Growing up I played many sports, both at competitive and recreational levels. In my neighborhood, one of the things we loved to do to get through the dog days of summer was our daily pick-up basketball game. A random group of kids, a ball, and the local park were the only ingredients needed—no phone tree, game schedule or advanced planning necessary.
On any given afternoon when critical mass was reached, whoever was hanging at the courts shooting hoops would mobilize into teams and play each other. Two team captains were selected; one got to pick first and the other team got the ball first. And yes, there was an unwritten code in the process of selecting your teammates…pick winners!
Usually, if you wanted to ensure victory, you began by selecting the best players for your team first. One by one, each player would be selected, leaving the handful of folks that no one else wanted on their team. Sometimes, those “left-over” players would be placed on a team by default and you would do your best to make sure they never got the ball. Other times, if there was an over-abundance of recruits, the ones-no-one-else-wanted went over to another court and played their own game.
No one really wanted to be in that group, although they seemed to have just as much fun. I remember one of the years I played little league baseball, I didn’t make the “A All-Star Team.” Instead, I ended up on the “B All-Star Team.” And while I never lived down the derision of my friends and classmates, I remember that year as being one of the most fun-filled seasons I ever played.
How did Jesus Pick Leaders?
When I read the Gospels, I can’t help but notice the way Jesus chose his team. In a world that, to quote Ricky Bobby in Talladega Nights, buys into the mentality “If you ain’t first, you’re last,” Jesus shows a different way; one in which “the least are the greatest” and “the last shall be first.” Jesus seemingly didn’t choose the best and the brightest for his world-transforming movement.
It’s almost as if Jesus purposefully chose the “left-overs”—those ones no one else wanted or even saw. Normal every day folks like fishermen (Mark 1:7), then outcasts, untouchables, sinners, (Luke 15:1-2), even tax-collectors (Matthew 9:9), and the formerly demonically possessed (Luke 8:2). It’s like the pick-up basketball teams of my childhood in reverse. Jesus starts with the losers! Nobody would have chosen these people for their dream team, no fantasy football picks here, this group isn’t even little league B-team, or even of C or D-team quality! This is like… the “E-Team.”
At Wildwood United Methodist Church, a congregation that has been in the same community since 1881, we started an Evangelism Committee. We quickly understood that no one even wanted to be on the evangelism committee. Soon after in our first neighborhood walk we realized, as that most people—literally a stone’s throw away from the sanctuary doors—didn’t even know our 130+ year-old church was even there, we desperately needed one! Our first Evangelism Committee consisted of our worship leader and her husband, our church organist, and my wife, children, and myself. Straight-up E team at best!
Unfortunately, I believe the word evangelism itself has been high-jacked in some ways from its origins, and the Evangelism Committee, is the “left-over” folks at most churches: Those who weren’t picked to serve on the more prestigious committees, like Trustees or Church Council. But the Jesus who starts to build his universe-changing dream-team with the least, the lost, and the left-overs began to use us. In fact, I realized that for the community just outside the doors of our church, this team would be the only representatives they would ever meet, and provide the sole exposure to our church they would ever have.
Our little group of rag-tag “left-overs” began to have incredible experiences in people’s homes and on street corners with the Holy Spirit. Everything from healings and conversions to overactive household pets laying out “slain-in-the-Spirit.”
The “E-Team” becomes the Fresh Expressions Committee
When we discovered the Fresh Expressions movement, we turned our Evangelism Committee, into our Fresh Expressions Committee. Our newly formed committee generated excitement and interest. Some people showed up just out of curiosity to see what Fresh Expressions was about. With this new energy, and under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, our team began to launch multiple fresh expressions in the surrounding community.
Wildwood became a “mixed-economy church,” with our facility serving as a missional outpost with little micro-community movements all around. Think of an octopus’ head with tentacles reaching out, influencing the community in multiple directions at once.
This apostolic group of “left-overs” soon began to discover other pioneers out on the missional edge. They were like us, innovators, trying to get the Good News to the not-yet-Christian, but without the language, training, and support of the Fresh Expressions US movement. We quickly began to connect with these people, pool our resources, and work together.
The E-Team Today
Jesus took people who knew how to fish, and said, “I will show you how to fish for people.” He took people’s natural skill-set and their circle of influence and trained them how to use those natural inclinations and abilities to expand the kingdom of God. He also patiently labored beside them, as they failed-forward and became the people he created them to be. I think Jesus can work with anybody, and I’m a living example of that. In fact, he sometimes chooses the ones no one else would pick, and uses them to transform the world.
Today our, Fresh Expressions Committee, from its humble beginnings as the “E-Team” of a long declining church, has now expanded to include members from four different denominations/non-denominations and is consistently ideating, catalyzing, and cultivating fresh expressions that are revitalizing our churches and impacting the community beyond. The chair of our Fresh Expressions committee, through her work on the team, felt God calling her to ministry. Now, Pastor Nicole Pennington serves as my co-pastor at Oxford UMC.
Also, as a pastor, like my year on the little league B-team, I have never had more fun doing anything in ministry than what I am doing with this dynamic group of world-changers right here and now! Perhaps it is because we know we are the “left-overs” chosen first by Jesus. Perhaps it’s because we know we will fail sometimes, and we don’t care. Because a failure of a fresh expression is always a kingdom victory!
Rev. Michael Beck is South Atlantic Coordinator Fresh Expressions US and North Central District Cultivator of Fresh Expressions for the Florida Conference of the United Methodist Church. Michael serves as senior pastor of Wildwood UMC where he directs addiction recovery programs, a jail ministry, a food pantry, and a network of fresh expressions that meet in places like tattoo parlors and burrito joints. He currently lives in Wildwood with his wife, Jill, and their blended family of 8 children.