“Who will never be reached with the Gospel if we only do church like we do now?”
I recently joined more than a dozen other church leaders from around the country in Alexandria, Va., to explore this question with Bishop Graham Cray, an evangelical Anglican who is the leader of the FreshExpressionsTeamintheUnitedKingdom.
Fresh Expressions seeks to encourage the formation of new kinds of churches that can reach, serve and disciple people who are not being reached by traditional forms of church.
In the United States, apparently that’s a large segment of the population, since less than 40 percent of Americans go to church each Sunday.
Even its own website acknowledges that it is not always easy to distinguish between a FreshExpressionschurchandotherforms of missional outreach and service. Fresh Expressions “serve those outside the church; listen to people and enter their culture; make discipleship a priority; and form church.”
Missional church leaders and even traditional church planters might object that their efforts are described by this list, too.
After listening intently to Cray and Backert, here is my understanding of Fresh Expressions and how it adds to the church’s missional life in a unique and helpful way.
The difficulty in pinning down precisely how a Fresh Expressions ministry differs from traditional new church and missional efforts is due to the fact that there is no one model of a Fresh Expressions effort; by definition, it can take virtually an unlimited number of outward forms and appearances.
The distinction lies in the realm of “intention” – the missional motivation behind Fresh Expressions is to birth novel forms of church that effectively serve and then disciple people who will not step into existing forms or patterns of church.
Churches and denominations like my own (American Baptist Churches) have sought to plant new congregations, with varying levels of success.
However, when we look at what kind of church is planted, we usually discover that they are similar to the sponsor.
Churches naturally attempt to reproduce themselves and create new churches that are organized and live out the Gospel like the parent body.
The new churches are not novel or innovative models of congregational life that reach new kinds of people for Christ.
They are more akin to franchises, where the consumed experience is reassuringly similar (if not identical) to the sponsoring agency. Think McDonald’s or Starbucks.
Moreover, the people who are won to these churches tend to look and act like their planting agencies.
And even when we do reach a new subculture of people, we try to mold them into conformity with the culture of church that we are comfortable with.
How many times have I been in churches in other countries where they sing the same few English language praise choruses that dominate contemporary U.S. worship?
This model of church multiplication has its merits and has been successful in reaching many people over the past 400 years, but many others have been left outside, or have left church with no apparent desire to come back.
In contrast, Fresh Expressions-inspired projects seek to relate to unchurched and “de-churched” people.
While affirming the validity of existing churches, Fresh Expressions represents a “willingness to reimagine church” while retaining a thoroughly orthodox doctrinal perspective.
The biblical message remains the same even while we encourage alternative expressions of communal life in Christ.
Cray affirmed that Fresh Expressions “is a form of church for our changing culture, established primarily for the benefit of people who are not members of any church.”
At the meeting, some Fresh Expressions examples given included: youth congregations, café style churches, workplace-based churches, Messy church, missional communal clusters in broken or economically challenged neighborhoods, and new monastic models.
I was struck by one example Cray provided – Eden projects.
In this model, 25 young adults move into a broken community. Twenty-two of them accept secular jobs, and their income supports the other three who engage in full-time ministry work.
The Anglicans have started approximately 1,000 Fresh Expressions ministries, and another thousand have been sponsored by the Methodist Church.
I still believe that God is not finished with established churches that are organized in traditional ways. I have witnessed the Holy Spirit’s presence in a multitude of ways in churches both large and small, and in so many different cultures.
Nevertheless, I sense that the Fresh Expressions movement or network has a prophetic and cutting-edge mission and message.
It is time for us to “give permission” to missional pioneers to create new kinds of churches and ministries that effectively take the Gospel into “communities” of people that presently live outside the church’s scope and reach.
While resisting the temptation to use gimmicks and packaged programs to attract others, we must take up the cross daily and sacrifice ourselves for others in a way that demonstrates Jesus’s love and the kingdom of God.
We need to set “church” free so that it can be expressed in a myriad of original and diverse forms.
If God called you to start a Fresh Expression of the church, what would it look like?
An ordained Baptist minister, he serves as historian for the Baptist World Alliance and affiliate professor of church history at Northern Seminary. At the end of 2019, Spitzer retired as general secretary of the American Baptist Churches USA. He is the author of Baptists, Jews, and the Holocaust (Judson Press, 2017).