the implications for a theology of first expressions. Taking the four marks of the church – one, holy, catholic and apostolic – he reflects on the learning from the longitudinal study.

One of the most helpful chapters for me was exploring authenticity and what it means for the church to be “one”. Taylor contrasts authenticity-as-originality and authenticity-as-sincerity. The former is the experimental and innovative, finding a contextual understanding of faith in a new culture, the latter is about discerning how it is a sign of God in the world. While Taylor is not questioning the need for discernment, what he is pointing out is that there are far more resources dedicated to discerning God in the past than in the present, and without the resources focused on that discernment stability and continuity becomes implicitly valued over the innovative and new. Because Fresh Expressions inadvertently conflated the two there is always a pull back to continuity and stability.

For all the discussion and interviews it felt a little detached from practice and there is some work to be done by the reader to make the connections. It was perhaps slightly long, and as a result it lost some of the focus of the earlier sections as it reached its concluding chapters. However, this is a significant piece of work, for a number of reasons: It provides a longitudinal and honest view of these “first expressions” that does not shy away from the difficulties and struggles and provides important perspective on such community; it is based on careful, in depth qualitative research that enables the wider church to listen carefully and attentively to these groups; and it develops an approach to innovation that encourages a more complex and sustainable approach to church.

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