A Fresh Expression of Church

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Some reading this will have looked around the sanctuary or worship center and noted that the congregation is getting smaller and older. It’s true in churches across North America. Many people are just not interested in being a part of the congregations that those of us who grew up in church love so deeply.

Some people are hostile toward the church because they’ve been disappointed, angered, or shamed by church people. Many others are simply indifferent toward the church. They might send their children to the local church’s preschool. They might play basketball on open nights in the church’s gymnasium. They might even ask to rent the sanctuary for their daughter’s wedding. Actually becoming part of the local church’s life, however, is of little interest to growing millions of people. Hence all the statistics you keep hearing about plummeting church attendance, congregations closing their doors, and so on.

Moreover, lots of those who are far from church are far from God. The 2015 Pew Research stated that the percentage of Americans who describe themselves as Christians fell about 8 points—from 78.4 to 70.6 percent—between 2007 and 2014. Furthermore, missiologist Alan Hirsch suggested that only 40 to 50 percent of the American population is reachable by church as we know it, and he believes that number is decreasing.1 That means 50 to 60 percent of the people around us are not going to come to our churches as we know them no matter
how well we do things.

For some, this trend is essentially puzzling and annoying. For others, however, the trend is absolutely heartbreaking. For people who hurt for those who are far from God, something deep within them longs to make a difference. For those who believe in God’s mission, and the place the church has in that mission, the crumbling of the church in North America is agonizing.

This is where fresh expressions (new forms) of church enter the picture. These fresh expressions of church are right now being used by God’s Spirit to engage people who seem unlikely ever to connect with church in its current form. Alongside present congregations there are innovative expressions of the body of Christ that are reaching people that many churches want to reach but simply cannot. Beside tall-steeple churches there are creative, often small, simple groups— fresh expressions of church—through which people are finding their way to faith in Jesus.

The stories of genuine, often dramatic, life transformation through these innovative faith communities are nothing less than remarkable. These leading-edge types of church are now found in multiple countries, in almost countless settings, and among various traditions and denominations. God is blessing these fresh expressions of church with transformed lives, and the movement is helping established congregations find new ways to invest themselves in God’s mission to a changing world. Families are being salvaged, individuals and those who love them are being rescued from the demons of addiction, and people are finding their part in God’s mission to the world. Nominal Christians are becoming fully devoted followers of Jesus. People are experiencing a transformation so radical that Jesus called it a “new birth.” Fresh expressions of church offer real hope for the future of the Christian faith, and real hope for people who need Jesus and his church.

What is a Fresh Expression of Church?

From the monks to the Mennonites, from the Waldensians to the Wesleyans, from the Pietists to the Pentecostals, God has often raised up people who love him, who love those who are far from him, and who have been willing to be “church” differently for the sake of a thrilling mission. This international, multi-denominational, evangelical, missional movement called Fresh Expressions has emerged as a new enterprise with a great heritage.

A fresh expression, simply put, is a new form of church for the new world in which we live. The phrase grew out of a pledge within the ordination vows of the Church of England to “proclaim the Gospel afresh in every generation.” 2 A widely accepted definition of a fresh expression of church came from the joint work of the Church of England and the British Methodist Church in 2006:

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.3

A fresh expression of church is not something temporary, like a mission trip or an annual sporting event that simply gathers people together. It is not a tweak of the present form of church, like a new worship service. It’s not an arm of a present church, like a food pantry. It’s not a new name for a revamped, long-standing ministry. And it’s not merely a step toward a church. It’s more than all these things.

A fresh expression of church is a church, and is characterized by the elements and enduring marks of a church: it is up, out, in, and of. Meaning there is an upward reach toward God, an outward reach to people beyond our circle, an inward commitment to discipleship and fellowship, and a clear understanding that the church is part of the universal church and part of a deep, historical stream. Fresh expressions of church take their place as part of the one, holy, catholic (universal), and apostolic church.

A fresh expression of church is a Jesus-centered community of faith among people who are willing to practice a new way of life but perhaps never would have come to our church buildings. 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 existing congregations can offer. The movement is rooted, however, in a passion for those far from God and from his church.

Are you interested in learning more about Fresh Expressions of Church? Get the book Fresh Expressions by Travis Collins from our store. Visit the movement’s website at FreshExpressionsus.org

Image attribution: Card76 / Thinkstock

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Dr. Travis Collins is the Director of Mission Advancement and the Virginia Regional Coordinator for Fresh Expressions US. His twenty-five plus years of ministry have included missionary service in Venezuela and Nigeria. He is a graduate of Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama and from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.

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