This is the first in a series of posts reflecting on the Fresh Expressions National Gathering.
“Take a sledgehammer to that tank.”
No, that’s not quite the usual way we’d expect a church conference to begin—but the Fresh Expressions National Gathering is really not your usual church conference. The statement made by Fresh Expressions Northeast Regional Coordinator J.R. Briggs flowed from the desperate need for new forms of church in our country (pun intended), as he compared the Holy Spirit’s action to the growth of a shark: when placed in a 3-ft tank, a shark will grow to be 3-ft long. However, when placed in the ocean, the same shark can grow to be 16-ft. Perhaps our methods and means of “doing church” might be the very things that are squelching the Spirit and maintaining the tank we’ve put Him in.
And just like that, the National Gathering officially began.
Almost 300 pastors and church leaders from a number of denominations joined together in Alexandria, Virginia as “different teams united by mission,” as stated by speaker Reggie McNeal. Reggie also explained how for so long, our idea of “church” has been congregation-centered, focusing on service times when people are led to believe that “God shows up” while missing the increasing number of Americans who refused to be congregationalized. Instead, fresh expressions of church are completely kingdom-centered, organic communities where we are “Church” everywhere and anywhere; perhaps we need to see our whole lives as mission trips.
In the words of Jesus: “I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly.” (John 10:10)
Maybe it’s time to return to the ocean—and catch fire…
Fresh Expressions UK Team Leader, Bishop Graham Cray showed us how the Holy Spirit lights the landscape on fire when we maintain a strong focus on mission, allow ourselves to re-imagine what church can be, and form partnerships among groups. The key, he said, is to “connect the center to the edge” by creating a new form of church for the benefit of people who are not yet members of any church. As in the U.K., the expressions are rich in variation—messy churches, cafes, workplace churches, alternative worship, midweek activities, etc.—and the freshness is definitely rich in experimentation. Fresh expressions of church are missional, contextual, formational, ecclesial communities that are not meant to be “church lite,” to oppose traditional church, or to re-brand or bridge existing work but instead serve to proclaim the Gospel and spread the Holy Spirit’s fire in new ways to new groups of people.
Yeah, kind of like Pentecost.
Reggie McNeal concluded the day with a challenge to change our language by talking more about “being” the Church, and to change our scorecards and thus our reasons for celebration. Thinking about the Church as a “who” and not a “what” aims our energies toward “being the Church better” and not “doing church better.” By honoring those who live out the Gospel as missionaries in their own communities, we can see what we’re doing on a cultural scale instead of one that is based on filling pews and funding budgets.
Perhaps people are the mission.
After a full day, I drove home with a lot going on in my head and heart: wondering what would happen next, dreaming of what God was up to in this place and hearing the words of the inspiring speakers of the day still echoing in my ears.
Or perhaps it was the ocean I began to hear…
Kris Beckert is a licensed minister in the Nazarene Church, a 2nd-year M.Div. student at Wesley Theological Seminary, and discipleship minister at Herndon United Methodist Church in Herndon, VA.
Kris Beckert is a Mission Strategist/Trainer with Fresh Expressions US. She serves as Pastor of Innovation and Multiplication at Salem Fields Community Church in Fredericksburg, Virginia.