It’s been a few weeks now since attending the Fresh Expressions National Gathering AND: Being the Church at Church at Home and Everywhere in Between. Despite being involved with Fresh Expressions as our Content Manager and knowing the team for years, this National Gathering was my first, and I can tell you that I’m better off for it.
A New Sense of Mission as a Couple
My wife Laura were married this past January. We’re professionals in our 30s. We come from different church traditions. We both have extensive, although very different experience in mission and ministry. We started our church community, Austin Mustard Seed, only a few months after Laura and I started dating, so she’s been a part of the entire process.
Our different mission backgrounds have been helpful. Laura has been able to point out my blind spots and has provided encouragement when I’ve felt frustrated. However, because of our different experiences, we sometimes have trouble explaining our dreams for our church.
Fresh Expressions is passionate about providing more than just theory. The National Gathering was a great example of combining storytelling with practical, hands-on training. For instance, David Fitch described three types of “Eucharist” meals, within the church, with the world, and within the world. Lessons like these help us move away from our dependence on nebulous words like “missional” and into a shared sense of mission in the activities we plan together.
A Broader Missional Family
Denominations, networks and traditions are great. They frame our approach to church within a story of why and a like-minded tribe.
However, there are downsides, as well. Once you have an “us,” it’s not long before you have a “them.” Despite our attempts at ecumenism or even Paul’s own admonition that “our battle is not with flesh and blood,” many churches have a history of making the “them” other types of churches.
The Fresh Expressions US National Gathering featured a variety of traditions. Some were familiar to me. Others came from camps which my own church tradition would have referred to as a “them.”
Despite our differences, the church in America has common goals and struggles. We all want to join in God’s mission. We all must answer the question “how do we embody the Church in a culture that is rapidly changing, and, increasingly, is rejecting institutions like the Church?”
There’s another thing we found in common at the National Gathering: a deep longing and joy to see transformation among our friends and neighbors. The room was full of different kinds of religious people—some wearing collars and others wearing flip-flops. But we were all drawn together by the stories of fresh expressions of Church sprouting up and changing lives around the world.
A conference can’t cure us of our “us vs. them” approach to life and ministry, but it’s a step, and an important one for lonely pioneers trying to carve out a new way of being church.
A Methodology for New Things
When we returned home from our trip to DC, the rest of life and ministry was waiting. Laura headed into her office to slog through weeks of photo shoots, while I had a sermon to prepare. I have a love/hate relationship with preaching, due in part to the time limitations of our bi-vocational approach. The text waiting for me didn’t help with my apprehension: Revelation 21.
As Laura and I discussed the text, our mind quickly went back to our experience at the National Gathering. The grand tour of reality that is Revelation culminates with John the Seer transcribing the word’s of Jesus,
“Behold, I am making all things new!”
Resurrection is central to our faith as followers of Jesus, and it is a defining virtue of the Fresh Expressions movement. The movement started in the UK among desperate denominations who were receiving a clear message: change or die.
Over the course of history, the church has had to be renewed. The book of Acts is a play by play of the church moving from the familiarity of the Jewish synagogue into the new territory the Greek oikos. In their need to escape the excesses of the flailing Roman empire, the desert fathers and mothers renewed the church through monasticism. Patrick and his followers created a new form of Church turning the monastic approach into a sort of community center and shared garden, with the church in its midst. Today, we see new things happening as the church is incarnated in village life of rural Africa and India, and spreading from house to house in China.
In the West, we’ve always had outliers creating new forms of church. Recent memory tells of John Wimber and the other hippy groups that formed from the Jesus People, to urban expressions like Homeboy Industries and Lawndale Community Church. These expressions remind us that even in our day, God is doing something new.
There’s sometimes a problem with these expressions of Church: they’re often limited by the genius of the apostolic founder. What makes the Fresh Expressions movement different is the commitment to creating a sustainable system for innovation.
These new forms of church are firmly embedded in their traditions and denominations. There are benefits that come with this, training and support and history.
God is making things new. The hope of Fresh Expressions is that we can join in God’s mission by providing methods for training and support to pioneers as they explore their world, listen to the Spirit, and develop new forms of discipleship for the world we inhabit.
Back at home after the National Gathering, we have to get back to our life and jobs and our church community. But our mission is better for the time we spent there because somehow through us and even despite of us, God in Christ Jesus is making all things new.
Chris Morton serves as Community Developer for Austin Mustard Seed, a new Church Community for North Central Austin. As his day job, he helps organizations like Fresh Expressions tell their story with Content, Email and Social Media Marketing. He blogs about getting life on track and the Church on mission at ChrisMorton.info.