I was recently working with one of our districts in the Florida Conference of The United Methodist Church to set up a district fresh expressions team. I was sharing about how the fresh expressions movement, alongside existing congregations, helps Methodists to become “more vile” again. One of the folks on that team looked at me puzzled and said, “you mean vital again right?”
No, I actually mean “vile,” in fact, most local churches will never truly be able to become more vital unless they are first willing to become more vile.
On April 2, 1739, John Wesley went to a field just outside what was then the city limits of Bristol, England. There he tried this missional innovation called field preaching. Thousands of people showed up, many of whom who had no connection with a church. Later Wesley wrote in his journal,
“At four in the afternoon I submitted to be more vile, and proclaimed in the highways the glad tidings of salvation…” John Wesley April 2, 1739 (journal entry).
Despite the derision of his many critics, most of whom were fellow clergy persons, Wesley took up this vile practice of field preaching, and designed an apostolic discipleship process. Wesley reached the people that were not connecting with the established church, taking it to the fields, miner camps, and debtors’ prisons. He connected new believers whose only requirement for membership in the societies was a “desire to flee the wrath to come” to small gatherings of people who journeyed on in the life of grace together (societies, classes, bands). Wesley, a faithful Anglican priest until the day he died, sustained a tether back to the inherited church and encouraged people to participate fully in its life.
A Good Old Way
Speaking of a “‘good old way’ that has been reborn in the church today” Michael Moynagh and Philip Harold mention Wesley and the early Methodist renewal movement as an example of new contextual ecclesial communities. Methodism itself was the fresh expressions movement of its day. It seems that these missional waves of the Spirit are always breaking on the shore of history. There have been many of these waves, of which Methodism is only one example. Today, the Spirit is using the fresh expressions movement to breathe new life into many denominations and non-denominations.
After all, resurrection is a remix. God’s way of making “all things new” is not the same as our infatuation with brand-spanking newness and waste. God takes the existing material and reworks it. Like a potter at the wheel, God takes what’s marred and makes something new. God takes fragmented lives and reworks them into a mosaic of grace. Resurrection is about taking the dead and decaying, and through a marvelous work of renewal making it eternally alive again. God is in the process of making the entire cosmos new in this way (Romans 8:18-23).
H. Richard Niebuhr once said,
“The great Christian revolutions come not by the discovery of something that was not known before. They happen when someone takes radically something that was already there.”
I am quite aware of the danger of both sentimentalism and presentism here. Charles Taylor in A Secular Age says,
“most epochs posit a golden age somewhere in the past; and sometimes this is seen as something which can, in favorable circumstances, be recovered.”
I realize that there has never really been a “golden age of Christianity.” The New Testament decribes divisions among the disciples over greatness (Lk 22:34), in the Book of Acts we see different factions of the faith having disputes right in the genesis of the movement (Acts 6:1), and Paul’s letter to those crazy Corinthians deals at multiple points with the dysfunction of the early church.
While I understand there is no “golden age” I do believe there are essential ingredients that make the church the church, and if we can strip down to those essentials, we have a better chance at engaging the new missional frontier.
Some of the greatest contributions to the decline of the church have been of our own making, self-inflicted wounds. As an institution, the church has largely failed to adapt to the changing landscape around us. The underlying narratives that undergird the institution have been corrupted and lost under countless sedimentary layers of bureaucracy and irrelevant structures. The church in the West has become a kind of time capsule, preserving the artifacts and narratives of a specific brand of Eurotribal Christianity. The problem is, what we have preserved in that time capsule consists of some fundamentally misguided content. The Christendom iteration of the church is not exactly the right mode for all cultures and all times.
What if we could recover the essential pieces of who we are and remix those in a powerful way so that we could sustain the institution while recovering our movemental nature? What if inherited modes of church, can operate together in a life-giving way with these emerging modes?
This is what the fresh expressions movement is about. It is not the next newfangled thing a bishop is asking us to do. For people like myself in the Methodist tradition, this is a movement of the Holy Spirit, a new iteration of Methodists taking it to the fields again. It enables us to be church with people who will never come to our Sunday morning services. It is an awakening of the core identity of who we are as the people called Methodists. It is not in competition with your traditional activities as a local congregation, it is a compliment.
Furthermore, it’s not only for large churches with lots of staff and resources. In fact, in England, most fresh expressions are started by smaller congregations. In Mission-Shaped and Rural, Sally Gaze observes that not only are small rural churches cultivating fresh expressions, but the inherited congregations are taking on different forms of revitalization as well.
While the purpose of fresh expressions is to reach not-yet-Christians and be church with them where they are—churches that plant fresh expressions are experiencing revitalization. In other words, vileness leads to vitalness.
Let’s make Methodism vile again! Perhaps all the branches of the Christian family tree could use a little vileness. Fresh Expressions provides a vehicle for that work.
 Moynagh, Michael, and Philip Harrold. Church for Every Context: An Introduction to Theology and Practice. London, UK: SCM Press, 2012. Pp. 43-45
 Quoted in, Downing, Crystal. Changing Signs of Truth: A Christian Introduction to the Semiotics of Communication. Downers Grove, Ill: IVP Academic., 2012. P. 45.
 Gaze, Sally. Mission-shaped and Rural: Growing Churches in the Countryside. London: Church House Publishing, 2006. P. xviii
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.