Ben Conrad is a college student, engaged in all the normal things a senior in college is facing. Attending classes, writing papers, researching and meeting with professors, working a part time job. But there’s something else Ben is doing… he is leading a couple of fresh expressions initiatives.
As he describes them, they have both unfolded quite differently. It’s worth paying attention to, because Fresh Expressions is always training leaders to be attentive to the context. Even when the same leader is involved, two initiatives may look very different depending on whom the initiative is meant to engage.Fresh Expressions is always training leaders to be attentive to the context. Click To Tweet
One fresh expression initiative emerged in the workplace. As a student worker in the Alumni Office, Ben found that the mission opportunity came to him. The early stages of a fresh expression often take the form of building relationships, but for Ben, the relationships were already a part of his life. These were his co-workers and people with whom he already had regular connection. As he began to listen more deeply, however, he heard them mention their interest in faith conversation in the workplace. As a matter of fact, they had hinted at this before, even suggesting a Bible study, but no one ever took a step to do anything about it. Until Ben became aware. He was a college student, and his co-workers were all older than he was. But Ben was listening, and when he heard their desire was for deeper faith conversation, he got the ball rolling. He quickly emailed a couple of co-workers he knew were Christians, and set up a conversation with them to brainstorm what might be possible. He asked them if they would be interested and would commit to seeding the group, and from there, Ben reached out to other staff members to invite them to a Bible study over lunch.
As this opportunity was coming into view, Ben felt a little surprised and a tinge of pressure as he imagined a college student leading a Bible study with older co-workers. In addition, because he had often experienced Bible studies as imparting Biblical information, he had to wrestle with letting go of that model to begin considering a different way of engaging Scripture. This is where the help of a fresh expression coach opened up new possibilities for facilitating a Bible discussion. As the lunch Bible conversation group gathered for the first time, Ben focused on asking questions and listening rather than crafting an outline and teaching. And that posture opened the group up to real faith exploration together. Today, participants in that group are asking questions they wouldn’t be comfortable asking in a traditional church, life stuff is emerging as they wrestle with Scripture together, and genuine community is forming among co-workers who are going deep with one another.
A typical week looks like this: the group has been working through the Gospel of Mark together. Each week, they will go through 1 or 2 chapters together. As they gather, they will read the chapter/s aloud, each person reading 5 or 6 verses, then passing to the next person as they eat their lunch together. Then, Ben will ask some questions, typically something like:“What is something you’re curious about?” “What stood out to you?” “What didn’t make sense?” “What struck you that you’ve never noticed before?” Each week, Ben prepares a few questions in case the conversation doesn’t get going and he needs to push the group a bit, but he has hardly ever needed to use this planned material. At the end, the group will decide how many chapters for the next week. They will read those chapters on their own throughout the week before the group gathers for lunch and reads it together.
What Ben is discovering as the group continues to deepen and flourish is that the faith conversation and reflections on the weekly readings are moving from the Monday lunch into the work space and everyday conversations of the staff. And in an era in which people often demonize those who don’t share the same perspectives, Ben is seeing a group that is willing to go deep, share very contrasting perspectives of Scripture, listen deeply to one another, and value each other even when they don’t agree. This kind of engagement with Scripture and with one another has helped some “Dones” who have walked away from the church find healing, and helped them find their way back into faith and faith community. Whether this Bible study group will ultimately take on some of the marks of the church community that would lead to mature expression of church is not yet clear, and Ben knows he doesn’t need to force it in that direction. He is just being open to what God is doing in and among the community as God’s Word takes root in their relationships and workplace, and allowing this fresh expression initiative become what it needs to become as the Holy Spirit takes the lead.
Meanwhile, another fresh expression is in the early stages of experimentation. “Puffs and Pontification” is meant for fellow students. One night, a group of students were sitting around a fire having a great conversation, and Ben wondered what it might look like to foster that kind of environment regularly. He likes to smoke a pipe periodically, he knew other students who liked to smoke pipes, and he decided to use that as a jumping off point for connecting and building community. He gave some consideration to whom he could invite…it needed to be students who would like the environment, who would enjoy pipe smoking and outdoor fire-pits, so it would not be an open invitation kind of event. He personally invited several students, and they have had 2 or 3 great evenings together so far.
Because this fresh expression initiative is in the early stages, it is still in the listening, loving and serving, and building community stages of the fresh expression journey. With this group, there is no formal group discipleship happening, but rather an intentional season of fostering deeper community. So, a night of “Puffs and Pontification“ currently looks like this: Everyone brings their own pipe and tobacco, although Ben always brings a spare just in case. A lot of the initial conversations start with pipe smoking. “Common interest is the social lubricant,” Ben observes, so it is easy to foster connection by asking about one another’s pipes and tobacco choice. “But that often leads to learning enough about them that you can discover other commonalities,” he reflects. As the group sits by the fire and “puffs,” Ben often starts asking questions about life that lead to “pontification.” There is no: Let’s talk about Jesus now. It’s just questions about life and school and hopes and dreams and their perspectives on the world. No agenda, no manipulation, just asking questions and listening. While Ben is hoping that it will ultimately go deeper and tilt towards discipleship, he knows that is something that emerges rather than being forced. So he is patient and intentional, as he waits to see what the Spirit will unfold.
He admits that Puffs and Pontification is a bit more challenging, because he has found the hurdle of busy student schedules to be difficult to navigate. The group is finding it hard to find a regular rhythm of connecting, because students have shifting and demanding schedules. For now, as Ben reflects on what he knows about the context…he senses that the beginning of the semester might be easier than later in the semester when the demands get more numerous. So “Puffs and Pontification” will wait until the conclusion of the fall semester, and reconvene early in the spring semester. Ben knows that flexibility is going to be key, and is praying about how to continue pursuing without pressuring.The FX journey- Listening, Loving & Serving, Building Community, Exploring Discipleship, Church Taking Shape- helps make sense of each context & the opportunities for mission that the Spirit might be putting in your path. Click To Tweet
Every fresh expression initiative is going to have its own unique context. The fresh expression journey…Listening, Loving and Serving, Building Community, Exploring Discipleship, Church Taking Shape…helps make sense of each context and the opportunities for mission that the Spirit might be putting in your path. Just like Ben’s fresh expressions journey, sometimes God drops an opportunity in your lap, and sometimes God puts an idea on your heart and invites you to do something with it. The question is: will you join with God for the adventure?
Shannon serves as Director of Training, leading our team of mission strategists and trainers in the development and implementation of the Mission Shaped Ministry course through Pioneer Learning Communities. She is also a pastor on staff with Riverside Church in Sterling, VA, a Church that worships in two languages and engages in several Fresh Expressions of Church. In the last several years, Shannon has been involved with the Presbyterian Church’s New Worshiping Communities initiative, and has directed the coaching network that supports pioneer leaders. Shannon lives in Springfield, VA with her husband Patrick and teenage daughters Catherine and Suzanne.