A fresh expression for a frightening era

New evangelism movements seek to span gap between church, culture

November 3, 2014

Fresh Expressions

"Vision Day" participants discuss "fresh expressions" of the church. —Erin Dunigan

SAN CLEMENTE, Calif.

On an unseasonably hot Saturday in October more than 75 people from around Southern California gathered for a “Vision Day” to discover more about what it might mean to be involved in starting a “fresh expression of church.”

The phrase comes from England, where an ecumenical partnership has birthed a movement of renewal and revival ― in established churches as well as among these “fresh expressions” of church. Fresh Expressions has been one of the significant factors influencing the 1001 New Worshiping Communities Movement within the PC(USA).

“’Fresh Expressions’ is not ‘the’ answer, but is certainly something God is up to and warrants our participation,” explained Craig Williams, mission catalyst for the 1001 Movement on the west coast.  For Williams such Vision Days set forth a way to start participating in this new thing that appears to be unfolding within the church on both sides of the Atlantic.

“In many ways this is a frightening era in the church in North America,” admitted Travis Collins, director of mission advancement for Fresh Expressions U.S., one of the sponsors of the daylong conference, along with the Presbytery of Los Ranchos.

“It is an unsettling time ― an unnerving time. But if you are willing to think like a missionary it is also an exciting time,” said Collins.

The problem, according to Collins, is that there is a gap between where the existing church finds itself, and where the culture now finds itself.  The question becomes, how does one span that gap?

“Do we wait for those outside the church to come to us?” asked Collins. This has been the model of church that we have, intentionally or not, assumed in North America. The “build a church on the corner, open the doors, and wait for people to show up” model. The only problem is, in much of the country, this model no longer serves.

The second option, according to Collins, is to build some sort of bridge across the chasm so that we can try to get those outside the church in order to get them to come back to the church with us. “There are many people who are open to coming to your church if somebody would just cross the bridge over the chasm to invite them,” he said. This is not a bad option ― and, in fact, is one that many churches might attempt to do better.

“But what if we were to cross the chasm and, instead of trying to bring them back here, what if we were to do church there?” he challenged. “What might church look like if we were to do it there?”

This question is at the heart of the Fresh Expressions movement, a movement started in the UK that is beginning to find a foothold in the U.S. as well.

“At its core, a fresh expression is a form of church for our changing culture that is established primarily for the benefit of people who are not yet members of any church,” explained Collins.

“What we are really trying to do is to put the church that Jesus loves closer to where the people whom Jesus loves actually are,” he continued.

Some are skeptical. Is this just a re-branding? A way of rearranging the deck chairs on the sinking ship? Is this church-light? Is this only about being relevant or hip?

“The issue is not relevance,” insisted Collins. “The issue is incarnation.”

Shannon Kiser, mission catalyst for the 1001 Movement eastern region, echoed that theme. “Fresh Expressions is about scanning the horizon for who God loves and rushing toward them on the road, right where they are.”

 Today we need to find ways to put the church closer to people, she challenged, because often the church seems farther away from them than ever.

Kiser illustrated this point with a story of her own daughter, asking a friend where the friend went to church. “We don’t go to church ― my parents say it is a waste of time,” the friend reportedly replied.

Lest one be quick to condemn those parents as selfish or otherwise inwardly and not community focused, Kiser explained, “They are not self-absorbed, they are incredibly active in the community and in the life of their children.”

Everywhere, that is, except for church.

“That is the culture in which we are living,” suggested Kiser ― and the culture in which we are seeking to minister.

We tend to assume in the church that what we lack, what ails us, is an inability to do what it is we are doing well ― whether that be worship, evangelism, discipleship, service. But that, according to Kiser, is not the point, not the question.

“The question becomes, who are you not likely to reach, even if you do what you do really really well?”

With the follow-up being, what might you do to change that? 

  1. It is so refreshing to see that my denomination is looking forward to where Christ wants his people to reach out to those who do not really understand Gods love for them with the understanding that the church is not inside the walls of a building. Hope this catches on with the fire of the Holy spirit. God bless you in your efforts.

    by Valerie Wilson

    November 5, 2014

  2. Congratulations on this courageous and thoughtful effort. My experience with Presbyterian Evangelism in our specific locale is not so encouraging. We are big on worship, discipleship and service (nobody is better at that in my view than the Presbyterian USA people I have met and work with. But there is a reluctance to deal with bold and bald evangelism -- even to their own relatives! I held a meeting on evangelism for our church in 2010, and one guy showed up. Well, it's something to work on, but I believe PCUSA has the most innovative and soul-searching approach of how to reach the most people with the love of Christ. Keep going!

    by Stephen_Schlarb

    November 4, 2014

  3. We're hosting a similar Fresh Expressions Vision Day at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary next Friday, November 14th. Come and see what God is doing: http://freshexpressionsus.org/training-and-events/vision-days/.

    by Christopher Brown

    November 3, 2014