Because fresh expression of church will be such a new concept to so many in your congregation, it should be helpful to anticipate some of the questions they likely will ask. While we cannot anticipate them all here, the following three questions are often asked of me when I speak at churches about fresh expressions.
1) “Is this going to grow our church?”
We can understand why people would ask this question. Many churches are not as strong numerically as they once were. People lament the fact that their building is no longer abuzz with activity and echoing with the laughter of children. They love their church and want it to be vibrant. The answer to this sincere question, “Will a fresh expression of church result in growth for the long-standing congregation that begins a fresh expression?” is “Possibly.”
In the church I served which started three fresh expressions we saw some numerical growth attributable directly to those new forms of church. Note that we saw some numerical growth, not an influx.
There were people who came into our congregation in three ways. (1) Some who were transformed by God in the new forms of church eventually wanted a fuller experience, usually having to do with the children’s and youth programs, so they joined our longstanding congregation; (2) some in the greater community were drawn to our church because of our reputation for creative and meaningful involvement outside our original walls; and (3) I simply believe God blessed us with new people and greater resources so that we could continue to faithfully join Him on mission. After all, Hugh Halter and Matt Smay declared, “It’s a known statistic that the churches that give away, that take risks, that send out, and that sacrificially push their people out, create vacuums that God fills with even more.” (AND: The Gathered and Scattered Church, 141.) Alan Hirsch similarly observed, “It seems that when the church engages at the fringes, it almost always brings life to the center.” (The Forgotten Ways, 30.)
Starting a fresh expression of church, then, might result in growth for an existing congregation. Yet there is certainly no guarantee. And, what’s more important, the numerical expansion of an existing congregation is not the point.
The Fresh Expressions movement is about the Great Commandment and the Great Commission. A fresh expression of church is a selfless, missional, loving effort to incarnate the love of Jesus in the world. It is helpful to remember that this is not about us. Steven Croft offered this helpful reminder to churches that are tempted to think too much about themselves:
Church defined by the missio Dei never finds its true centre by turning in on itself. For example, when preoccupation with its own survival takes centre stage then church is deemed to have ceased to live in harmony with its very life-force, to have lost sight of its raison d’etre and inevitable dysfunction and atrophy set in. (Mission-Shaped Questions, 22.)
2) “Will this siphon off our members?”
Church planters have not always been welcomed to their new neighborhoods by the pastors of churches already there. Despite the common claims of the church planters (“We are going after non-Christians; not your church members”), pastors have been highly suspicious. After all, every pastor knows that when a cooler, hipper church moves in, some of his or her members are at least going to check it out. And, despite the sincerity of the church planter, the truth is that lots of traditional church plants have grown at the expense of older congregations.
Fresh expressions of church, however, are different. These new forms of church are so different from existing forms of church that churchgoers are likely to feel uncomfortable there. I know of very few fresh expressions that would be appealing to people who have a history of significant church involvement.
True, some formerly churched people have found a home in fresh expressions of church. And while reengaging de-churched people is not the primary thrust or motivating goal of the Fresh Expressions movement, if the Spirit draws people back to the Christian community through these new forms of church, that would be cause for celebration. Yet people who find a home in fresh expressions of church are, almost always, unchurched or legitimately de-churched people, not just disgruntled church members or members on the margins looking for something more appealing.
This truth led Reggie McNeal to declare the following, which is applicable to fresh expressions of church:
The rise of these missional communities will be the green edge of the Christian movement in the decades ahead. . . . My hope is that existing churches will see their way clear to expand the bandwidth of what they recognize as church to include these missional communities. Most congregations could sponsor dozens of these without ever harming their “bottom line” in terms of attendance and participation. These missional communities could, however, leverage an existing church’s influence as salt and light across their community. (Missional Renaissance, 64.)
3) “Is this going to drain our church’s resources?”
A rather typical strategy for starting a church is to have a mother congregation out dozens of its best and brightest, purchase land, fund a church planter and make initial payments on a building. In both human and financial resources, it can be costly.
To begin a fresh expression of church tends not to demand much from a congregation as a typical church-start demands. For one thing, there is rarely land to buy or a building to build. For another thing, there is often not a salary involved. Furthermore, a church doesn’t have to send out large numbers of its best teachers and leaders. The core team for a fresh expression of church, at least in the UK, is three to twelve people. Moreover, those three-to-twelve often remain active in the Sunday morning programs and worship of their home congregation.
Enjoy this entry? You’ll find Travis Collins’ book, From the Steeple to the Streets: Innovating Mission and Ministry Through Fresh Expressions of Church helpful. It is October’s Book of the Month, which means you buy one copy, you’ll get a second one free! Get it from our store now. In From the Steeple to the Street, Travis Collins addresses the cultural realities behind the Fresh Expressions movement, as well as the movement’s theological underpinnings. From practical experience, Collins offers insights to local church leaders on how this might unfold in and through your church.