Planting fresh expressions of church to revitalize dying churches is not the right motivation. Fresh expressions are not another save-the-denomination plan. It’s the very breaking-pieces-of-the-body-of-Christ-off-and-giving-them-away-to-a-hungry-world plan. The church is not in the self-preservation business, but the self-donation business. The church should always be about cultivating communities of Jesus that are missional, contextual, formational, and ecclesial. Even if the church was not in decline this should be a primary focus of our activity. In fact, declining congregations, plateaued congregations, and thriving congregations that plant fresh expressions are experiencing new forms of life.
Fresh Expressions: A fresh expression is a form of church for our changing culture, established primarily for the benefit of those who are not yet part of any church.
Again, the inherited and emerging modes operating together is in the church’s very DNA, rooted in the personhood of God.
So, while the purpose of fresh expressions is not to revitalize existing congregations, but to reach people the church is not currently reaching, we are witnessing a transformation occur through that sustained interaction.
All over the nation, churches are closing. There is no question we need to plant more churches, replant more churches, revitalize existing churches, merge strategically, and so on. The blended ecology is not a pure revitalization strategy; rather, it is an awakening to the primordial form of the church. It’s not a pure church-planting strategy either. The main idea there is usually still about training qualified church planters to plant more churches. The churches they plant are typically expected to construct a building at some point.
The blended ecology is about releasing the priesthood of all believers within existing churches to plant new ecclesial communities.
Blended Ecology: Fresh expressions of church in symbiotic relationship with inherited forms of church, in such a way that the combining of these modes over time blend to create a nascent form. Early in the Fresh Expressions US movement, we began to use the language of “blended ecology,” which speaks more potently to the new prevalent family forms, creative process, current cultural realities, and the ancient agrarian language of Jesus’ teaching. This will be the primary language of the current work.
It’s not about hiring outside church planters, it’s about equipping the so-called laity to plant the seeds of the gospel in their contexts. The gospel can grow in wild, indigenous ways in those soils. Every church becomes multi-site, not by calling in the gurus with their whiteboards and vision statements—but by releasing the pioneering apostles, prophets, evangelists, shepherds, and teachers already in our pews—to cultivate fresh expressions of Jesus in the community. Therefore, this process is meant to be explored in community, by the community that will journey through it. It needs to be shared with a cohort of the willing, no matter how small at first.
We have seen some very small (and even very dysfunctional congregations) completely transformed by adopting this approach. In Mission-Shaped and Rural, Sally Gaze observes that not only are small rural churches cultivating fresh expressions, but the inherited congregations that do so are experiencing revitalization.
The only guaranteed way a congregation will surely close its doors, or even a denomination for that matter, is an unwillingness to go through a cruciform process of self-giving death and resurrection, so a new creation can be birthed by the Spirit.
For the Practitioners—From the Practitioners—Who Eat Their Own Cooking
This book is written for both traditional and emerging local churches. I’m writing as someone serving the local church, sharing learnings with other local church persons. An unfortunate by-product of the hub-and-spoke corporate denominational structure that helped us thrive for so long is that leaders at the center of a power hub can become entirely out of touch with local realities while still making decisions for them. Revival movements are released from disruption, experimentation, and risk-taking from the bottom-up, not the top-down. The top of a pyramidal structure is dependent on the base, not vice versa. Denominations cannot cultivate renewal in local churches, but local churches can cultivate renewal of denominations.
What I mean by this is not to diminish the existence of denominations, but to release the paralysis of local churches who are waiting for denominational authorities to address their local declining condition. I believe God is asking the local church the Moses question, “What is that in your hand?” (Ex. 4:2). The God who can turn sticks into snakes can breathe new life into dying churches. Revitalization will not come from above at the top of the pyramidal bureaucracy. Each local church is the fullness of the church, or as Bosch says, “the universal church actually finds its true existence in the local churches.”
The blended-ecology way offers a way forward in the 60:40 dilemma. Strategic problem: allows every local church in the attractional mode to continue to form disciples of the 40 percent and release them to reach the 60 percent. Missionary problem: puts us in the blue waters of the 60 percent to form emerging communities of Jesus where people live, work, and play. It restructures the local church to embrace the polarity that Gil Rendle describes between institution and movement. Every local congregation can maintain the stability and support of an institution (deep roots) and recover our movemental nature (wild branches). To engage a mission field that’s “increasingly differentiated by generational, geographic, and global niches and which is constantly morphing with the speed of technology.” (Back to Zero: The Search to Rediscover the Methodist Movement [Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2011], 83.)
When institution and movement learn to live together, something incredible is on the horizon. When local churches can harness the rootedness of the institution, while experimenting in wild movemental ways, dual transformation can occur . . . the blended ecology.
While journeying through the research from many fields, I will also lean heavily on the case study approach. Field interviews are provided as examples of case studies where we can see the blended ecology at work on different scales. Also, I will draw from my own experiences of pioneering fresh expressions, cultivating the blended-ecology way in several declining congregations, and how the Spirit catalyzed revitalization in those communities. My primary living laboratory will be the church I currently serve, Wildwood United Methodist Church, Wildwood, Florida.
While Fresh Expressions has been ecumenical from the start and continues to be so, I will be speaking from my tradition as a United Methodist clergy person, and I will weave the history of the Wesleyan movement throughout this work.
As the cultivator of Fresh Expressions for the Florida Conference and director of (Re)Missioning for Fresh Expressions US, I do also serve in both a national and denominational capacity. In the North Central District (NCD) of Florida where I have been appointed as cultivator for the past four years, I’ve had the joy and responsibility of working with eighty-six churches on holistic vitality and cultivating fresh expressions.
Most of these churches have been in significant decline for extensive periods of time. The majority of those that are growing are taking advantage of demographic trends, like retirement migrations or urbanization—already-Christians moving into an area—but not by forming new Christians. This is not unique to our area; of the approximately 33,000 United Methodist congregations in the US, only five, or .01%, have been able to maintain an annual growth rate of 10 percent for the past ten years.38 However, the NCD is now the hub of fresh expressions in the US, with more than eighty fresh expressions in our district alone. Another way to think of this: we have added an entire new district of fresh expressions of church in four years.
I’ve heard some who adamantly oppose fresh expressions say, “I’m not ready to give up on the church yet.” This is a widespread and profound misunderstanding of the movement. I must say I’m not ready to give up on the church yet either. That’s why I pioneer fresh expressions. Frankly, I believe some have gone too far to the extreme, as if the church as we know it suddenly has nothing left to offer the new world. It is specifically my love for the inherited church that shapes my passion for this work.
Inherited Church: A form of church passed on as a precious gift by the saints of generations past, as in our parents leaving us an incredibly valuable inheritance that we must now learn how to steward well. Sometimes compared/contrasted with the “emerging church.” Also referred to as “traditional, attractional, gathered, analog” church.
Most books are not written by practitioners. We need both academics and practitioners writing books. We need to create pipelines for busy missional practitioners to share their learnings. This book is the product of a community of blended ecology practitioners, failing forward, living in the trenches of real-world revitalization every day. We each follow Taleb’s practitioners’ ethos; we “eat our own cooking.” We are not attempting to provide a one-size-fits-all revitalization approach. We are only sharing the recipes we have concocted in the process of cultivating our own gardens. We hope you find one that will nourish you in your particular place in God’s vineyard.
Preview the introduction and first chapter here.
This is an excerpt from Michael Beck’s book, Deep and Wild: Remissioning Your Church from the Outside In. This work will help readers:
- Understand why current models of church are not reversing the course of church decline in the West
- Appreciate how models can co-exist and work cooperatively on mission
- Learn how churches can engage local communities as a united whole
For better or worse, Jesus entrusted his mission to “make disciples of all nations” to us , and it starts in our own neighborhood. On the new missional frontier, being deep is not enough—God is calling forth some missional wild ones. We need to be deep and wild!
Across the United States and beyond, the God who makes all things new is up to something. Amid a Christian landscape that looks and feels like a desert of decline, new oases of the Spirit are springing forth. Inherited congregations with long histories and eep roots are experimenting with cultivating wild forms of church called “fresh expressions.”
Whereas revitalization often involves internal adjustments (an inside-out approach with better preaching, better coffee, better programs, etc.), remissioning through fresh expressions involves an outside-in approach. This book is a guide to help local church folks, the everyday heroes of the faith, make this much-needed journey toward vitality for the twenty-first century church.
You can also purchase the concise version titled Deep Roots, Wild Branches for your team here.