I believe I have seen the future of the church in North America. Prominently located on the main thoroughfare of Sheffield, England, is the cathedral. That cathedral (unlike so many in England) is active and vibrant. It supports strong worship services, a big music ministry, the works.
Just down the hill from that cathedral, on a back street, is the Print House. It is called that because of the previous use of the building in which it is located. This Print House is a fresh expression of church. The casual, open space of the Print House is large enough to contain forty or so people. On the third floor is office space, corners of which are rented out to small businesses needing offices or cubicles, providing contacts with the community and a revenue stream for the new church.
These two approaches to church—the cathedral and the Print House—bear little in common. Yet each has engaged a segment of the population that the other almost certainly would not. They are complementary and supplementary expressions of church.
In England, leaders utilize a phrase coined by Archbishop Rowan Williams—the “mixed economy”—to describe the roles and relationship of these two congregations and those like them—an emerging partnership between churches that have been around for a long time and new churches that look very different. Moreover, the future of the Christian faith is bright, with strong inherited churches and vibrant new churches. “Christian management guru Ken Blanchard observes that it is commonly asked, ‘Which approach is better—improving what is or creating what isn’t?’ The answer he gives is ‘Yes!’” (Steven Croft, Mission-Shaped Questions [New York: Seabury Books, 2008], 155.) The Fresh Expressions movement is about improving what is and creating what is not yet!
Coming Alongside Churches
Fresh Expressions is about a new form of church coming alongside those congregations we know and love; not about replacing them. The phrase, “mixed economy” (some prefer “mixed ecology”), reminds us that inherited churches and fresh expressions are complementary, not in competition. In today’s diverse cultures, God’s church needs both our inherited approaches and novel approaches. Those novel approaches are what we’re talking about when we talk about fresh expressions of church.
God’s Spirit is alive and well in present churches of all ages, shapes, and sizes. So Fresh Expressions is about new forms of church coming alongside (not supplanting) existing congregations. Many in the Fresh Expressions movement use terminology of “modalities” (established centers of church life) and “sodalities” (flexible missionary endeavors) to describe the unique roles of existing and new forms of church. As critical as our present congregations are, there remain untold numbers of people who desperately need Jesus. So, somewhat lightly tethered to present congregations there can be innovative expressions of the body of Christ to engage people your church wants to engage but simply cannot. Alongside the steeple churches we need creative, simpler, more intimate groups that have the potential to exhibit all the elements of church.
Luke Edwards, pioneer of a fresh expression of church in Boone, North Carolina, declared, “The traditional church has to get over its fear of new forms of church. And new forms of church have to get over their fear of the traditional church. We have to work together to make each other better. We bring different people into the Kingdom of God. And that’s what matters.”
The philosophy of Fresh Expressions is that these new and novel faith communities are enriched by learning from and building on church tradition, “not by rubbishing and leaving it.” (Johnny Baker, The Pioneer Gift [London: Canterbury Press, 2014], 12.)
Not Merely Coexisting
These are not merely coexisting forms of church, but mutually dependent and mutually supporting forms of church. It is true that, in many cases, these fresh expressions of church have operated apart from existing forms of church as self-contained entities. While we celebrate any new church that engages new people, we have to caution that parallel-and-independent is not the optimal scenario. Both the inherited church and the fresh expression of church get the most out of this when there is a collaborative, mutually beneficial partnership.
One of the advantages of the mixed economy of church is that it provides a connection from the heart of the inherited church to the edges of what God is doing, and vice versa. Thus it is imperative that we keep these fresh expressions of church in the stories of, and in partnership with, established churches—linked in as many ways as are possible and helpful.
The optimal situation (from a Fresh Expressions perspective) is an existing church with a missional pastor sending out a handful of apostles from its membership to begin a new form of church among a particular subculture. In such a situation the existing church offers prayerful support, encouragement, counsel, and mentoring.
The existing church is rejuvenated by the intentional efforts to evangelize the world and thrilled by the stories that the apostles from among them tell. The new form of church has a clear connection to the Christian family outside itself and is resourced and cheered on by the more established congregation. The inherited churches and the fresh expression of church are complementary, not in competition. However, not all fresh expressions of church fit this optimal model. Some of these new forms of church are begun independently by pioneers, without the assistance of existing congregations.
Some of the pioneers were previously part of existing churches but launched out solo. Some of the pioneers were actually on staff at existing churches and responded to this missionary call with the blessing of, but without formal support from, their congregations. What many of us consider the first fresh expression of church in history—the church of Antioch—sprang up rather independently.
The church of Jerusalem did not intentionally, strategically, send out its most apostolic members with the goal of planting a new form of church to reach new people. God’s Spirit surprised the Jerusalem Christians with an unexpected (fresh) expression of church up in Antioch.
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. 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. If you would like to explore what Fresh Expressions of church could look like in your ministry context with a team, consider the shorter primer, Fresh Expressions of Church by Travis Collins.
I like it. I like it a lot! Thanks for this.
I agree, I do believe that this approach is the future of Church in North America. I feel called to be a part of this emerging movement. Thanks for this article.