Fresh Expressions of Church

by Chris Backert and Travis Collins

We aren’t mad at the Masons. We’re not at odds with the Odd Fellows. And we’ve got no beef with the Moose.The two of us just aren’t going to join the Masonic Temple, the Independent Order of Odd Fellows, or the Moose Lodge. No matter how well they decorate their meeting places. No matter how well their speakers speak. We’re just not going. For one thing, their rituals seem rather peculiar to us as outsiders. More importantly, we simply don’t see that they offer us any value. Again, we aren’t in opposition to them; we’re just not going to go to their meetings or join their ranks.

We aren’t mad at the Masons. We’re not at odds with the Odd Fellows. And we’ve got no beef with the Moose.The two of us just aren’t going to join the Masonic Temple, the Independent Order of Odd Fellows, or the Moose Lodge. No matter how well they decorate their meeting places. No matter how well their speakers speak. We’re just not going. For one thing, their rituals seem rather peculiar to us as outsiders. More importantly, we simply don’t see that they offer us any value. Again, we aren’t in opposition to them; we’re just not going to go to their meetings or join their ranks.

Millions of people feel the same about your church and mine. They aren’t mad at us. They might even be glad our building is in the neighborhood (as long as we increase their property values and don’t clog up the streets). If we have a fall festival on the lawn, they might even bring their children. But they aren’t going to join us or come to our meetings. For one, our rituals (even our “contemporary” rituals) seem odd to them. And they just don’t see that our church has any value for them.  

This is no surprise to any church leader (or most members for that matter). Regardless of the denomination, the Church in the West is facing startling challenges, the likes of which have not been felt in several hundred years. Externally, radical changes such as new technology, globalization, and new organizational structures have outpaced the assumptions and traditions under which most established churches and denominations operate. Internally, the Church is aging and the structures that have offered so much stability are aging, too. Many consider the church to be part of a bygone era.

So here is the sobering news: you can start an innovative new worship service, hire an eloquent preacher, and install expensive carpet…and most still aren’t going to come. (We believe, by the way, that this is a tragedy with real and eternal implications.)  

However…and this is a vital “however”…God has an enduring and inexhaustible mission for this world through the Church. So we must figure out how to get the Church Jesus loves closer to the people Jesus loves.

That doesn’t make your church obsolete. And it doesn’t mean your most missional members are going to have to leave your church in order to fulfill their missionary calling. Not at all. On the contrary, it means that you can help leverage the strengths of your church and the missions passion of some of your people to start something new, something that will fit naturally in a corner of the world just beyond your walls.

Somewhat lightly tethered to your present congregation, there can be an innovative expression of the Body of Christ to engage people your church wants to engage but simply cannot. In England, leaders speak of “the mixed economy church,” reflecting the belief that the one “economy” of God’s Church today needs both our inherited approaches and our novel approaches—novel approaches that are true to the Bible and to their specific contexts.

Fresh Expressions, then, is not about supplanting the church you call “home.” It is about a new form of Church that can come alongside your congregation. Fresh Expressions is about a creative, simpler, probably smaller group who have the potential to exhibit all the elements of church: worship, fellowship, discipleship, ministry/service, and evangelism/missions.

Another way to describe the congregational characteristics of a fresh expression is this: “There is growth UP towards God, OUT in mission, IN in fellowship, and growth in people’s sense of being part OF the whole body of Christ.”

The term “fresh expressions of church” appeared in the Church of England report titled Mission-shaped Church in 2004. A year later, the network/movement called “Fresh Expressions” organized. This loose organization, “Fresh Expressions,” supports the ecumenical and international attempts to launch these new forms of church.

“Fresh Expressions” helps call out congregations and individuals who are willing to be part of an innovative type of church, then equips and encourages them. There are no products to push and no template to follow. The goal is to help people find an approach that is indigenous to its context, so these fresh expressions of church vary dramatically from situation to situation.

(By the way, “Fresh Expressions” [capitalized] refers to the organization/movement; “fresh expression” [lower case] refers to the local community of faith that takes on a new form of church.)

Defining a Fresh Expression is a bit like defining “love”. The lines are somewhat gray, and an explanation somewhat challenging. Nevertheless, here is a definition of a fresh expression which originated in England:

A fresh expression is a form of church for our changing culture established primarily for the benefit of people who are not yet members of any church.

• It will come into being through principles of listening, service, incarnational mission, and making disciples.
• It will have the potential to become a mature expression of church shaped by the gospel and the enduring marks of the church and for its cultural context.

A fresh expression is not…
• A new worship service
• A mission project
• Church-lite
• About relevance, hip-ness, and cool-ness

A fresh expression is…
• Commonly initiated by an established church and connected somehow to an existing/inherited church  
• Outside the walls and traditions of established churches
• Primarily for those who are not likely to engage with an established church
• An ongoing community  
• Characterized by the elements/enduring marks of a church. In other words, a fresh expression will have the potential to become a mature expression of church with the enduring marks of the church and appropriate to its cultural context
• An opportunity for us to re-consider our notion of “church”. We have to re-think the day and time of the gathering, who leads or facilitates, the location and size of meeting space, our expectations of “success”, and what “membership” means.
•  Contextualized; indigenous
• Attentive to a micro-climate or environment (i.e., a group of people who share a similar interest, hobby, need, or meeting place)
• Small-scale (Think big enough to throw a party, but small enough to know everyone’s name.)
• Putting the church that Jesus loves closer to where the people Jesus loves actually are

This is somewhat different from church planting, at least from the typical means of church planting. For one thing, church planting often begins with a group of Christians starting a worship service and inviting people to come to it. For another thing, no matter how pure our intentions, most new church plants attract people who have at least some affinity for church. Many of those who come to a new church plant come from existing churches, and many others are merely lapsed church members.  

A fresh expression, on the other hand, exists primarily for people who are far from God, so it begins with service, incarnation, and listening. A fresh expression begins with an agenda no more complicated than loving people and wanting somehow to be like Jesus to them. From that grow opportunities to invest in people’s lives, ways to serve them, conversations about things that matter and, after time, invitations to some sort of get-together in a home or neighborhood gathering spot.  

As God provides sacred openings in people’s lives, there will emerge some form of discipleship, worship, fellowship, ministry/service to each other and to others, and even an outward orientation toward missions and evangelism. A full-blown fresh expression has been born when there is a Jesus-centered community of faith exhibiting all these elements of Church—just not in the form of Church that you and I probably know—among people who probably never would have come to your church building or mine.  

Of course, a fresh expression could grow out of the desires of devoted Christ-followers who want to experience Church in a way more meaningful to them than an existing congregation can provide. The movement is rooted, however, in a passion for those far from God and his Church.

Let’s be clear: This is not a faddish program to grow the attendance at our churches. It’s not a gimmick to funnel people in through our doors. True, our congregations might grow if someone who attends the fresh expression then decides to come to our church. Or, people might hear about our fresh expressions and be drawn to the missional reputation of our churches. But we can’t count on either. A fresh expression is not a means toward the end of increased attendance at established churches. Bigger numbers in our church buildings is not the point. The point is the Great Commandment and the Great Commission.

When we speak about Fresh Expressions, often someone from an established church will ask, “So what is to keep a fresh expression from going rogue?” It’s a fair question and, frankly, there is some risk involved here. However, ties to an existing congregation and solid “founders” maximize the potential for orthodoxy and orthopraxy. Then, at some levels we have to trust the Spirit to do as he did in the Book of Acts with a new movement. So here’s some questions to ask ourselves as we consider fresh expressions of church:

• So what might a fresh expression look like where you live?
• What about a workplace church? (More than chaplaincy or a workplace Bible Study—a genuine faith community made up of people who work at the same place and engage in discipleship, worship, missional activities, and fellowship.)
• What about a faith community based on recovery from addiction?
• What about a fire department fresh expression?  
• What about a retirement community fresh expression?
• What about identifying a subculture-without-a-church (a subculture defined by age, vocation, common interest, residence, need, lifestyle, etc.) and beginning a fresh expression?
• What about a fresh expression among a people bound together by a language other than English?
• What about a fresh expression that grows out of years of ministry among prostitutes?
• What about a fresh expression in the arts community?

The possibilities are limited only by the capacity of our imaginations to respond to the promptings of God’s Spirit. Samuel Shoemaker asked, “Can your kind of church change your kind of world?” It’s a poignant question. If you cannot answer with a strong affirmation, don’t chuck your church; instead, use the strengths of your congregation to begin a fresh expression.

….

Chris Backert (DMin) serves as national director of both Fresh Expressions US and the Ecclesia Network. He is also acting executive director for the newly-forming Missio Alliance and serves on the teaching team of Pathways Church in Forest Hill, Maryland.
 
Travis Collins
(PhD) serves as director of mission advancement for Fresh Expressions US. He is author of Directionally Challenged and Tough Calls. His third book, based on Acts 20:28, will be released in the fall of 2014.  

EMQ, Vol. 50, No. 4, pp. 356-360. Copyright  © 2014 Billy Graham Center.  All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMQ editors.

 

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