Urban Expression Celebrates 15 Years
A mission agency which has commissioned dozens of people to undertake church planting in tough urban situations is marking its 15th birthday this weekend - with a distinct nod to Baptist history
The Urban Expression celebrations this Saturday and Sunday are taking place in the area of East London which saw both the first Baptist church in England 400 years ago and the first baptisms in the River Thames.
Like those early Baptist pioneers, Urban Expression is a movement characterised by a new approach to church.
It launched in 1997 and in that time has commissioned 100 urban church planters, each with a minimum three year commitment, to work on teams in places such as London, Manchester, Glasgow, Bristol, Birmingham and Stoke-on-Trent.
It does not promote a model of church or a programme, but is rather connected by a set of values as it tries to discover relevant ways of being church.
These values include a commitment to following God ‘on the margins and in the gaps’; it is both relational (‘We believe that the gospel works through relationships and that serving God consists largely in building life-giving relationships with others’) and creative (‘We recognise the importance of taking risks and the demands of mission in the inner city, and we believe that it is acceptable to fail.’)
Those involved bring their professions with them - Urban Expression does not provide a salary or accommodation - but also have more freedom in ways of sharing the gospel.
Baptist ministers Jim and Juliet Kilpin were leaders of the first Urban Expression team in Shadwell, East London in 1997, and now help co-ordinate the UK teams. Juliet said that while its pioneering approach has become more mainstream, there remains - at the moment - a need for Urban Expression’s existence.
‘When Urban Expression started 15 years ago people were just beginning to realise older models of church were not making sense in the same way.
‘It’s now become a bit more mainstream: Fresh Expressions, people experimenting with monastic communities, and this is great. It’s a reflection there needs to be different ways of reaching people with the gospel in an age where people are not going to church anymore.’
As Urban Expression has grown, so have the people it has commissioned, she said. At the start there were mainly students from colleges who were looking to try something new. As time has progressed it has welcomed ministers from a more established church setting.
‘We are now getting ministers who have done regular church, with the manse and the pension contributions, but now want to take a step away from that,’ she said. ‘It’s not they have struggled – far from it – but a lot of established churches do find it difficult to transition. This gives them more freedom to try something new.’
Currently there are Urban Expression teams in areas such as Ellesmere Port, Stoke-on-Trent and Manchester.
There are also teams in the Netherlands, Sweden and North America, and in recent years it has partnered with BMS World Mission.
The plan was not necessarily for it to grow in this way - but 15 years in it looks set to keep on expanding.
‘We regularly ask ourselves – is this the right time to stop?’ said Juliet. ‘At the moment we don’t think it is. Until it is normal to be moving into the inner city, to be taking risks – across all the denominations, not just among Baptists – there will be space for Urban Expression.’
On Saturday there will be a day of seminars, workshops and experiences exploring how we can live Jesus centred lives in diverse communities, at the St Matthias Community Centre in Poplar.
In the evening there will be a showcase of initiatives, projects, congregations & talents birthed with the help of Urban Expression teams.
On Sunday morning there is an urban walk in the Shadwell area, a chance to see and understand the city in new ways. In the afternoon there is lunch at the Prospect of Whitby in Wapping, near the scene of historic baptisms from 400 years ago. All are welcome.
For more information about this weekend’s events, visit http://urbanexpression.eventbrite.co.uk/
For more on Urban Expression, visit http://www.urbanexpression.org.uk
Juliet is working on a book which will be published in January -
Urban to the Core: Motives for Incarnational Mission.