The American Church is ready for renewal. Faced with an increasingly post-Christian society, the Church is primed and ready for something new. Yet many of the church planting models of the past decades seem out of reach for most congregations.
Fresh Expressions is a model that has taken off in England over the past decade and is beginning to gain traction on this side of the pond. They’re simple, inexpensive, and incredibly adept at pushing the edges of the Church into unlikely places.
They emerge alongside existing churches, not in competition of them.
Many are catching on to to the vision of the model but are unsure how to get started. Allow me to share a few things I’ve learned about starting fresh expressions of church over the past two years leading a network of fresh expressions.
Establish A Fluid Vision
When my friend Chris sits down with a piece of clay, he starts with a plan, but often the clay has a mind of its own. When he puts his creation in the kiln he loses even more control as he waits to see the finished product. Yet whatever takes shape, it remains clay, the substance remains the same.
A fresh expression is a new form of church primarily for the benefit of people who are not yet members of any church. Your fresh expression should be incredibly fluid and responsive to change, but at the center must be a focus on being church with the unchurched.
Lose sight of this and you’ll have another church Bible study. Your church has plenty of those.
Find a Partner
Starting a fresh expression is not something to attempt alone. Find a friend who shares your vision. I have a few things I look for in a leader or co-leader of a fresh expression. I look for someone who loves Jesus and is comfortable with folks outside of the church.
Our churches have a lot of people who have become insulated by Christianity. However, most churches have folks hanging on the periphery who are able to connect to those outside of the church. They might come to church once a month; they might come late to worship and leave early. Take risks on your leaders because risky leaders bring in risky people.
Since fresh expressions are highly relational, who you start with will determine where you go. If you start with someone who is only able to speak Christianese, you’ll grow by adding more Christians.
You want someone who speaks Christianese as a second language, someone who interacts naturally with the world but has his or her foundation in the church.
Identify a Network
We all live in networks. Whether it’s our workplace, our children’s activities, our favorite restaurant, or a hobby, networks are where fresh expressions are born. We start fresh expressions with the people in these networks and we gather in ways that are familiar to them.
Some of our fresh expressions at King Street Church started with friendships; our Sunday night group at the saloon started with a series of cookouts one summer where we invited a few of our friends.
Some of our groups started with shared experiences. A church member and single mom started the single mom squad, a group of single moms that get together to support one another.
Where do you have natural social connections? Do you like to jog? Do you take your dog to the dog park? Do you spend half your life on the sideline of the soccer field? These are all great networks and locations to start a fresh expression!
Throw everything you know about church planting out the window. Well maybe not everything. However, so much of our church planting models are focused on rapid growth and financial sustainability. This is not the focus of fresh expressions. We’re about steady growth with those outside the church.
Folks outside of the church are not impressed by a fancy flier in their mailbox. Folks outside of the church come to things that their friends love and invite them to. Word of mouth is your best friend.
Start your group with people you know who are not in the church. If they like it they will invite their friends who most likely are also outside of the church.
Skip the Launch Team
While you don’t want to start a fresh expression alone, you also don’t want too many folks helping start it either. When you start with two or three you can grow your group with folks outside the church.
When you start with a bunch of church folks, it will be hard not to have your growth be with a bunch more church folks.
Remember, your mission is to start a fresh expression, not another church Bible study. Start with those outside of the church and you’ll grow in that direction.
Just One Mark of the Church
This is one of the best ideas introduced by fresh expressions. The church that you go to right now is what we call a mature expression of church. A mature expression of church has all of the marks of the church. Every denomination and local church has its list of the marks of the church.
My denomination, United Methodism, says that the marks are the maintenance of worship, edification of believers, and sending out in mission. Typically, when we plant a church we make sure that all the marks are there from the very first Sunday.
That’s not how we do it in fresh expressions. In fresh expressions we start with one mark of the church and slowly add more. Perhaps your fresh expression will start with discipleship; perhaps it will start with service; perhaps it will start with the sacrament of communion.
The trick is starting small and adding on as your group moves together towards a mature expression of church.
Don’t Be Afraid To Fail
Now that you’ve got a few ideas, let me warn you and encourage you that this could fail, and that’s ok. Over the past two years my church has started nine fresh expressions, but only six have lasted, and that doesn’t even count the ones stuck in the purgatory of planning.
Be brave, be bold, and don’t be afraid to fail. The church needs to fail more. If you’re not failing, you’re not taking enough risks.
The beauty of fresh expressions is in its simplicity. Try not to overcomplicate your fresh expression. Keep your focus on being church with those outside of the church, rely fully on the Holy Spirit, and see how much God loves those outside of the church.
Hold on tight; it’s going to be a wild ride.
For more info read Travis Collins’ book, Fresh Expressions of Church.
Luke Edwards is the Associate Director of Church Development for the Western North Carolina Conference of the United Methodist Church and a trainer for Fresh Expressions US. He was the founding pastor of King Street Church, a network of fresh expressions in Boone, NC. Participating in local, regional, and national levels of the Fresh Expressions movement has given Luke a unique perspective into the future of the mainline church in a post-Christian society. You can follow him on twitter at @lukesedwards or check out his blog A Way in the Wilderness (http://www.awitw.org).