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Fresh Expressions crowd envisions new forms of church

By the Rev. Mary Catherine Miller
Central District Transitional Consultant

“What keeps me awake at night?  Dying churches keep me awake.”

That was the Rev. Denny Emrick’s response to the question, “So what concerns you?” posed to him last year during his yearly pastoral interview with the Rev. Anita Powell, Central District Superintendent.

His explanation went something like this: “So many congregations are going out of business, (and) ministries that historically have been supported are unable to be supported. The people they touched are being forgotten. I mean, who will take care of them?”

“The organized church has been responsible for so many ministries,” continued Emrick, pastor of Mt. Carmel UMC in St. Peter’s for the past six years. “Who will pick up that baton?  That’s what I worry about. Who will do and support the work that goes away?”

On Saturday, April 1, Emrick’s church hosted an event that inspired many to envision new work, even a new kind of Church that offers innovative ministries to reach new people, one of the four mission goals of The United Methodist Church.

imageThe Fresh Expressions Vision Day was a six-hour, energetic day of dialogue and discovery for more than 75 attendees, including members of the Eastern PA Conference and other Christian churches in the area. Like eager minds in dozens of other communities across in the U.S. and in other countries, they were prompted to imagine how local churches in this area might start new, fresh, vital expressions of church for a fast-changing culture that has become largely dissatisfied—even bored—with church as we know it.

The vitality of the Church in the West has long been a concern of Emrick’s.  He remembers a time, as a seminary student in 1971, when he had the opportunity to do a study tour in Germany. His group visited East Germany and noticed that churches there were fundamentally empty. But still, there was a vital Christian community.

On the same tour his group was able to talk with a German theologian and Lutheran pastor Martin Niemöller (1892-1984), who famously had opposed Germany’s former brutal dictator Adolph Hitler. They asked him about the vitality of the Church in the West compared to the Church in the East. The group had noticed that churches in the West were empty also.

“Niemöller shared,” says Emrick, “that the Church in the East was alive and the Church in the West was dying.”  It was then when Emrick realized the truth in what Niemöller was saying.

“Over the past years of my ministry,” recounts the retired, part-time pastor, a former church planter himself, “I have seen the American church follow the pattern of decline.  As Fresh Expressions trainer J. R. Briggs said, we are in a Post-Christian era. In a sense, I lost hope for the church. Then, last autumn, I heard about Fresh Expressions of Church.”

FreshExpressionsEvent-JRBriggs

J.R. Briggs

The movement started in the Anglican and British Methodist churches in 2004 and led to the birth of reportedly, thousands of faith communities in the UK and other countries before coming to the U.S. in 2010.

Learning how this church movement was reaching out to bring the Good News to people who were not being reached or touched by the traditional church not only restored Emrick’s faith that “God is still in control,” but it also raised his hope for the work of the community of faith. The longtime pastor’s eyes brightened, and it was possible to hear joy in his voice whenever he spoke.

“People are hearing the Good News right where they are, through people who care deeply about them and about the Great Commission!” he beamed. “For me, that is God moving.”

Kristin Beckert

Kristin Beckert

J.R. Briggs, of Lansdale, founding pastor and “Cultural Cultivator” of the Renew Community in the Greater Philadelphia area, co-led the daylong session. Joining him was fellow trainer Kristin Beckert, Coordinator of Operations for Fresh Expressions US and a Church Planter and Associate Pastor at Vine Church, a UM new church plant in Northern Virginia.

The experience was spiritually grounded in the healing ministry of Jesus. It focused on the compassion he has for the crowds in the Gospel of Matthew’s ninth chapter, where we hear Jesus announce, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore, ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.”

Those in attendance were asked if they truly believed that the harvest is plentiful.

Fresh Expressions of Church, “a form of church for our changing culture, established primarily for the benefit of people who are not yet members of any church,” can reach out to connect with the 40 to 60 percent of people who are not already being served by any church. While there is no one-size-fits-all approach to connecting the Good News of Jesus Christ with the lives of people, the many fresh expressions of church do share four things in common:

  • They join in the mission of God already at work in the world and reach out to people not already affiliated with a church.
  • They are firmly rooted in the culture of the people they are meant to serve.
  • They are focused on discipling people in the ways of Jesus.
  • They are Christian communities able to be and act as churches in their own ways.

The whole process of engaging in a fresh expression of church is undergirded by prayer.  The process in made up of listening, and listening and listening some more; loving and serving; building community; exploring discipleship; and church forming.  Then repeat.

The process is not linear, and it is always doubling back upon itself.  A successful fresh expression will give birth to other fresh expressions.   It will also always remain in relationship with the wider Church, although it takes place outside of the walls of traditional brick and mortar churches.

The Fresh Expression Vision Day included several videos that offered participants more concrete examples of the nature and process of creating fresh expressions of church.  Through one of the videos the participants were introduced to King Street Church, a network of fresh expressions in Boone, North Carolina.

Led by a United Methodist licensed local pastor named Luke Edwards, King Street Church offers Christian community through small group gatherings in different locations in Boone including a saloon, the county jail, a coffee shop and a crisis center.  It is considered a campus of Boone United Methodist Church, which acts as both a sponsor and ally. Learn more about King Street Church at www.kscboone.org.

During Vision Day we also listened to Daniel Altimus, Ministry Coordinator for CrossWords Church in Mount Wolf, PA, who shared his experiences as a Fresh Expression pioneer—a person who begins a Fresh Expression of Church community.  Although he works on staff at a traditional church, the church supports him by freeing him to be in ministry outside of the church walls where he and others in his words are, “heavily involved in planting a network of faith communities” called Common Ground.

Common Ground grew out of a Bible study group that took several mission trips which included sharing the gospel door to door.   The parable of the mustard seed comes to Altimus’ mind when he thinks about Fresh Expressions.  “Even a small missional population, living among unbelievers that existing local churches are not likely to reach, can have a great impact,” noted Altimus.  However, he went on to caution the group not to presume that fresh expressions of church would be headline grabbers.

District Superintendent Anita Powell summed up the Vision Day in this way: “Fresh Expressions of Church is a reminder that God is still creating new ways of introducing people to the love of God . . . still knocking on the doors of human hearts . . . still extending invitations to a relationship with Jesus.  This is another call to the Church to cross borders, meet new people in new places. The workshop presented us with a challenge and an opportunity to be the church.”

If you want to learn more about this movement, and how to start fresh expressions of church with people who are not already served by traditional churches, visit the Fresh Expressions website at freshexpressionsus.org.

Fresh Expressions is an international movement of missionary disciples cultivating new kinds of church alongside existing congregations to more effectively engage our growing post-Christian society.