"Real church"

July 25th, 2023

“For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them” 
Matthew 18:20 

At Wildwood UMC the core values are described as the three G’s… Gather, Grow, Go. Gather refers to cultivating deep worshipful Christian communityGrow refers to maturing as disciples who seek to love God and neighbor, or holinessGo refers to mission, or sentness into the world.  

The “go team” is focused primarily on cultivating fresh expressions of church. At one of the church council meetings, the team got up to share the monthly fresh expressions report. 

They shared stories of new people who had never attended church. They shared about new “persons of peace” (Luke 10: 6), those who were welcoming them into their space and life. They told of bad Christians happening to good people, and how those folks were giving church another shot. They updated about the new people who were baptized over the last month (in a decade there were around 200 baptisms at Wildwood, the majority of which took place outside the sanctuary on Sunday mornings). They shared personal testimony of their own inner transformation through being involved. 

The team concluded their energetic presentation, complete with pictures on a PowerPoint. Then, Herb’s hand shot up into the air almost immediately. 

“Yes, Herb, you have a comment or question?” Rev. Jill Beck asked. 

“Well yes I do preacher” Mr. Herb said calmly in his South Carolina southern drawl. “Now what I want to know, when are these people going to come to real church? When will see them here?”

Admittedly, my inner dialogue at that point was not super healthy. I tried to take a deep breath and be responsive not reactive. 

Herb was a long-time church member. He was pretty set in the traditional ways of being church. Rightfully so, this was his mental model for what church is. A mental model formed and reinforced by decades of worshiping in a United Methodist congregation. Herb was notorious for asking troublesome questions, countering the general consensus with different ideas.

With the insight from Heifetz and Linksy’s adaptive leadership fresh in our minds, we remembered our value of “protecting the troublemakers.” Those in the community who ask troublesome questions, the dissenters who can sometimes send the church in new exciting directions if we listen. 

Rather than firing back at Herb with a counterargument, our team tried to be sensitive to his question, to be a non-anxious presence, and empathize with his concern. At the same time we could tell some of our team felt disappointed, like someone just threw a grenade at their wonderful presentation.

Jill responded, “Herb, honestly, most of those folks will never come here. Some of them will, just look around over there at Denise, Kayleigh, and Dwayne” (these were folks who initially connected with us through our fresh expressions and were now part of our core leadership group), “but Herb, I assure you that for the people gathering in these little groups, it is real church for them. They worship Jesus, pray, receive communion, and many of the other things we do here, just in their own way and in their own space. The good news is, they are a part of us! They are a part of our church. And your faithfulness, to bring your prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness, are enabling that to happen.” This is kind of our stock response to this question. One that has been asked many times in many venues.

Perhaps Herb’s question is good for all Methodists to consider? What is real church? Herb’s mental model of church was one primarily formed in the social imaginary of the United States in the 1950’s. What if what we consider to be church has timebound, cultural accretions, that might need to be discarded or reimagined to adapt to the new missional situation? 

 The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church defines the local church as a “community of true believers under the Lordship of Christ.”[1] Perhaps this is a definition that gets down to core DNA? This is a minimal ecclesiology, a community of believers, living in relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ. 

Even better, the greatest description of a minimal ecclesiology was provided by Jesus himself, “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them” (Matthew 18:20). Where people are gathering around the Risen Jesus as a community of love and forgiveness, there is the church.

So, let’s think now about these fresh expressions meeting in homes, dog parks, tattoo parlors, running tracks, Electric Vehicle charging stations, community centers, senior living facilities, pickleball courts, VR headsets, and the list goes on. Are they “real” church?

In Painting with Ashes I suggested that the first Methodist communities were places of embodied hospitality formed with and for outsiders. Those fledgling communities had a couple of key ingredients. They were places of healing that were accessiblesafe, and real. Let’s take a look at these three words.

  • Accessible: The communities were formed in the normal spaces where people gathered and spoke what John Wesley described as “plain truth for plain people.” The only requirement for membership was “a desire to flee the wrath to come” (this language of scaring people into church must be set aside, but the core idea was all were welcome). 
  • Safe: The communities met in smaller, intimate groups. All people from every social status were welcome, and harmful behaviors were not tolerated. 
  • Real: People were invited to come to terms with and express their brokenness. Methodist small groups asked, “How goes it with your soul?” People were invited to name their woundedness in a community of reciprocity and mutual support.

The Wesleyan way of “salvation” is a vision of holistic healing that takes place in community, begins in this life, and continues in the next. It was my own experience of an inherited congregation that was accessible, safe, and real that changed the trajectory of my life…

  • Accessible: My church was close, in my neighborhood, and spoke a common language I could understand, just as Jesus did when he came and made his dwelling among us (John 1:14). 
  • Safe: It was a place of healing, not harm, an environment of grace, an inclusive space where all were welcome and where the “good news” was made available to all (Luke 4:18–19). 
  • Real: The pastor and the people were honest about their real wounds. They processed their pain in uncensored language, with prayer that brought real healing (James 5:16). 

That experience is part of my core motivation to cultivate those kinds of communities for others. The challenge is that many people find the inherited church unappealing, consider that for them: 

  • It is inaccessible. It is not close, not contextual, it meets at a less-than-ideal time, and it speaks a language they don’t understand. 
  • It is unsafe. It is seen as not inclusive, as an atmosphere of judgment rather than grace, and as a place of harm rather than healing. 
  • It is unreal. The pastor and the people seem less than genuine; there is a lack of honesty about real wounds, and therefore real healing is not taking place. 

Spiritual growth takes place in safe conditions where honest stories of woundedness can be shared. Communities that are accessible, safe, and real can allow people to process their trauma in an unfiltered way. Cultivating these healing communities, with people who will most likely never walk into “real” church, can help heal the world. 

Available from Cokesbury

In Fresh Expressions of the Rural Church, Tyler Kleeberger and I suggest these kinds of communities can be “circles that heal.” They make room for every person to play a part in the circle of life. Indeed, rural churches are critical arteries for the whole body of Christ and we offer a host of ways and examples that Fresh Expressions of Church can form in rural communities.

I love the inherited church. It is real for me. It saved my life. It shaped the person that I am today. But I also realize that iteration of church is not connecting with most people today. 

So, if we truly love the inherited church, we must cultivate fresh expressions. We must give away the precious inheritance that was freely given to us. 

The Fresh Expressions movement is not about abandoning traditional church. Inherited congregations like Wildwood can live in a blended ecology of church, in which traditional and emerging forms live together in symbiotic relationship. This relationship gives life to the whole ecosystem. It’s an invitation for the church to reimagine itself for the twenty-first century. Just like the Wesley’s did in the eighteenth century.

It is a call for the church to “get real,” and “serve the present age.”

If I can help you explore Fresh Expressions, please reach out at michaeladambeck.com


[1] The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church 2016, (Nashville, Tennessee: The United Methodist Publishing House, 2016), 147.

comments powered by Disqus