One of my friends, a health nut who loves Jesus, has the same smoothie for lunch every day. It’s a mixture of spinach, fruits, and yogurt. While I admire her discipline and dedication, I sometimes wonder how she can drink the same thing for lunch seven days a week. Doing that would drive me crazy!
It recently occurred to me that her behavior is exactly what we have done as the church. In the US, we have been drinking the same spinach smoothie every day for decades! Newsflash: A lot of people in the world don’t like spinach smoothies, including me.
Now Serving…Nothing Really
Here’s the analogy. Imagine we show up at a juice bar that has an incredible top-notch blender. Right behind the best blender in the world is every fruit, vegetable, and yogurt combo that you could possibly imagine. This bar is only open a couple hours on Sunday, so we come to the counter and say, “Hello, I would like to try a banana, blueberry, and vanilla yogurt smoothie please!” The stoic individual standing behind the juice bar says, “Sorry, we only serve spinach smoothie’s here, but it’s by far the best recipe and has been working just fine for decades.”
Does that seem a little insane to you? How many people do you think will settle for the spinach smoothie? How many who won’t will never return to this particular juice bar again?
When we look at the massive decline of Christianity in the West, we can safely say that one critical component is that we have not effectively adapted and engaged today’s culture with the Gospel. We have been offering spinach smoothies, on our terms, at our nonnegotiable time. Furthermore, most of the ingredients are stale.
Misconceptions of Fresh Expressions
Now, let’s think about Fresh Expressions for a moment. Whenever I talk to groups about what fresh expressions actually are, I often encounter a misunderstanding. They are not simply a new fad, new forms of outreach, or different approaches to evangelism. They are not groups of anti-establishment rebels breaking away from the church and doing their own thing. They are “fresh expressions” of the one, holy, catholic, apostolic church. They are a microcosm of that greater whole, and they have the capacity to mature into a full expression of the Church.
Also, they are most effective when they are tethered to that larger body. In my own Methodist tradition, I propose that the mixed economy, where the inherited and missional models are working together, is the way of the future.
So, back to the blender. Now let’s say we return to the same juice bar—the one with that incredible blender. But this time we have been “given permission” to experiment, and we have a room full of “supporters” enthusiastically cheering us on to attempt new concoctions. We may make a mess, or even produce some epic failures of a smoothie on our way to creating something new, fresh, and captivating. This is one reason why in the Fresh Expressions movement we need pioneers, supporters, and permission givers, all working together.
Now, each Fresh Expression smoothie we make has some key ingredients: one, holy, apostolic, and catholic. The language we use in the movement to describe those historical marks in a fresh way are: inward, upward, of-ward, and outward. We can vary the amount of those ingredients at first, maybe just a pinch of catholic, a tablespoon of holy, a dollop of oneness, and a cup of apostolic. Next, we add the different flavors of the host culture we are trying to reach with the Gospel! We now have an endless number of ingredients and countless potential concoctions.
When we think about fresh expressions, it’s like putting different amounts of the essential ingredients of the church in the blender, mixing it up with the incarnational flavors of the micro-community, and hitting the purée button! With the included elements of the culture, the flavors may change, but the essential ingredients will still be in the mix. Depending on the pinch of ingredients and a mixture of the culture, you might get a different flavor or concoction every time. No concoction is a failure; some just might taste better than others. If the mixture doesn’t include ingredients from the host culture, it’s not sustainable or incarnational.
That’s why we see such a wide variety of tasty Fresh Expressions of all flavors, such as Kayak Church, Beer and Hymns, Burritos and Bibles, Yoga Chapel, Dinner Church, Tattoo Parlor Church, Karate Church, Runners Church, and the list goes on ad infinitum. These expressions of the greater church are reaching not-yet-Christians because, frankly, spinach smoothies would not be the first choice of many people.
We have been guilty of force-feeding people one particular flavor of church, which in my assessment is less about Scriptural grounding and apostolic authenticity, and more about traditions that were imported in a very unique contextual environment within a very specific era in Christendom. The Book of Acts describes a church of ten thousand flavors!
Now this does not give us license to run willy-nilly and abandon the juice bar. Just like we need the blender, the base of operations, the tried-and-true methods of ages past, we need the inherited church. We need the wisdom of the great cloud of witnesses.
Fresh Expressions is not about abandoning the gathered model, it’s about bringing the best of both the gathered and the scattered together, so that we can make nourishing smoothies that will give life to a malnourished world. Various flavors appeal to various people, and no one’s taste has to go unsatisfied. The concoctions can be as diverse as the communities and people in which the Gospel is seeded. This is not watering down or abandoning the Gospel. It’s about delivering it to people in a form that they can consume and digest. Once it gets inside a person, the rest is up to God.
I love and admire my friend for her discipline. She is a specimen of spiritual and physical health. As good as spinach smoothies might be, if I don’t like spinach, I will never know. There is a world of people out there who have never tasted the life-giving substance of what Jesus has to offer. If we don’t offer it to them in creative and innovative concoctions they will never know how good the Gospel tastes. As the church, Jesus has left us the juice bar, the blender, and the energy of the Holy Spirit to power the mission. He is counting on us to feed the world.
So, get out your blenders! Get your church on board! Let’s make some wonderful kingdom concoctions that will turn the world right side up! Join the movement to be the church in fresh and exciting ways.
Rev. Michael Beck is South Atlantic Coordinator Fresh Expressions US and North Central District Cultivator of Fresh Expressions for the Florida Conference of the United Methodist Church. Michael serves as senior pastor of Wildwood UMC where he directs addiction recovery programs, a jail ministry, a food pantry, and a network of fresh expressions that meet in places like tattoo parlors and burrito joints. He currently lives in Wildwood with his wife, Jill, and their blended family of 8 children.