Fresh Expressions, yes! But...

June 20th, 2023

At Ministry Matters, we seek to provide practical and timely resources that help local churches “serve the present age.” We asked Michael Adam Beck, a leading expert on Fresh Expressions to share with us some of the frequently asked questions that emerge in the trainings he leads and how he responds as both a scholar and a practitioner. We hope this helps as you seek to reach new people, in new places, and in new ways!

“Fresh Expressions, yes! But…”  When we conclude our trainings with a time of Q&A, this is a frequent prompt. We get the need for this, we see it in scripture and tradition, but get stuck on the potential challenges and pitfalls. Below I’ve listed sixteen common questions and a brief response to each, procured from over a decade of leading fresh expressions trainings.

1. How do we get started, what do you actually do to begin?
First, start with a team, identify a couple people willing to join you in this work. Second, pray together about what exactly God is asking you to start. Rather than praying for God to bless something you want to start, pray about what God is already doing in the community that you can join into. Third, identify a “person of peace” (Luke 10:6). Someone who is native to the space, practice, community that God is calling you to join. Finally, spend time in the place, with the people you are forming this new community with. If needed, schedule a regular time for your team to just be in the space.

2. What does the first meeting typically look like?
The first meeting can be as diverse as the fresh expressions themselves. Some can start right away with a Jesus story, prayer, or spiritual conversation. Others need to build up slowly towards those elements. You must follow the nudging of the Holy Spirit here. Be attentive to when people open themselves to a spiritual input. It’s best not to show up with an agenda but follow the “three L’s.” Be ready to listenlearn, and love. Prayer and spiritual conversation are a great goal for a first meeting if relational groundwork has been laid in advance.

3. How do we share a Jesus story?
A “Jesus story” is a brief 3-5 minute telling of a story from the life or teaching of Jesus. You could simply read a passage from your phone or Bible then tell the story in your own words. Include why the story is meaningful to you. Then ask the community questions that invite reflection on the story. Here are some questions you might consider: What would this story look like today? What if this Jesus story is true? If it is true, how would it make a difference in my life? What is this Jesus story saying to me? What is one small thing I can change in my daily life as a result of this Jesus story? What is one thing I might do differently? (For more, see How to Tell a Jesus Story).

4. How do you “do discipleship” in these gatherings?
There is not a simple answer to this question. All discipleship is relational discipleship. Growing in grace to more fully love God and neighbor always happens in the context of relationships. One guiding principle is to be a good friend and listener. Start with creating a community of belonging first, belief and behavior come later. It can be helpful to think of discipleship as including three spheres: 

1) Socialization: As Christian and non-Christian live together in community, people become socialized into the faith slowly over time. The most important thing is to live, love, think, and act like Jesus in a compelling way in community with others.

2) Non-Formal Learning: This is modeling behavior and teaching others through conversation. It’s pointing to Jesus in the little ordinary moments. This is where “actions speak louder than words” is really true. It’s not about “teaching on prayer.” It’s about praying in a compelling way where people actually ask, “teach us to pray like that!” 

3) Formal Learning: At some point in the growth of the community, introduce Scripture. It doesn’t need to look like a formal Bible study or Sunday School. Start with a “Jesus story.” Invite people to ask questions. Immerse yourself in the Bible so you can respond to the questions people are actually asking in the community. If you don’t have an answer, confess that. Ask the group to let you do some research and get back. If all else fails, “google it” but look for reputable sources.


5. What do you do to equip laity to lead Fresh Expressions?
There are lots of great resources for people to read and understand fresh expressions. Starting with a book study or sermon series could be helpful (check out A Field Guide to Methodist Fresh Expressions as one option). But the main idea here is “low up-front investment, high ongoing support.” If a lay person has an idea for a fresh expression, the clergy role is to become a midwife to the God-dream. To encourage, guide, support, show up, offer feedback. Relational support is the secret sauce. Checking in with them, help them develop through the ordinary means of grace, prayer, Bible study, worship, conferencing, communion, and so on.

6. What are “persons of peace” how do we find them?
A “person of peace” is a concept drawn from Luke 10:6. Jesus sends the disciples out in teams of no less than two people to find people who exchange welcome and peace. We join them and do life at their table, eating what is set before us. This puts you in the position of guest—not host. You are dependent on the hospitality of the host, not vice versa. This may be someone who lets you meet in their home, office, shop, or restaurant. It may be a native of the practice you are forming community around: yoga, dog walking, fitness, farming, social justice, art, tattooing, or eating burritos! Prayerfully look for these persons throughout your community. 

7. What’s the difference between a mission or outreach and a fresh expression?
Whereas a mission or outreach often entails doing some form of ministry to or for a person or group. A fresh expression is about forming community with a group of people. Many outreaches have the potential to become a fresh expression, but it requires another relational movement. For example, a food pantry is a great outreach. A community dinner with those who come to the food pantry could potentially become church for them.

8. What’s the difference between a small group and a fresh expression?
Whereas a small group is a great discipleship engine for people who are already Christians, a fresh expression is formed with people who are not currently part of any church. (For more see: Fresh Expressions What They Are and What They Are Not).

9. How does this help my inherited church?
The purpose of a fresh expression is not to grow your inherited church in the conventional sense. It is to reach people currently unreached by inherited churches and form Christian community with them where they live. However, congregations that engage in cultivating fresh expressions often experience forms of revitalization. First, it empowers existing church members to focus their discipleship and become missionaries to their normal lives. Second, people who come to faith in fresh expressions do sometimes “bridge-back” into inherited congregations once they form relationships with authentic Christians.  

10. How do you form a team, where do you get volunteers?
You can gather a small group of close friends or church members and begin to explore fresh expressions together. You want at least one other committed Christian on your team. But then, think about people you know in your ordinary life who maybe don’t go to church. Perhaps this is a family member, coworker, or someone you know who participates in a practice alongside you. Invite those people onto your team as well. Ask them if they have ever thought of starting a spiritual community, how can you come alongside them to make the dream a reality. Or share the vision of what you’re trying to do and ask them if they will help co-create it with you. If you don’t have any friends outside the church, pray for God to show you one, spend time outside in the community with people who live there. Don’t limit all your activities to the church compound. 

11. How do you handle the sacraments if lay people are leading? 
Different denominations have different policies on this, so it’s hard to make a universal prescription. Follow the guidelines of your congregation or denomination, but also get creative within those boundaries. Clergy can be present when sacraments are required. Laity can take consecrated elements to shut-ins, they can also take them to be served in fresh expressions. Clergy can be present to assist lay people with baptisms. 

12. What should a worship service look like? How does it become church?
There’s no one-size-fits all answer here. Every fresh expression will worship differently because they are contextual. There is a flow of key elements of a worship experience that can be contextualized. But worship in a tattoo parlor, dog park, or burrito restaurant will each be different. Decide together within the community what that should look like, don’t try to import your own ideas. Let it emerge from the community itself. It becomes church when people start to say “this is my church” “this is my community” “these are my people” “this group gives meaning and purpose to my life.” When it has become church, you will know it.  

13. What if I’m clergy and my congregation is not on board?
It’s always ideal if a church is supportive of this work. However, starting a fresh expression of church does not require congregational buy in. Many clergy have started communities in their free time. Get together a couple people in the congregation who are supportive and start with them. When you begin to see fruit, communicate it back to the congregation. Help them feel connected to the new thing that is emerging. Model the behavior you want to see in the congregation first.

14. What if I’m laity and my clergy is not on board? 
It’s always ideal if you have clergy support. However, lay people are free to start new Christian communities whenever and wherever they decide. This is where laity have an advantage. You are a priest within the “priesthood of all believers.” This was a gift given at your baptism. No one can stop you from starting a fresh expression. Follow the guidelines above, get started, then communicate the amazing thing God is doing back to your pastor. 

15. Can fresh expressions be a way to keep being a church in a disaffiliation desert? 
Many denominations are experiencing schism and splinter groups over various issues. Sometimes congregations decide to leave the denomination that supported and birthed them. People all over the country are using the fresh expressions framework to start little new denominational expressions in the deserts of disaffiliation. Likewise, new denominations can use the fresh expressions movement as a pathway for planting new congregations.

16. I don’t have time to add starting something new into my life. What do I do?
Don’t try to add anything to your already full life. Focus on where you already spend time. Who do you hang out with? What do you do together? What are your hobbies, interests, passions? Where do you work? How do you and coworkers spend time together? Think about how those things could take on deeper spiritual significance. Focus on what you already do rather than adding something new into your schedule.

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