Five Easy Mistakes that will Slow Down your New Expression of Church (and How to Avoid Them)

Starting a new expression of church is difficult. It requires risk and might take longer than you think. Mistakes are inevitable but they also provide some of the greatest opportunities for learning.

Fresh expressions of church are not “cookie-cutter” churches. There is no one-size fits all approach. Each new expression needs the right amount of attention to ensure that our structure submits to the Spirit.

How we get there is an art-form with an eye for our context and an ear for the rhythms of our lives as we become attuned to the needs of others and the community around us. Click To Tweet A slow and artful approach might just keep from learning these five lessons the hard way.

Our Journey in The Center Community

My wife and I have helped form an expression of church that was started with and for college students and young adults, many of whom are not likely to be found in any church. We are a deeply relational community that formed slowly over 7-8 years.  Over those years, we tried to listen well. We paid attention to where God was at work. As our relationships developed, “church” began to take shape. But actually naming that reality was a difficult task.  We truly were a ‘fresh expression of church’. We were maturing but didn’t want to mature if that meant becoming something we were not.

Like every form of church, we haven’t arrived. Our unique path means we’ve made some mistakes but it also means we’ve been able to avoid other, more common mistakes. Here are a few we’ve learned

Five Easy Mistakes

Defaulting to old ways of thinking about church

I grew up in church. I love the church. The trouble is that if we’re not careful, those of us who grew up in church will stifle innovation within fresh expressions of church. Let me explain.

As we finally came to the point that we were willing to admit that our organic community was our primary way of experiencing God together, we needed to actually call it what it was–church. It took an out of town guest to name this for us. It was a breakthrough moment. But it also meant that we would eventually lose a few people. Some were uncomfortable with attributing the word ‘church’ to what we had become. A few saw the community as something they did ‘in addition to’ church. Nevertheless, we needed to state plainly that we were maturing as a community.

As we begin stepping out on our own organizationally it meant needing the appropriate documentation, bylaws and articles of incorporation in order to do that.

As the leader, I took it upon myself to consult with people who had experience in such matters and came up with a draft of these ‘boring but important’ organizational documents. Upon reading an early draft of these documents, Gordon and Emma two of our core leaders noticed my tendency to default to language that might have been familiar to a churched person but were just plain unintelligible to those without a church background. Gordon made a helpful comment. “If these bylaws were read by someone with no idea about who we were, could they replicate our forms and our culture just by reading this?”

Technically, there was nothing wrong with the documents. They were theologically and organizationally sound, but the language I used was more reflective of my experience with church rather than our shared experience with church. I focused more on getting the structure right than in articulating the ways in which our community had been nurtured into being by the Spirit. Admittedly this is hard to do with bylaws, but we’re finding a way to document what we do while making sure that it is reflective of our culture.

The same thing happens when we try to plan outreach, worship or discipleship ‘events’. In our case, there was was a time when were so committed to remaining outward-facing in our approach that we had to keep adding events to keep up with the demand. Outreach events with little to no spiritual content meant we had to start gatherings aimed at discipleship. Soon the discipleship gatherings became focused on worship– so then we needed to start more avenues for discipleship.

This all sounds fine and good, but we were fast outpacing our capacity. If you multiply events before you multiply disciples you’re right back to a staff-driven church, which was not our intent. This leads to another mistake we want to avoid.

Multiplying leaders or expressions too quickly

I am an entrepreneurial leader and I relish in the leadership potential of those around me. If I’m not careful, I risk putting my aims and intentions ahead of the people I’m called to journey alongside. It’s easier to ‘grow’ ministries by paying staff to oversee the growth, but if you want to make disciples who make disciples you have to slow down.

Let me give an example. There’s a newlywed couple in our church community who really get what we’re about. They’re co-housing with a friend of theirs in a neighborhood ripe with opportunity. They often host game nights and other gatherings at home with their friends, many of whom are not a part of our core community. To me, this is the perfect place to ‘expand our reach’.

Left to my own devices, I’m prone to overreach. I see potential with everyone, everywhere! I see how what they’re doing can build community and make disciples in their home can multiply out into other spaces as well. But all of this takes time. Although I can see the possibility I’m learning to slow down, to be patient. You can only go at the rate of the people around you otherwise you leave them behind and risk not leading anyone for very long.

Structure (my aims) must submit to the Spirit (discerning where and how God is at work and with whom). Instead of seeing every person, place and  household as a part of a grand strategy or ‘structure’, it’s more important to be led by the Spirit. We want everyone in our community to have their own house in order before they’re called to lead and disciple others.

It’s not always easy to know when leaders are ready. We don’t want to pick fruit before it is ripe, nor do we want to let the fruit languish on the vine. In our community, we want everyone to be on the path toward healing and wholeness before they lead others. Hurt people, hurt people. Healed people, heal people. We, of course, want to embody the latter.

At the start of the COVID-19 Pandemic, we had to shut down our weekly outreach dinner designed to reach college students. Over the next few weeks I,  like many of you, went into strategy mode. I figured out how we could ‘host’ dinners for the same price of our weekly outreach dinner  in groups of 10 or less by purchasing and assembling meal kits ahead of time. Carey and I bought all the supplies for the first distributed dinner and gave a talk about being broken and multiplied.

At the same time, on their own and without any guidance from me, some of our leaders started what they were calling ‘Taco Tuesday’ outside at a local brewery. Soon, Taco Tuesday was reaching 20-30 people and it wasn’t costing us a dime. I quickly shelved my distributed dinner idea in favor of what they were already doing and in a few weeks they launched another Taco Tuesday at our ministry center– with picnic blankets and boxes of carryout that also cost zero dollars.

Not getting permission

I work on the US Fresh Expressions Team. In our tools and training we place great emphasis on how every church can create new forms or ‘fresh expressions’ of church for those unreached by any church. Our hope is that fresh expressions of church will function alongside or in relation to existing churches or denominations. But as with the multiplication of leaders, if done too quickly, we risk the sort of default thinking discussed above.

To avoid administrative and legal pitfalls, it’s important to consider the relational dynamics between ‘old’ and ‘new’ forms of church at every step along the way. The denominational leaders, pastor and other congregational leaders won’t likely be interested in every detail of your fresh expression of church, but you’ll want their permission and their blessing as you’re getting started.

Since our fresh expressions of church started from a denominational campus ministry, it was necessary for us to keep our denominational leadership apprised of our journey. We had seasons where we needed to fulfill denominational requirements while pioneering something new at the same time. By slowing down and staying in relationship, we earned the permission necessary to build something new related to and alongside the campus ministry.

Because of the strength of the relationship, our denominational leaders know how to tell our story. They’ve given valuable guidance along the way. Without patience and permission, there is a tendency for acrimony to develop within denominational or other inherited systems that causes pioneering leaders to go rogue. This only leads church and denominational leadership to become leery of innovation often defaulting to old ways of thinking.

Not following organizational protocols

There is a reason that new forms of church function best in relation to established structures and systems. Without guidance from our denomination, this list would be much longer than it is!  As the fresh expression of church or any other expression of ministry that derives from an established church or organization matures, the guidance and protocols common in established organizations become necessary to follow, particularly when a fresh expression of church involves children or at-risk populations. Safeguarding measures, insurance, background checks for team members and risk-management policies are essential for the credibility and safety of those in any church community.

Going it alone

There is an African proverb that says:  “If you want to go fast, go alone, if you want it to last, go together.” While the tendencies of many pioneering leaders will be to charge ahead, wisdom suggests the power in slowing down to ensure that everyone is on board. Good leaders pay attention to the dynamics of the group as Christian communities learn to submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.

In fresh expressions of church this means paying attention to the new leaders you are developing while leaning in and learning from the experience and structures that have nurtured and sustained the Church throughout history.

The concept of pericoresis, the term often used to describe the ongoing choreography between the Holy Trinity, is a good way to think of the community required in this and any work of ministry. God the Holy Spirit can not exist apart from God the Father or God the Son. Each acknowledges the other showing how the whole Trinity is necessary for a fuller and richer experience of God. While the word perichoresis is a bit of a tongue twister, it’s instructive for how fresh expressions of church work together with what’s been established and what’s yet to be imagined. By each acknowledging the other, those around us gain the possibility of a fuller and richer experience of Christian community.

My friend Alan Hirsch says that the smartest person isn’t in the room, the smartest person is the room. While many forms of church have relied on leadership from a single expert, fresh expressions of church open pathways for shared leadership and participation from everyone involved--from the newest believer to the leadership of a… Click To TweetThis shared DNA helps everyone involved develop and grow.

Now, which one of these are you most likely to learn the hard way? What are you going to do about it?

As you discern which of the five is most important for you and your team, begin listening deeply and discerning in community. As you each acknowledge the other, ask how God might be getting your attention in the process. Reflect on possible pitfalls and opportunities along the way. Begin developing ways to address these issues head on and celebrate that you’re able to anticipate and talk about them before they occur. Pray together as a group for continued wisdom, keep submitting your structure to the Spirit and keep on going together.

Lastly, let us know what part of this post resonated with you and let us know how we can help!

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Gannon Sims

Gannon is the Director of Ministry Formation for Fresh Expressions US and leads the Fresh Expressions efforts of the Baptist General Association of Virginia. He earned the Bachelor of Arts Degree from Baylor University and the Master of Divinity degree from Duke University. Prior to entering seminary, Gannon worked as a legislative aide in the U.S. Senate and as a public affairs officer in the anti-human trafficking office at the U.S. State Department. He enjoys forging partnerships between followers of Jesus from different traditions and has served in various roles at several churches, Baptist, Presbyterian, and Anglican. Gannon is married to Carey, who also is a graduate of Duke Divinity School. Together they work to bring fresh expressions of church to the collegiate community at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, Virginia.

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