Chris Backert

Four Critical Attributes of a Fresh Expression of Church

The following excerpt is part of a longer article you can read on the Juicy Ecumenicism blog.

Lightning Speed Changes

It’s no surprise to most that we are facing challenging times within the Church in North America. With almost lightning speed, American society is vastly moving in the way of Europe when it comes to religious belief, the life of faith, and Christian faith in particular. In many ways, the Church has become a missionary in what once was our own land.

However, while Europe is a picture of the coming (and present) mission challenges for the Church, it also can be considered a picture of fruitfulness if the Church is willing to adopt a new missionary posture, particularly through its existing congregations. Born out of the creative work of the Holy Spirit and a desire to see the gospel proclaimed afresh in every generation, the Fresh Expressions initiative was launched as a joint venture between the Church of England and the British Methodist Church over ten years ago.

The missional potential of this movement combines a deep love for the longstanding tradition of the church AND a desire to see new expressions of church birthed alongside and interrelated to our inherited congregations, resulting in exponential growth for God’s Kingdom. In fact, the Church Army’s detailed research not long ago revealed that the equivalent of two new diocese had been born from the work of ten dioceses within the Church of England through Fresh Expressions.

The Best Chance

Further, they found that for every five people within a fresh expression of church (average size: 25-35), four of them were those who either had come to faith in Christ for the first time or had returned to a faith community after a long departure. This leads a church observer like Michael Moynagh to note in his watershed book, Being Church, Doing Life:

In terms of outreach and evangelism, these new expressions of church must surely be considered our best chance for a renewed impact of the Gospel in the West.

In 2012, the Fresh Expressions movement was launched in the US through the vision and generosity of the Baptist General Association of Virginia. Since then, a growing number of partners including the Florida, Kentucky, and Susquehanna Annual Conferences of the United Methodist Church, and Asbury Seminary have joined together. These partners are committed to a new era of missional ecumenism—a unity around the mission of God through the Resurrected Son, empowered by the Holy Spirit. After four years of effort working to cultivate this important work in the United States, I can say that while our efforts are young, we’re seeing similar results to what was birthed in Europe.

Four Critical Aspects of a Fresh Expression

What then is a fresh expression of church?

A fresh expression of church is a form of church for our changing culture, established primarily for the benefit of people who are not yet part of any church. It will come into being through the principles of listening, love and serving, building community, incarnational mission and making disciples, and it has the potential to become a mature expression of church, shaped by the gospel and the enduring marks of the church and for its cultural context.

Potential to Mature

There are four key aspects of this definition that are critical:

First, that this is a “form” of church with the “potential” to become a mature expression of church. In other words, fresh expressions provides a developmental dynamic to our ecclesiology. Who can argue against a church “maturing” over time? Hopefully all forms of church are doing so, but starting out less mature in terms of the full manner of what it means to be a “church” does not disqualify a community of faith from being a church.

Shaped by the Good News

Second, as in all churches, this is a Christian community that is shaped by the good news of the availability of the Kingdom of God to all who will trust Jesus. This was the first and primary message of Jesus himself (Mark 1) and of his followers (Acts 1, 28). In this, the totality of the good news message about the life, death, resurrection, ascension and continuing ministry by the power of the Spirit is envisioned to shape this community.

Formed by the Marks of the Church

Third, these fresh expressions of church, as they mature, will be also be formed by the enduring marks of the church. Travis Collins relates that “we may call a fresh expression a “church,” then, if it is a community of people transformed by the resurrected Jesus, committed to each other, growing together toward the likeness of Jesus, corporately celebrating the glory of our Creator, teaching the word of God, baptizing and celebrating communion, serving the world through holistic mission, and identifying as a member of the universal family of Christ-followers.”

Mission-Based Posture

Fourth and finally, there is an intention from the beginning for this to be a church with a “mission-based” posture toward the world. Even if merely among the core of the community, the church intends to be sent into the world as Jesus was sent into the world (John 20). As Travis Collins has related in his recent book, From the Steeple to the Street: “Fresh expressions of church find their deepest purposes among those who are not yet followers of Jesus and those who drawn to him and seeking to follow him alone. This is about making disciples who then join God in His mission of grace, reconciliation and justice to the world. It is not about recycling disciples and transferring them from an inherited church to our “cooler” church.”

Phillipi: A Lesson in Fresh Expressions

A close scriptural approximation to a fresh expression of church, among others, can be found in Acts 16: 32-42. In this case, Paul and Silas arrive in Philippi following a series of prophetic revelations. Phillipi can be likened to an “unchurched” area in that there were not enough Jewish men within the city to form a synagogue. Paul and Silas are forced to leave their reliable pattern of ministry within the predetermined ministry structures of Judaism.

However, they go to look for people who are open to the action of the God but are finding their faith outside conventional structures. When they happen upon Lydia and the group of women gathered by the river, they do not take a proclamation-based approach; instead, they begin to dialogue. Lydia overhears their words and by the power of the Spirit, comes to trust Jesus. It would seem that perhaps a brief period of time passes as they continue in relationship (how might they judge her to be faithful without some period of observation), and then she asks Paul and Silas to come and stay at her house, “if they consider her faithful.”

It is through this process of time, including their gathering in her house, that a “church” or “fresh expression of church” begins to take shape. Further, the missionary impulse of Paul and Silas follows even after they find a meeting house, as they continue to return to the place of prayer in the community — the geographical place of openness to the gospel (it is on their usual route to the place of prayer that they encounter the slave girl). Of course, this is also the location of Lydia’s social network.

Was this new community of faith mature at the outset? It’s highly unlikely. Was it incredibly contextual, formed out of the unconventional structural situation of a low number of Jewish adherents? Yes. Did this “fresh expression of church” mature into a more full expression of church at a later time? Yes, and it became one of the more significant churches in terms of Paul’s ministry over time. At what point would we say that the story of Lydia and the founding of the church at Philippi moved from “mission” to “church”? The exact point of time would be hard to tell from the text. In the old world of Christendom which understands there to be a stark contrast between mission and church, that could be problematic. However, with a more thoroughly Trinitarian and mission-based understanding of the nature of the Godhead and therefore the formation of a community of persons around the dynamic love of the Trinity, it would make sense that the line would be indistinct. I’m certainly glad that someone didn’t apply “Nine marks for a biblical church” to Philippi, for it certainly wouldn’t have made the cut (nor would a lot of the most vibrant churches around the world for that matter).

Read the entire article here.

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Chris Backert

Chris Backert

Working with church leaders to develop new expressions of Christian community is the passion of Chris’s life. In addition to his role as National Director of Fresh Expressions US, he serves with the Baptist General Association of Virginia the area of church planting and serves as the Director & Organizational Architect for Ecclesia, a national network of missional churches. Previously, he served as pastor of New Life Christian Fellowship, a large university congregation in Blacksburg, Virginia. Chris holds a D.Min. in Missional Church Leadership from Fuller Theological Seminary. He lives in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania with wife Rachel, daughter Elliana and son Jase.


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