Heartbursts: The Right Questions About "Fresh Expressions"

May 29th, 2018

Heartbursts: Churches Empathizing with Cultures is a regular column helping leaders plan, implement, and evaluate credible and relevant ministries based on cultural trends. Learn more about the lifestyle groups and leadership styles described below by pre-ordering Thomas Bandy's new book "Sideline Church: Bridging the Chasm between Churches and Cultures."

Today church leaders are urged to think “outside the box.” They should encourage creativity, imagination, and innovation. Fresh expressions — and other forms of customized outreach in unique cultural contexts — are popping up all over America.

Imagine that someone brings a creative idea to your attention as pastor, elder, or staff. Perhaps they even have a team prepared to implement it. They may be seeking financial support, prayer support, moral support, or networking support. What is the first question you will ask? Different kinds of spiritual leaders ask different kinds of questions that are shaped by different contexts.

Caregivers and Facilitators (once described as “Enablers”) always ask the emotional question: Are you passionate about the project? These are among the most common types of traditional clergy, so this is one of the most common questions asked. It is prompted by the memory that many creative ideas are raised by curious but uncommitted people who are unprepared to take personal initiative and expect the church to create a committee to do it. Are you passionate? Are you prepared to do it yourself? If so, go for it.

“Passion” is also the key criterion for many of the lifestyle groups traditional clergy have successfully served. Many of these are older, rural or small town, church members who appreciate amateur singers, for example, who are sincere even if not particularly talented. Some of these are younger, urban or urban core, church adherents who assume their personal enthusiasms match community needs. Unfortunately, passion alone often doesn’t work. Either there are no significant measurable results from the project, or project leaders disappear when they don’t “feel like” doing it anymore.

CEO leaders (often senior pastors of larger resource-size churches) always ask the skills question: Are you competent? It is prompted by the memory that passionate, unaccountable church leaders have often made poor financial choices, inappropriate partnerships, or moral mistakes. Are you competent? Are you ready to be held accountable for measurable results and moral behavior?

“Competence” is also the key criterion for many lifestyle groups CEO’s often lead. Many of these are “boomers,” suburbanites and landed gentry, who are eager to “make a difference” and are on a quest for quality. Unfortunately, many of these are more concerned about process than results and resist any checks on their self-expression. Unfortunately, even “passion” with “competence” often don’t work, as innovative ministries struggle to be self-sustainable and leaders quit if they are criticized.

Discipling and Visionary leaders (roles many clergy aspire to fulfill) always ask the alignment question: Are you on target? It is prompted by the memory that passionate, competent people have too often diverted church resources from the primary goal of the Christian movement and sidetracked the energy of volunteers. Are you on target? Does the innovative project directly link with our purpose as a church?

“Alignment” is also the key question of some “boomers” and many “busters,” exurban and urban pioneers, who believe social change and personal transformation go hand in hand. They are as intentional about doing “good stuff” as they are about multiplying “great leaders." Unfortunately, many of these confuse personal ambitions with faithful service and replicate leaders who are clones of themselves. As the leader goes, so goes the project; when the leader dies, so dies the project.

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Will a creative idea work? Will a fresh expression be successful? Will the investment of your limited resources be rewarded? There is no single “right” question. It depends on the context. The priority for some lifestyle groups is to build healthy relationships, so the first question you ask your project leader tests their passion. The priority for other lifestyle groups is to bring positive change, so the first question you ask your project leader tests their competence. The priority for still other lifestyle groups is to develop their human potential, so the first question you ask your project leader tests their alignment.

Yet there is a greater challenge today. The priority for more and more people spanning all lifestyle groups is less and less about healthy relationships, change management, and self-discovery. After all, they can address these needs in other ways, with other service agencies, through alternative education, and don’t really need a “fresh expression” of the church to do it. The emerging priority is about hope, a hope that overcomes entrapment and leads to ecstasy. 

There are more and more people for whom these are the key priorities. They tend to be multi-cultural or bi-racial, the children of immigrants and the children’s children of slaves. They also include a growing number of young couples with high debts and pre-school aged children with dim futures; older couples with multiple marriages and mixed families, lost in megalopolis; and anyone addicted to anything from opioids to capitalism.

The most extreme Pilgrim and Mentoring leaders today (roles often missing in churches and misunderstood by North American culture) recognize this. If someone comes to them with a creative idea, they ask the Pentecostal question: Are you committed to a spiritual life? It is prompted by the ancient memory that friendships, social change, and self-discovery are just byproducts of spiritual living. They are not goals in themselves, but merely incidents in one’s trek to the Promised Land, New Jerusalem, or whatever metaphor best describes reunion with God. Taking time to bless the publics you pass through is a natural (or perhaps supernatural) expression of spiritual quest. For them, what makes a “fresh expression” fresh is not that it is innovative, but that it is symbolic. It is an eruption of the Holy Spirit akin to tongues of fire and manna in the wilderness. Is this an expression of your spiritual life?

The “Fresh Expressions” movement often claims to address the “Dones” (given up on the church) and the “Nones” (unaffiliated with any religious organization). As long as spiritual leaders, in sympathy with their cultural contexts, are eager to be passionate, competent, aligned to the goal of multiplying disciples, or any combination of the above, then the “Dones” and the “Nones” are the people you want to reach. Ask the right questions; avoid the perils of lifestyle expectations.

A growing number of lifestyle groups in the Global Village are neither “Dones” nor “Nones.” I wish I could come up with another alliteration, but the best I can do is call them “pilgrims.” And they are not really looking for a creative, innovative, or imaginative project led by a passionate, competent, disciple-making leader. They are not looking for a community that meets at least once a month; with a name and a rhythm of hospitality, evangelism, and worship; with a leadership structure and partnership with an existing church; with an aspiration to be “up/holy, in/out, out/apostolic”, and “of/Christian”; or with an intention to become “three-self” in finance, government, and reproduction. They are looking to join a pilgrim band of determined spiritual travelers on its way to the Promised Land.

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