If turning around a declining church were easy, more declining churches would be reversing course.
And if Christians in the United States think turning around a church is difficult, think of trying it in the Church of England, where tradition reaches back hundreds of years and hierarchical structure often hamstrings changes local congregations want to make.
But Bob and Mary Hopkins believe fresh expressions—a term they prefer over “revitalizing a congregation”—can come even to Anglican churches in the United Kingdom.
Although they began—and continue—as church planters in urban settings with Anglican Church Planting Initiatives, from 1998 to 2005, the Hopkins served on the leadership team of St. Thomas’ Church in Sheffield, which grew to 1,500 in attendance, primarily reaching young adults with emerging culture interests.
They acknowledge cultural differences between the United Kingdom and the United States, but they emphasize that differences favor American churches. According to the Hopkins, culture in the United Kingdom is more influenced by secular atheism and is further into an era being called post-Christendom. The Brits have fewer megachurches and a greater percentage of smaller congregations. In addition, their congregations are attended by older people—average age 61—with fewer financial resources.
Because of their success, the pair has been asked by the Archbishop of Canterbury to serve on the Fresh Expressions team charged with bringing new vitality and energetic ministry to Anglican churches.
Although not everyone accepts their belief that churches in decline should not feel guilty, Bob and Mary Hopkins teach churches to begin by rejecting the belief that they have failed. Shying away from terms like “traditional churches” that often have negative connotations, they prefer the term “inherited churches” to describe churches that have been around for years.
“It isn’t good or bad,” Bob Hopkins said. “It simply describes what is. This is the church that has come down to us.”
But fresh expressions of church life require more than just a name change. In the past, they insist, the church’s approach has been attractional—inviting people to come to church.
Some churches have transitioned to an engaged approach that says, “We’ll go out and engage people and bring them back to the church.”
The couple believes more transition is needed—an emerging approach that says, “We’ll go out and stay engaged with people in our culture and see what new expressions of being the church arise.”
What characterizes an emerging approach?
“First and above all,” Bob Hopkins said, “we’ve got to stop starting with the church.” Instead, he insists, start with the nonchurched in their social contexts.
The couple believes, based on their relatively recent successes, the inherited church must be willing, able and even eager to initiate changes designed with specific interest groups in mind. They foresee churches for young adults, adults with young children, network churches, community initiative churches, alternative worship churches, school-based student churches and even work-based churches.
These churches may or may not worship on Sundays. They may or may not have paid staff. They may be smaller, worship in cafes, or around tables or in homes as cells. They may even be intentional conventional church plants, but Bob and Mary Hopkins believe the church must take the teaching of Christ to its world rather than expect the world to come to it.
Neither can the church in the future expect the world to reflect its values and teachings. The world is becoming increasingly worldly. In such a context the attractional church has little chance of surviving, they believe.
They do, however, see a future for what they call “mixed economy” churches that affirm what they have inherited from the past while transitioning into churches having a mission to the non-churched.
While at St. Thomas in Sheffield, Bob helped begin a discipleship process called Lifeshapes which has become international in scope. They believe that staid, passive, all-but-dead Anglican churches can find fresh expressions in which to life out their faith.
The new churches may not resemble the old, cathedral-based models, they insist, but those churches will be authentic and biblical. They believe tired old American churches can find fresh expressions, as well.
For additional information visit their website at www.acpi.org.uk.