How an Old Church can Start Something New

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It’s popular to say that the mainline church in America is going extinct, but it’s far from true. Instead, Ed Stetzer and Daniel Im argue, “We are seeing an incredible movement among denominations right now that is healthy, exciting, and more effective than we have seen in some time” (Planting Missional Churches, p. 345).

On of these movements is Fresh Expressions, a church planting movement with origins in the UK that is catching the attention of many denominational leaders throughout the United States. A fresh expression is a new form of church, primarily for the benefit of people who are not yet members of any church. They are often started by existing congregations, reaching people traditional churches are not reaching. Let me tell you about one such fresh expression from a traditional church.

An Old Mainline Church Starts a Fresh Expression

Boone United Methodist Church was founded in 1866 by subsistence farmers in the mountains of North Carolina. Over the years it has grown into a prominent mainline congregation. On Sunday mornings 700 people worship in one of three (traditional, contemporary, or blended) services. There are programs and ministry opportunities for people of all ages. It’s the type of church that you picture when you think of a thriving mainline congregation.

However, three years ago Boone UMC took a risk and asked me, the youngest staff person at the time, to start its first fresh expression. Over the past three years a network of fresh expressions called King Street Church has formed. At King Street Church our gatherings include recently released inmates, former drug dealers, college dropouts, single mothers, widows, atheists, and anarchists. We come together in bars, homeless shelters, homes, and the county jail to open scripture, engage in holy conversation, partake of communion, to form a very beautiful, very chaotic church.

So how did something so radical emerge out of such a traditional church?

  1. We focused on mission and not branding: From the beginning my only job has been to create Christian community among those who have never experienced it before. There was no expectation of cloning Boone UMC in another location, no expectation of financial sustainability, no expectation of increasing the existing church’s attendance. There was only an expectation to join in the mission of God.
  1. We tapped into our heritage: In 2000, Boone UMC moved from King Street, the downtown area of our town, to a larger facility a few miles out of town. But our congregation’s heart never fully left King Street. When word got out at church that we would be focusing once again on King Street, people of all ages were ecstatic. Older folks who I expected to be resistant to a new form of church in a downtown bar gave me big hugs telling me how grateful they were to have our church present on King Street again.
  1. We only took a few church members along (and not the ones you would think): Our first fresh expression formed out of conversations between Elizabeth and myself. Elizabeth was coming to our contemporary service once a month. She’s a wild lady who cusses like a sailor. I have a running tally of all the clergy she’s cussed at. Elizabeth had been forming relationships with folks outside the church on King Street for a decade when I met her. We gathered some of her friends and some of my friends for meals one summer and that group eventually became our first fresh expression. By starting small and with an unlikely leader, we were able to form a contextual church among folks who were skeptical of traditional church.

King Street Church has not been a drain on Boone UMC, but has made our congregation even more vital. Mission has a funny way of strengthening the sending church. As William Carey, father of modern missions, put it, “I went to India as a missionary to save England from spiritual collapse.” It’s time for our mainline denominations to reclaim their rich church planting heritage, to find fresh ways of planting churches in our rapidly changing society.

Interested in learning more about the Fresh Expressions model? Check out Travis Collins’ pocket guide. Visit the Fresh Expressions US Website. View an article with advice on how to start a fresh expression.

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