When I was a junior in college, the car I had brought with me from high school gave up its ghost. Driving along one day, the engine decided it had run too long. I was without a vehicle for several months until I mustered enough money to purchase a 1998 Dodge Neon with only 7,000 miles on it for $7,000. That car brought me through several important phases in life until it finally dropped its own engine at 180,000 miles.
At around the same time as I purchased this used vehicle, a new car had come out on the market that was garnering attention, from what appeared to be at the time, a crop of mid-level executives. It was called the PT Cruiser. It was a stylish looking vehicle that had the appearance of an antique car, but with all the modern conveniences. I remember that around the same time as I purchased my used Neon for $7,000 (a brand new Neon was about 10K), a new PT Cruiser was selling for around $50,000. These cars were connected in a way, even though their prices were vastly different – both cars had the exact same engine!
As we have been cultivating the ground for starting of fresh expressions of church here in North America, one of the discoveries we have experienced is that “fresh expressions” is much more like an engine and less like a vehicle. Typically, in church leadership we are looking for the next vehicle for effectiveness, and usually we are in search of whatever is the “PT Cruiser” of the time. Yet, like an automobile, what is a “hot commodity” in one season is different than the next. In the recent past we have seen the growth of the Purpose-Driven Church, the Seeker-Sensitive Church, the Simple Church, the Outward-Focused Church, the Healthy Church, etc. Each of these has played an important role in the fruitfulness of ministry in North America. However, while each of them are their own “vehicle”, almost all of them operate with a similar “engine”- what we might call a “reformation” or “worship-service centric” engine.
In their own ways, most of our vehicles in church life for decades have been run by an engine that answers this question, “How do we get more people to come to our Sunday services?” This is an important and still legitimate question in our current context. Yet, this question alone is insufficient for the mission task of our time. The fresh expressions movement, since its beginnings in the UK, has sought to ask a different question, “what about all the people that are never going to come to church as we know it, no matter how good it may be?” What we are discovering is that this fundamental shift leads to a different engine that can, in fact, be placed into many different vehicles.
As the “engine” of fresh expressions takes further root in the North American context, we are seeing a variety of different vehicles take shape. In addition to the actual starting of hundreds of fresh expressions of church, we are witnessing the start of replicable kinds of fresh expressions. Dinner Churches are starting each week across the country, as people ranging from the disciple to the disenchanted and the apprentice to the atheist are gathering about the table and finding that church can happen there. There are also more and more “churches at play” happening month after month. From mountain churches in the Ski communities of New England to Kayaking communities in Florida, the everyday people of God are coming to discover that they can cultivate expressions of ecclesia in the middle of what they do and love.
As more and more inherited congregations are seeing the fruitfulness of starting multiple fresh expressions of church alongside their existing congregations, we are seeing the development of a whole new understanding of what it means to be the “local” church. Whether it’s in Wildwood Florida, Reading Pennsylvania, or Huntsville Alabama, a “blended ecology” of church is developing where new expressions of church are being formed in an integrated way alongside these churches that have been rooted to a particular community for decades, even centuries. The “engine” of fresh expressions is being put into the vehicle of the whole congregation in some cases, changing the very nature of how a local church works and operates, what staff do, how leaders are developed, etc. In some of them, this new engine is becoming the means of renewal and revitalization and is introducing a whole new path for the vitality of declining, plateaued, and strong congregations alike.
As more and more inherited congregations are seeing the fruitfulness of starting multiple fresh expressions... we are seeing the development of a whole new understanding of what it means to be the “local” church. Click To Tweet
The nature and formation of leaders for the church is another vehicle being driven by this mission-based engine. Communities responsible for the development of ministry leaders (whether they be seminaries, training organizations, denominations, etc.) are recognizing that the skills for leading in a fresh expressions kind of world, or in a congregation moving into the Blended Ecology, are very different than what has come before. Preaching 401 may not be as necessary as multiplication, disciple-making, or even entrepreneurship 201.
Lastly, denominational leaders are finding this new engine to be an important tool in fueling the future of their body. No longer content with managing ongoing systems of decline, in Florida, North Carolina, Virginia, Ohio, Washington, and many places in between, denominational communities are embracing this mission-based driver, encouraging congregations to experiment in new ways as they are inspecting for fruitfulness in new ways, too. While metrics of Sunday attendance are still important, the number of lay leaders engaging in ecclesial forms of mission is also being given attention. They are also authorizing new paths for leadership development and designing training for leaders that can navigate a church for the future and not only the past and present.
All in all, the fresh expressions movement here in North America continues to grow in many subterranean and “close to the ground” sorts of ways. We have been grateful to be part of all these exciting developments in this past season. As we look to 2019, we are focused on being stronger, deeper, and wider as a ministry. Whether it be a Vision Day, Roundtable or Learning Community, our commitment is to make our core training process more fruitful and impactful with each season. In 2018 we witnessed over 100% growth in each of these areas, and while we are delighted that there is “more,” we never want to lose sight of “better.” We are also excited about increasing the extent to which we are working with our current US partners, as we collaborate to capitalize on all the opportunities that this mission-based engine has for their church families. We started 2018 with 6 ongoing partners and we are moving into 2019 with 12 official families of churches working together to bring about a shift in the landscape of ministry in North America. Lastly, we are dedicated to being a faithful steward of all that God is entrusting to us, as the reach of fresh expressions of church in the US widens. Our hope in 2019 is that we would see God open up a door of ministry for us in half of the states in the lower 48.
The last 6 years have been an incredible season of working with church communities from Catholic to Charismatic and Anabaptist to Anglican (and everyone in between) to shift the fundamental default setting of congregational life in the United States from maintenance to mission. The core reality that the fresh expressions movement is substantive theologically, timely missiologically, flexible ecclesiastically, and accessible practically, is carving a path for a whole new way of being church in the 21st century and beyond.
We are honored by the many of you that have supported or partnered in this work in one form or another and we are eager to continue pursuing a church for the future alongside of you.
Working with church leaders to develop new expressions of Christian community is the passion of Chris’s life. In addition to his role as National Director of Fresh Expressions US, he serves with the Baptist General Association of Virginia the area of church planting and serves as the Director & Organizational Architect for Ecclesia, a national network of missional churches. Previously, he served as pastor of New Life Christian Fellowship, a large university congregation in Blacksburg, Virginia. Chris holds a D.Min. in Missional Church Leadership from Fuller Theological Seminary. He lives in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania with wife Rachel, daughter Elliana and son Jase. ￼