'Fresh expressions' will not solve the problem of declining numbers of churchgoers, according to research carried out in the Diocese of Canterbury.
A study by the Rev Dr John Walker claims to show that the innovative evangelistic and church-planting methods into which the Church of England and Methodist Churches have poured resources over the last few years are no more effective than more traditional approaches.
Originally a Church of England project, the Fresh Expressions initiative, which supports new congregations in non-traditional settings like homes, pubs and cafés, is now supported by the Methodist Church and the Salvation Army among others and has been credited with helping stem the decline in UK churchgoing.
But in his book 'Testing Fresh Expressions: Identity and Transformation' , which describes research into five 'fresh expressions' and five traditional parishes with growing congregations, Walker concludes that they have broadly the same impact. He says that "fresh expressions ... do not and cannot compete with the depth and breadth of life and experience of parish churches, they are no better at attracting the non-churched than parish churches, and both fresh expressions and parish churches grow through exactly the same process".
Walker told Christian Today: "I'm saying that fresh expressions aren't the only future for the Church. Some would argue that this is where the energy is and that they are the future. I'm saying that we need both."
Fresh expressions could "reinvigorate" parish churches, Walker argued, saying that "mission is happening in a way that it wouldn't have happened without them". He added that new forms of evangelism could be appropriated by churches in liberal and Anglo-Catholic traditions which would be less comfortable with traditional evangelical methods.
He also said that while fresh expressions were no better than traditional churches in terms of their numerical results, it was reasonable to conclude that they attracted people who would not have been reached otherwise. "They are slightly better at engaging with some kinds of people. Some people have become Christians who wouldn't have done otherwise."
Commenting on Walker's research, Fresh Expressions spokesman Norman Ivison told Christian Today that it was "ultimately small-scale" and that its conclusion that fresh expressions were "no better at attracting the non-churched than parish churches" was based on little evidence.
He said that Walker's work was done before research by Church Army was published in January 2014, looking at 518 fresh expressions in 10 dioceses.
"When it came to those who regularly attended, according to the leaders of those fresh expressions, 40 per cent of members were 'non-churched' and 35 per cent were 'dechurched'. Only 25 per cent of members in the fresh expressions surveyed were already actively involved in church life and most of them were instrumental in setting up the fresh expression itself," said Ivison. "There are few conventional churches in the UK who can claim to engage with that proportion of non-churchgoers."
Walker told Christian Today that he and the Church Army researchers were using different definitions of 'non-churchgoer'; his own was much narrower, meaning people who had no experience of church at all. "In my research I found that even occasional attendance as a child had an immense effect on the likelihood of becoming a Christian in later life," he said.
Michael Harvey, author of Unlocking the Growth and pioneer of the Back to Church Sunday movement, told Christian Today that whether in fresh expressions of Church or traditional congregations, it was important to encourage people to have "God conversations" with people. "I would suggest people who enhance their faith through deliberate faith practice would become very attractive to those struggling in our fearful and broken world," he said.