Felix Rivera-Merced

How Fresh Expressions can Connect Disconnected Churches

When I heard Bishop Graham Cray at the Fresh Expressions National Gathering, I was fascinated to hear him compare the church to an eagle, which needed ‘two wings to fly.’ By this he introduced the concept of the ‘mixed-economy’ church, a network of both fresh expressions and more traditional churches working together.

Mixed Economies of Church

I had encountered the idea of the mixed-economy before in Mission-Shaped Church, but I never heard it elsewhere. The impression (read: caricature) I had of church planters was that they tended to either aim for mega-church stardom or for hipster authenticity; whether they were copying mega-churches or copying rejection of the mainstream, they assumed that what came before obviously didn’t work so it had little to contribute. There was also little talk of how these churches fit into larger denominational structures.

Now even Bishop Cray said that he doesn’t expect churches 50 years from now to look like they do today—fresh expressions or not—but he was quite firm in believing that the churches that stand today have much more to do than just raise up future fresh expression leaders while waiting to die.

So I went to his workshop, “Making the Mixed-Economy Work.” I was impressed not only with the real wisdom he presented—eschewing vague principles while not falling into 3-simple-steps fallacies—but with the perspective he approached Fresh Expressions as a self-professed traditional pastor.

As far as being missional is concerned, Cray described traditional churches working like huge nets while fresh expressions work more like precision tools. Cray was clear that it is the job of the traditional pastors to recognize and support fresh expressions.

Too often fresh expressions get misunderstood in one way or another—either they are expected to eventually ‘grow up’ into a traditional church or are resisted from the beginning.

As a traditional pastor, Bishop Cray took it as his responsibility to be an advocate and diplomat for fresh expressions in duty to the larger church. This meant fighting for their recognition and representation in denominational bodies once they matured. This also meant reminding people, especially congregants of traditional churches, that ‘maturity’ doesn’t mean looking like a traditional church but looking like Jesus would look like in that context.

Missed Connections

What struck me most is what would be necessary for all this to work: a connected church. For fresh expressions to be taken seriously, it is not enough that they be supported and encouraged by traditional churches but the traditional churches also have to learn from and fellowship with fresh expressions.

This may seem like a no-brainer but I ask, “How many traditional churches even take an interest in each other now?” I know the number is nowhere near zero but I also know the number isn’t very high. Even sitting through Fresh Expressions I couldn’t help but get the impression that in thinking of our backyard as our mission field we forget that there are already churches there—it’s not quite us against the world (or the institutional church).

I believe one of the most distinctive things about the Fresh Expressions movement is the intentionality behind prayer and discernment, looking to see where God is already moving. Do we forget that that may include other churches?

I find the story of Fresh Expressions in England captivating not only because of the varied niche ministries and outreaches, but because of the partnerships that made them possible. In a time when many ailing churches are sitting blocks from each other, the potential of this movement is not just for a bunch of new kinds of churches to get started — though they are extremely necessary – but for breaking, reshaping, and creating forms for other churches to glean from.

But my hope is that those ailing churches would work together to build each other up. My hope is that as bottom-up fresh expressions lead the way, other churches will find fresh ways to express themselves.

Whether you’re a traditional type or a Fresh Expressions type, as you pray for God’s leading don’t just look to the little club in front of you but talk to all of your neighbors. You’d be surprised what 21st century wisdom even an old Bishop can give.

 

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Felix Rivera-Merced

Felix Rivera-Merced

Felix Rivera-Merced is an M.Div. student at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, where he is a student assistant for the Church Planting Initiative and studies Urban Ministry.

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