The First Stage in Planting Fresh Expressions of Church Is Listening

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The first stage of planting fresh expressions within the community cannot be overemphasized. In the blended ecology, we are listening to God, the inherited congregation, and the larger community.

This needs to be an intentional focus of the team from the beginning. Spending time in prayer together, studying Scripture together, and checking in with each other about what people are hearing God say—this is all essential work of the team. Unfortunately, many people pass right over this step and pay for it in the long haul, partly because we are not very good at listening in the West. We are hardwired by our culture not to listen.

When we created the North Central District Fresh Expressions Team, a group responsible for helping cultivate fresh expressions among eighty-seven local churches, we started our work with a collaborative “Luke 10:02 Prayer Initiative.” Not only did we commit to intentionally pray each day the missional prayer of Jesus, “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field” (NIV), we invited the whole district—which at that time consisted of an average Sunday worship attendance of about 13,628 United Methodists—to join us in prayer at 10:02 a.m. or some set time throughout their day. There are now more than seventy fresh expressions in our district alone, the greatest concentration of fresh expressions in the United States. Our entire district is now a massive blended ecology ecosystem. Building our efforts on the foundation of prayer cannot be overstated.

This is a simple tool that churches can use to undergird their work with prayer. Simply pause together each day to pray specifically the missional prayer of Jesus.

Who Is Our Other?

There is great value in using every demographic tool available to listen to the congregation and community: Natural Church Development, MissionInsite, Peoplegroups.info, and many others. We need to understand the mission field around our church and the people there, but those instruments must be combined with some simple boots-on-the-ground tools.

I believe every fresh expression should start with a single question: Who is our other? Who do we see in the community around us that we don’t see in our church? Every time there is an “us,” it always creates a “them.” Every time there is a clearly defined “we,” it always creates an excluded “they.” Every time our “I” is too big, it always creates an “other.” This other-orientation is the default mode of fresh expressions. We cannot have true rapport without the kenotic self-emptying that Christ embodies in the incarnation (Phil. 2:1–11), what Jesus calls “deny[ing]” self (Matt. 16:24).

Who is our other and how can we be with them? Fresh expressions don’t begin with a desire to win, manage, own, or fix the people in our community, but to enter their world in incarnational, natural ways to cultivate relationships.

What Is Sore in Our Neighborhoods and Networks?

My friend Verlon Fosner uses the terminology of “sore neighborhoods” in his pioneering work with The Dinner Church Collective. He advocates that local churches need to return to a neighborhood theology: a theology of place (also known as the parish model). He points out how most churches have embraced the church-growth movement principles, with little regard to the actual makeup of the neighborhoods where they live. This has contributed to the decline of the US church. By returning to theology of the neighborhood, churches exist to know and serve the greatest needs of their immediate neighbors.1

In a network society connected by flows, we can see our community as a series of interconnected neighborhoods or even micro-communities. We can expand the understanding of neighborhood to include places and practices in a larger network, rather than confining it to geography alone. These are communal habitats within the larger missional ecosystem. In the blended ecology, we need both a theology of the neighborhood and a theology of the network. The inherited mode primarily serves the larger mission of the neighborhood; the emerging mode the larger mission of the network. What does soreness look like in this remixed scenario?

Sore communities are those where there exists significant populations of the marginalized and lonely. One reason why dinner churches are springing up everywhere is because they have simply plugged into two primary felt needs: hunger and isolation. I discussed the emerging economic reality and the hollowing of the middle earlier. Why are churches still targeting a middle class that largely no longer exists when so many American families visit food banks and live below the poverty line?

Although prevalent, poverty is not always the only kind of soreness. I firmly believe every community is sore in some way. Even in affluent communities, there is some ache that God desires to heal. In The Villages, Florida, the retirement community where I served as the associate pastor of New Covenant United Methodist Church for four years, there is a different kind of sore. There are people there who secretly show up to our food pantry, but the major demographic of this retirement community is affluent.

By all outward appearances, The Villages is eerily like The Truman Show. Everything is manicured to perfection and people cruise around in golf carts, enjoying the fruits of their retirement. There is a seeming artificiality to it all. However, my major focus at New Covenant was to plant a Celebrate Recovery program. Thus, I worked amidst the dark underbelly of The Villages, “Florida’s Friendliest Hometown.” Some think this pristine gated community would be absent of typical sinfulness elsewhere. This is a false assumption—prostitution, alcoholism, and addiction exist just below the well-polished surface. Death, abandonment, and loneliness exist in all communities. This is a sore community, but in a different way.

The greatest soreness in a network society is isolation. People are connected in blazing 5G speed all the time, and yet isolated, longing for authentic connection. Isn’t that really what sin and the fall are all about? The shattering of relationships that leave one alone. The greatest brokenness of our human condition is the fragmentation of our relationship with God and each other that results from our willful disobedience. Human beings of all races, ages, and socio-economic status experience the soreness of isolation to some extent. Within this scenario, the church can offer the world the greatest gift of all, in fact the only gift we can offer that no other organization can—communal life with Jesus. The life that heals our isolation.

As we are in the process of double listening to our communities, we are seeking to find the sore places that we can love and serve. Prayerfully seeking to form communities of Jesus with people where they work and play.

Prayer Walk

Getting out in the spaces to pray will help you identify others, practices, and places in the community. The old/new practice of prayer walking has incredible potential when done in a posture of listening. This is a simple way to mobilize God’s mission force and get people out in the community. The key is to keep it simple. We suggest focusing on three basic practices: pray, observe, encounter.

Pray: This is simply about putting sneakers on your prayers. Walking around having a conversation with God, sensitizing one’s self to the stirrings of the Holy Spirit. If you feel God nudging you to pray for a specific home, business, or school—do it! Pray over the streets, pray over the buildings, pray over the people. Sometimes I like to pray, “God, show me what’s breaking your heart in this space. What is sore here?” And then quietly listen.

Observation: This is simply a form of listening. How many people do you notice in the space? What are they doing? What are the conditions of the neighborhoods where you are? What kinds of isolation do you see? What kind of practices are people participating in? Are people engaging each other in certain ways? How are they dressed? What ways do you see the Holy Spirit at work? What is God up to here?

Encounter: This one is the scariest for people who may not be strong extroverts with evangelistic giftings. Here’s the good news: you don’t have to encounter anyone unless they engage with you or unless God tells you to! More good news: encountering is not about, “Hey, Brother, if you died today do you know your eternal destination?” And it’s also not about a Romans road, sinner’s prayer, or any of that other business. Nor is it about holding up “Jesus saves” signs or blowing on bull horns. When God brings someone into your path and the Spirit nudges toward encounter, start with, “Hello! What’s your name? How are you doing today?” If someone inquires about your activity, let them know you are just out praying for the community and ask, “Is there anything I can pray for you?”

That’s it. No bells and whistles. No fancy evangelism tactics; just pray, observe, and encounter.

Who Is Our Sacagawea?: Identifying the Person of Peace

As we go out in teams sent by Jesus, we become the answer to our own prayer (Luke 10:2). Jesus doesn’t sugarcoat it. He lets us know we are often going into hostile territory, like sheep among wolves. Again, the key is to travel light. We leave the baggage behind. We come empty-handed in a posture of listening to do life with the people we find there. To join our other in with-ness.

Tod Bolsinger, in his book Canoeing the Mountains, retraced the footsteps of the explorers Lewis and Clark as an analogy for the kind of leadership we need in uncharted territory. Initially one may struggle with this analogy, as it seemingly assumes the eurotribal narrative of brave pioneers journeying out to map and master the unknown. The very Western Christendom story of conquering, boldly going where no one has gone before. Only that’s not true of Lewis and Clark, and it’s not true of us either. People had already braved the Continental Divide and the Rocky Mountains and settled along the Pacific Coast long ago.

Bolsinger came to a profound truth when he began to describe the Native American woman who accompanied Lewis and Clark, Sacagawea. He says, “Sacagawea was not venturing into unexplored territory, she was going home.”2 It wasn’t some bold frontier to be conquered for this young nursing mother, it was the native land of her ancestors. In the Lewis and Clark expedition, she was able to connect them to the horses and resources they needed, translate between the tribes, and navigate the tense encounters. This woman led alongside the group, endured everything they endured, and had a voice in the decision-making.

In Jesus’ missional blueprint, we would call Sacagawea our person of peace. This is the person who calls our “uncharted territory” simply “home.” This is the person who Jesus says to find and stay with. Receive their peace and let them receive yours. Notice the reciprocal language of Jesus, if they “[share] in peace, your peace will rest on that person” (Luke 10:6). It’s not just us bringing to them something they need; they also have what we need. There is a language of exchange, not superiority or dominance.

These are the people who give us an entryway into the community to which we are sent; they translate, contribute, and lead alongside. They open the door to relational potential of that community and they show us “the way things are done around here.” They are the welcomers who offer a safe place. They invite us to the table to be with. They offer us a gift by sharing their lives with us. They teach us the language and the customs of the tribe. As the border-stalkers, we bring good news and presence, but they give us the space to be. It is a reciprocal exchange of blessing and peace.

Lewis and Clark likely wouldn’t have survived without the skills, language, and presence of Sacagawea. I know for sure that fresh expressions cannot survive without a person of peace. Without the person of peace, we are simply employing another imperial conquering tactic.

Once we have listened to God and our community, once we have been invited into the relational network, this moves us into the loving and serving stage of a fresh expression. What Luke 10 describes as eating, staying, and healing.

If you would like to learn more about how the blended ecology of churches can help transform your community’s self-understanding and engage in meaningful mission, you will find Deep Roots, Wild Branches by Michael Beck helpful. “Michael Beck is the premiere practitioner and pioneer of the Fresh Expressions movement in the United States today. He has real life experience leading a traditional church that is also leading the way in the blended ecology of church. His faith community is making new disciples of Jesus in new places and in new ways all while being anchored to a traditional church that is also growing.” (Jay T.) Get it from our store here.

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Reverend Michael Beck serves on the Fresh Expressions US national leadership team as director of remissioning, as well as the cultivator of fresh expressions for the Florida Conference of the United Methodist Church. Michael and his wife, Jill, are the co-pastors of Wildwood United Methodist Church, where they direct recovery programs, a jail ministry, a food pantry, an interracial unity movement, and a network of thirteen fresh expressions that meet in places like tattoo parlors, dog parks, and burrito joints.

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