Anyone familiar with the statistics of church decline knows that statistics don’t mean much unless they also show the story behind the numbers. And the words we use must be subjected to what a former U.S. Senator famously called the Dickey Flatt test. Dickey Flatt was a print shop owner in Mexia, Texas. And he became a symbol for the simple, no-nonsense small businessman. The test considers how the words we use will go over with the folks in Dickey Flatt’s print shop, especially with the guy who’d rather be at his print shop on Sunday morning than at church.
That doesn’t mean that the paradigm shift required for American Christianity to move from church building to disciple building (and from institutional maintenance to missionary engagement) is a simplistic endeavor. But it is to say that we fall short if we fail to get our words straight.
Eugene Peterson has said that the words we use often develop barnacle encrustations that must be scrubbed in order for them to regain their former luster. The Fresh Expressions label is likewise returned to its luster when we recall the roots of the term are embedded within the ordination prayers of the Church of England:
The Church of England is part of the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church, worshipping the one true God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It professes the faith uniquely revealed in the Holy Scriptures and set forth in the catholic creeds, which faith the Church is called upon to proclaim afresh in each generation.
Regardless of our placement within any number of contexts, Anglican, Baptist, Christian and Missionary Alliance, or Nazarene; Fresh Expressions can never be sold as another church-renewal technique because of its rootedness in the ancient and future church. The words we use to describe Fresh Expressions are ways of shedding light on the church as it has always been; a church that regardless of theology, denomination or connection is one, holy, catholic and apostolic.
During our Fresh Expressions Vision Day, we say that for the church to be one requires a renewed relationship with people in our particular locality who we might also call ‘church’. At its core, the oneness of church is demonstrated by covenantal friendship with individuals and with God.
For the church to be holy requires an upward focus and present linkage with the world now and the world to come. It is a singular joining together around the throne of God.
It also means that we are catholic. While this phrase might scare a good many Baptists, and its limited treatment here will not suffice for a good many Catholics, it means that connection to other expressions of the church across time and in the present day is essential if we are to be one Church.
The heart of the apostolic witness is a church sent out on mission. David Bosch has reminded us that “it is not the church of God that has a mission in the world but the mission of God that has a church in the world.” This cuts to the heart of our message.
We’ve said that the world is changing rapidly. And this is true, but regardless of age or technological advancement, the world and the people living in it need the things they have always needed: food, shelter, love and forgiveness. The same things might also be said for the mission of God. “The wind blows wherever it pleases” says Jesus. “You hear its sound but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.” (John 3:8) The mission of God is no stranger to globalization. It is also no stranger to the basic desire for love and forgiveness…and partnership. But it requires being born of the Spirit.
Rapid change should be no problem for a people born of the Spirit. It just requires a necessary amount of dexterity on behalf of those seeking partnership with the mission of God because the Spirit—like the wind—is both unpredictable and unchanging.
Our focus on being the Church of God rather than the mission of God has often found us incapable of hearing the wind, let alone being caught up in a gentle breeze or forceful gale.
But we are called to tune our ears and to discover where the wind is blowing and where the seeds are landing. When we do, we’re better able to see that the seeds that sprout are the ones rooted in rich soil and sheltered by the canopy of the taller trees.
Gannon is the Director of Ministry Formation for Fresh Expressions US and leads the Fresh Expressions efforts of the Baptist General Association of Virginia. He earned the Bachelor of Arts Degree from Baylor University and the Master of Divinity degree from Duke University. Prior to entering seminary, Gannon worked as a legislative aide in the U.S. Senate and as a public affairs officer in the anti-human trafficking office at the U.S. State Department. He enjoys forging partnerships between followers of Jesus from different traditions and has served in various roles at several churches, Baptist, Presbyterian, and Anglican. Gannon is married to Carey, who also is a graduate of Duke Divinity School. Together they work to bring fresh expressions of church to the collegiate community at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, Virginia.