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How to Tell the Difference Between a Ministry and a Fresh Expression

Fresh expressions of Church are new forms of Church specifically created for people who aren’t already apart of a local church.

When you hear a story of a new kind of Church, one that looks different than what you already do on Sundays, it’s natural to want to put it in a category.

It’s easy for a church leader to look at a fresh expression and say, “we already have a ministry that does that.” Another natural assumption to make, especially when observing a blended ecology church with various expressions, is to categorize them as “ministries of a local Church.”

Ministries are an essential part of the life of an established Church. Churches of all shapes and size rely on those who provide childcare on Sundays, the age-specific teaching of youth ministry and the camaraderie of men’s and women’s ministries. Countless people have encountered the love of Jesus through “mercy ministries” like food and clothing banks. But these ministries are never intended to become a “church.”

Despite many similarities, a fresh expression of Church is not a “ministry,” and it can do things many ministries never can. So what is the difference, and why does it even matter?

Four Ways Fresh Expressions are Different than Ministries

A Fresh Expression is for People Outside the Established Church

The original Fresh Expressions team in the UK defines fresh expressions of church as “new forms of church that emerge within contemporary culture and engage primarily with those who don’t ‘go to church.'” While a church ministry may engage with those outside the church, that is not always its intent.

For instance, a church’s women’s ministry may engage people both inside and outside a specific congregation. It might even have elements that appeal to people who aren’t yet Christians. But it is likely measured by its ability to engage and disciple women within the community.

This line can get blurry when it comes to “outreaches” and “mercy ministries.” While these types of ministries are meant to serve those outside the church, they often have a secondary purpose—to introduce and invite people to the established church.

There is nothing wrong with these kinds of ministries in principle, and they can be a huge blessing to those in need. However, at their worst, they can become a sort of bait and switch, offering people a service, but hoping that they will just come to the established church.

A fresh expression, on the other hand, emerges from contemporary culture. Instead of inviting people to church, participants experience community and discipleship, and may eventually form a church that is appropriate for their context.

While some of these people find their way to an established Church, that’s not the goal. It can even be a problem! Joining an established church may result in removing people from their natural cultural context, where they can reach serve others who do not have a church.

A Fresh Expression is Always Meant to Become a Church

When does a group of people become a “church”? The question might sound simple, but your answer will vary greatly depending on your tradition or personal conceptions. A fresh expression of Church will likely be small, experimental, simple, and even temporary! Does that mean it’s “real church?”

To answer this question, you need to have a clear ecclesiology. In the West, the Church has held a place of power for centuries, and denominations battled each other over who could “do church right.” These proper churches have a specific theology, governance, sacraments, and more rooted in their tradition. However, in today’s post-Christendom world, a much simpler ecclesiology is needed.

When does a group of people become a 'church'? To answer this question, you need to have a clear ecclesiology. Click To Tweet

Luke Edwards suggests five boundaries that make your experiment a Church: a fresh expression of Church is Incarnational, Contextual, Missional, Formational, and Ecclesial. A church’s ministries, on the other hand, don’t need these five elements, because they exist to help support the broader church.

At first glance, a fresh expression may not seem fully developed enough to be called a “church”—even one with the simple ecclesiology described above. The difference is the intention of their activities.

For instance, if you look at an early-stage fresh expression, you might see participants doing things something like regular prayer walks in a neighborhood. A church ministry might do prayer walks as an element of discipleship for their members. A fresh expression, on the other hand, might host prayer walks in hopes of identifying a context where they should work toward forming a new church. A church ministry might host a meetup for their members around an interest like hiking or swing dancing. A fresh expression might organize a meetup to love and serve a specific group of people who might eventually form into a community and a church.

While the actions of a church ministry and a fresh expression may look similar, a fresh expression is always working toward becoming a church.

Leaders of Fresh Expressions Are Commissioned

Ministries are notorious for their constant need for volunteers. What church hasn’t paraded their Children’s Minister out to beg members to hold babies or the Youth Minister to plead for mentors? And what church member hasn’t slouched in their seat, hoping to avoid it all?

A church’s ministry leader and their volunteers may have a sense of calling to a specific work. It’s even possible that some of these workers are credentialed by their church or denomination to lead a specific ministry. Or they may be well-meaning volunteers who are happy to help. For a church to have thriving ministries, it’s important that their leaders are recognized, supported and equipped.

If this is important for ministry leaders within the established church, its essential for leaders of fresh expressions. These leaders, after all, are being given the sacred responsibility of forming new churches. They need to know that they have an apostolic capacity as well as a meaningful and specific mission that is gifted to them by God and recognized by the saints who have gone before them.

Since Antioch, the Church has commissioned leaders in two ways. First, the Church commissions apostolic leaders with the authority to start new kingdom endeavors. For the first few decades of the Church, it existed primarily in Jerusalem among Jewish believers and slowly spread to nearby areas among similar communities. The stories of the Ethiopian Eunuch and Cornelius show us that God’s Spirit was working beyond the Jewish community, but it wasn’t until the leaders of the Antioch church appointed Barnabas and Paul to purposefully try to start new Christian communities among both Jews and Gentiles. The missionary journeys of Paul that spread the gospel throughout the Roman empire were empowered by the prayers, finances, and recognition of Antioch’s established, inherited church.

Second, as the Church expanded into new territory, the apostolic leader who founded the new Christian community would appoint elders and deacons. These new leaders had functional responsibilities, ensuring that the new community had spiritual leadership and technical administration, especially if the apostolic leader needed to move on. But it also provided a sense of legitimacy and responsibility. This new community was an ekklesia, an assembly of the saints, just like the ones in Jerusalem and Antioch.

Pioneers are known for having “the gift of not fitting in.” They struggle to find their place in the inherited Church. They often have entrepreneurial skills that they struggle to apply in the settled, corporate structure. Or they also have passions that are not shared, ignored- or even rejected- by the established church. The result is that pioneers often struggle with a sense of illegitimacy.

Commissioning has the opposite effect. When a pioneer is commissioned, it creates a permanent time and place where a pioneer can remember that their work is valuable, even essential to the growth and health of the universal Church. Commissioning a pioneer recognizes that their desires are not “crazy ideas,” but hopes and dreams implanted by the Holy Spirit.

Likewise, appointing indigenous leaders to guide a new community provides a sense of authority, legitimacy and maturity. It recognizes that this new community is more than an initiative or a service, but a unique example of the Body of Christ. It demonstrates the reality of the “priesthood of all believers,” that all are equal in the sight of God and the same Spirit of Pentecost empowers them all.

Fresh Expressions Have a Unique Identity

Ministries of a local church often struggle with the extent to which their identity should stand apart from the broader congregation. For instance, some church’s youth ministries might be referred to as “First Church Youth Ministry” while others will create unique branding, with a name and logo. Many find themselves somewhere in the middle.

When a ministry is not differentiated from the broader church it can often lead to mixed messages, split loyalties, and even guilt and shame. Ministry leaders, many of them volunteers, find themselves stretched thin, feeling required to serve in their ministry, attend “big church” and participate in Bible Studies, small groups and other functions of the broader church.

This lack of differentiation can also hamper the ministry’s capacity to serve the people at whom it is targeted. For instance, a family with young children might attend VBS, where their children are clearly engaged. But the same family might not be able to sit through a Sunday gathering. Instead of building on the new relationship, the VBS experience remains a standalone service, not unlike the daycares, summer camps and sporting events in which they participate. A fresh expression specifically for young families, on the other hand, can organize in ways that engage and disciple them, and provide a community where they can fully participate.

While a fresh expression may be tethered to a sending church, its identity is never in question. A fresh expression’s identity is unique, based on the sense of calling that the pioneer has received from the Holy Spirit and the needs of the community to which they are called. A fresh expression of Church is not for the attendees of some larger organization, it is for the subculture or neighborhood that it has been targeted at. The responsibility of the leaders of this new church is to the new church. Participants should recognize the new community as their church and feel no sense of bait-and-switch. This expression of Church, no matter how big or small, is their church.

While a fresh expression may be tethered to a sending church, its identity is unique, based on the sense of calling that the pioneer has received from the Holy Spirit & the needs of their community. Click To Tweet

What if They Were Just Called “Pastors” and “Churches?”

Perhaps the difference between ministries and fresh expressions can be boiled down to this: fresh expressions are churches, with founding apostolic leaders and appointed elders or pastors. All churches need some ministries to thrive but imagine what might happen if key leaders or robust ministries were given permission to be pastors and churches?

Capable volunteers, perhaps held back by a lack of authority, become emboldened, pioneering leaders. Robust ministries, recognized for their capacity to reach different people and leading them to faith, are given legitimacy.

The following questions will help you to release these people and ministries to experience their full potential.

  1. Who in your church has the “gift of not fitting in?” Rather than plug them into an existing spot, what can you do to empower them?
  2. Are there any ministries that the entire church is dependent on? How can you clarify the difference between internal ministries and fresh expressions of Church?
  3. Review the ministries of your church. Are any of them already highly independent? How might you help them move toward being a fuller expression of Church?
  4. Consider the needs of an internal ministry versus a fresh expression tethered to a local church. How are you providing each group the resources, training and authority they need?
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Chris Morton

Chris works across the organization to help get new projects off the ground and into the world. He also helps to manage our email, social media and other digital communications. He helped plant Austin Mustard Seed, where he served for five years as Community Developer. He also works with several other non-profits and businesses to tell their story with content and social media. In 2012, he graduated from Fuller Theological Seminary with a M.A. in Global Leadership. He lives in Austin, Texas with his wife Laura.

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