Recently, I came on staff with Fresh Expressions US in the area of social media management.
And as my first foray into this work, I got to join the team at the Mission Shaped Ministry Learning Community Retreat in Baltimore, MD on October 25th and 26th.
Here’s the thing. I’ve been to loads of conferences, retreats, workshops, and trainings that focus on missional ministry and church planting. As a church planter and local pastor, I have lived and breathed this conversation for about ten years, and have come face to face with both the successes and failures of missional work in tough places. All that to say, what I hoped to see at the retreat was something that I recognized – something expressly missional – but, after all the ups and downs of ministry on the frontlines, also something new – something…fresh.
With learning communities present from the American Baptist Churches of New Jersey, the Virginia Baptists, and the Anglican Diocese of the Mid-Atlantic, the MSM Retreat was a beautiful picture of the Fresh Expressions vision – to see existing churches and movements generate new expressions of church for those who are not yet part of any church. The FXUS team led those in attendance through a series of sessions and talks about what it means to engage in this kind of missional ministry, ministry beyond the confines of “operating” an established church. I was encouraged and affirmed by topics that ranged from understanding leadership as discipleship in the way of Jesus, to dealing with inevitable ministry failure on the missional frontier.
And there was indeed something fresh about this time. The most inspiring moments of the retreat came in the form of conversations, both facilitated and spontaneous, that occurred throughout. There was a tone of deep interest and passion on the part of the learning communities to launch out into fresh expressions of church in their context, so that more people can come to know the love of Jesus through his people. I recall one conversation at lunch with a young man starting a fresh expression of church in downtown Baltimore. His commitment to supporting the people in his challenging neighborhood – over the long haul, no matter what – was a perfect reflection of the rooted gospel work generated by Fresh Expressions.
A particularly poignant moment occurred on the heels of updates from Mary Amendolia of The Falls Church (Anglican) in Northern Virginia and Mia Chang of Next Gen Church in Princeton, NJ. Both women are seeing slow and steady fruit borne from their churches’ efforts. Both have experienced significant ministry challenges, and both have been repeatedly drawn out into steps of faith for the sake of God’s mission. And the gospel is taking root in brand new soil.
FXUS leaders Chris Backert and J.R. Briggs followed these updates with a direct challenge to the learning communities. What are we willing to sacrifice for this, and what do we do next in order to see new expressions of church happen in our context? The room erupted in words of passion, faith, and determination to overcome obstacles and challenges that may stand in the way of connecting more people to the love of Jesus through the church.
Which brings me back to my role as a social media manager.
Throughout the Retreat, I was posting quotes, images, and updates on the Facebook Page and Twitter feed, leaving something of a digital record of the wonderful things taking place and inviting folks to comment, share, and connect. On day two, I couldn’t help but post a quote from a young woman named Rosa. She was sitting at the table across from me during one of the facilitated conversation times. She spoke with confidence:
We don’t tell a baby, ‘Go feed yourself, go get dressed, and if you need anything we’re in the next room.’ We shouldn’t tell a new disciple, ‘Read this, and come to church when you’re ready.’ We should go to them, help them, and build relationship before asking them to do things for themselves.
This, really, is the heart of Fresh Expressions – for the church to go, in love, to those who don’t yet know and follow Jesus, and help them.
For existing, established churches and movements to move out in faith, building relationships and allowing the gospel to take root in brand new soil, in exciting new ways.
That is indeed something expressly missional…and something truly fresh.
Zach Hoag is Social Media Manager for Fresh Expressions US. He lives in Burlington, Vermont.
Zach J. Hoag is a church planter and missional minister from the least religious city in the least religious state in the U.S. – Burlington, Vermont. He wrote a book called Nothing but the Blood: The Gospel According to Dexter, and he blogs at zhoag.com. Most importantly, he binge-watches cable TV dramas and plays in the snow with his family.