The need to have a fresh expression of what church means in modern times has been around for a number of years. Today, there are countless different ways of doing ‘church’ that exists outside the box of what people think when they hear the word ‘church’.
“Change is often something that takes courage to implement, especially when it spans many denominations. There are some impactful examples of interdenominational partnerships,” says Etienne Piek, Regional Manager SA at Mergon Foundation. Mergon is an entrepreneurial private investment group that exists to impact lives and equip others to do the same.
Piek names one such example. “The work that one of our partners in Southern Africa, Fresh Africa, is doing is an example of the courage it takes to serve in the true sense of the word, and on a daily basis.”
Rev. Philip Botha, previously Africa Director of Fresh Expressions, and now National Director of Fresh Africa, retraces the history and early formation years of this pioneering mission to understand the work the local arm is doing today.
He recounts that it all started in 2004 when the Mission Shaped Church Report was published to reflect on what was already happening in society and to make recommendations to serve as best practice on the fresh expression of churches, irrespective of their denomination.
The report has gone on to be one of the most widely read and purchased Church of England reports ever. From this report, the Fresh Expressions movement was born as a partnership between the Church of England and the Methodist Church in response to the changing culture of church to meet the needs of the unreached and the unchurched. Rather than adhere to the “come to us” approach of church, Fresh Expressions seeked to “go and stay” where unchurched, de-churched and non-Christians are living.
“The world naturally evolves through seasons, cycles, rhythms and change,” says Rev. Botha. “But nowhere is this clearer than in most South African communities. Here we think of extreme poverty, senseless crime, non-existent infrastructure or access thereto, and a national unemployment crisis. We had to come to terms with the fact that the Fresh Africa mission operates in a unique Southern Africa context. This is vastly removed from the challenges parent movement Fresh Expressions is facing in the United Kingdom, where society in the current post-modernist era is moving to embrace secularism and shrinking church memberships.”
“It is very easy to see why every church thinks that their own way is the right way. We believe it is our duty to help guide the eleven member churches and four member ministries that each can operate in a unique way, but still be inclusive of unchurched and unreached communities. It is our DNA to urge church leaders to find new ways of attracting and including a fresh wave of members in a very unique way – by listening where God is already working, and not by asking God to help us fulfill our mission,” says Rev. Botha.
He urges that churches need to be trained in how to differentiate between missionary listening and asking God to follow orders of the church.
Upon asking what exactly missionary listening is, he explains excitedly that it is to listen to what the needs of communities are and then to provide the assistance needed to solve their challenges, be it not having access to clean, running water, the lack of a physical building for the community to gather in, the effect that the culture of gang violence has or lack of access to education.
In these situations, Rev. Botha says the act of organising a worship service really comes last, when most of the needs of the community are addressed, and the missionary organisations have won the respect of the community.
A proud example in action for Rev. Botha is of the Doornbacht informal settlement near Table View. He says it all started when he was invited to open the Table View police forum with prayer and where he started engaging in conversation with some of the Doornbacht residents who mentioned the circumstances they were living in. They invited him to a community leadership meeting.
“I learnt that there were no working toilets and only five working taps serving 10 000 residents. At that point, I realised how arrogant we must seem to God when we pray from the comfort of our churches and Bible study groups for Him to help ‘those in need’,” he says.
As we got a deeper understanding of the issue these citizens are facing, we realised that acts such as clothing donations to kids won’t cut it. When asked what residents needed, we were quite surprised by the response. They needed a physical building to conduct business, or community events, such as leadership meetings or recruitment drives, a place to serve as a voting station or a childcare facility. So we mobilised our members to physically build this community hub. We came a long way to win their respect and trust,” Rev. Botha says.
Fresh Africa sees diverse Christ-following congregations rediscovering God’s mission and developing mission-shaped communities in order to transform their communities.
“We need to have the courage to listen,” says Rev. Botha. “We should not assume we know God’s work, and the challenges communities are struggling with, which are most often challenges that are the exact barriers to discipleship. We have a long road of, mostly, listening ahead of us. But this takes us back to our core values as a missionary movement.”
Rev. Botha concludes that Fresh Africa recognises that the Holy Spirit uses the Bible as inspiration and guide, and that applying intentional listening to the voices in our local communities is to be prayerfully attentive to what God is doing.
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