One of the principles behind fresh expressions of church is “bringing the church that Jesus loves closer to the people Jesus loves.” In other words, it is a form of church that emerges out of the context where people are. It is about being in relationship with people, loving, serving, building community, all done in such a way that a community is formed which develops rhythms of discipleship and church together.
It isn’t about doing ministry to people, or about doing ministry for people. It is about being on mission with people.
Which preposition predominates in your fresh expression?
Here are a few marks of a ministry done with people, instead of at them or to them. Ministry with others means that people are not objects of our spiritual manipulation. It embodies our trust that God is already at work in the communities and in peoples’ lives, and we get to journey alongside and discover God’s activity together.
A mission with others means that we are partnering with people and valuing their perspective and participation.
Many outreach initiatives focus on people as targets or receivers of services. Many established churches are filled with spectators watching rather than disciples doing. Neither are what we are aiming for in a fresh expression of church. So, how can you foster a fresh expression that takes seriously the with principle? Here are a few ways:
I. Even if you are the pioneer leader, ask for lots of input along the way.
“Where do you see an opportunity for us to serve?”
“What do you hope this community becomes? How can you help us move in that direction?”
“How do you understand this Scripture passage?”
“What issues do you really care about?
II. Prioritize relationships.
Events or programs or service initiatives may be part of the ministry strategy, but they are never the end game. It’s always about the relationships. How does this strategy or initiative connect us with one another and with God? How do the activities and spiritual conversations deepen our relationships together?
Don’t do it all.
Read the story of Jesus and the woman at the well in John 4 and note all the things that Jesus did not do. He did not baptize, his disciples did. He did not draw the water, he watched as it was drawn. He did not go into the town with the good news, he stayed back as the woman became the witness among her networks. What is Jesus revealing to us? Often, our desire to be a good leader in the early stages of the mission sets a pattern of doing ministry for people. And this pattern is hard to undo down the road.
Don’t do it alone.
What are you currently doing alone? Why? Often, it’s because it takes some work to bring others more fully into the mission. It takes energy and time to invest in others, and it is often easier in the short term to just get things done ourselves. Don’t jeopardize the values of the mission for the expedience of the tasks. Who could you invite to do something “with you?”
The incarnation—God-with-us—is a powerful assertion that God entered our world to live out the priorities of God among us. As we seek to start fresh expressions of church, let us be mindful of the power of being with others.
Shannon serves as Director of Training, leading our team of mission strategists and trainers in the development and implementation of the Mission Shaped Ministry course through Pioneer Learning Communities. She is also a pastor on staff with Riverside Church in Sterling, VA, a Church that worships in two languages and engages in several Fresh Expressions of Church. In the last several years, Shannon has been involved with the Presbyterian Church’s New Worshiping Communities initiative, and has directed the coaching network that supports pioneer leaders. Shannon lives in Springfield, VA with her husband Patrick and teenage daughters Catherine and Suzanne.