It’s no surprise to any church leader (or most members for that matter) that, regardless of denomination, the church in the western world is undergoing transitions of seismic proportion, the likes of which have not been felt in several hundred years. The challenges are twofold. They are external (rooted in the cultural shifts at large) and internal (rooted in the churches and denominational structures).

Externally, the rate of change accelerated by the introduction of new technology, globalization, new forms and patterns of organizational structure are not congruent with the systems under which most established churches and denominations operate.  Internally, the church is aging and the structures that have given so much stability the past are aging too. Many consider the church to be part of a bygone era.

This seems like a grim reality that gives little if any hope for the future apart from the fact that God has an inexhaustible mission for this world through the Church—especially the church in it’s current established forms.

At its heart, Fresh Expressions is about two things:

  • proclaiming that the established church has a critical, if not central, role to play in God’s mission in our time
  • empowering and equipping God’s people in every congregation to develop creative expressions of church to reach the increasing diversity of our society

Some readers will be skeptical of our claim that the established church can play such a critical part, believing that the best way forward comes solely from the formation of new churches. Fresh Expressions believes that God is moving greatly through new churches but without involving the established church in a variety of ways, our ability to engage our shifting culture will fall increasingly short. Here’s why:

1.Now, and in the foreseeable future, the majority of all Christians (and therefore of all God’s potential missionaries) will still be found in existing, denominationally connected, congregations.

If we neglect the missionary potential of this group of people, we will be sorely lacking.  Furthermore, if the only pathway we give church members to support new expressions of church is by asking them to pray or to give money, or to leave their congregation to join a new church plant, many will be left uninspired and unengaged.

2. We are living in a Post-Christian age. More and more people have no context for the ‘old old story’ so the form of ministry needed to reach into genuinely unreached pockets of people—and the length of time it takes to build the trust needed to reach them—will be vastly different than anything we have known in our lifetime. In some parts of the country, this reality is already at play. In these places, those in the established church are learning that the shape of the 21st century church may not always fit the established way of organizing ‘church’.

This creates a great dilemma for the congregation seeking a genuinely missionary approach. What garners the attention of Christians who are looking for a church home is largely unrelated to the attention of unchurched or de-churched people who aren’t looking. This makes it equally difficult for many church planting and church-growth endeavors because the desire to reach new groups of people doesn’t always match the patient resolve required to reach these new people. This happens because every ‘church’ must at once be missional and institutional in order to be sustainable.

Church growth and revitalization tactics often fall short because they fail to consider the cultural particularities of the established church. Church plants often fail to reach significant portions of non-Christians because they seldom have the financial latitude required from their Christian sponsors to fully understand and integrate into a non-Christian culture.

This is why we need Fresh Expressions of church alongside existing churches. Fresh Expressions is designed to help people in established churches understand their context. Because Fresh Expressions works within a support structure that established churches can provide, they are able to release the creativity of entrepreneurial clergy and laity to reach the culture with the blessing and support of the establishment/institution.

Fresh Expressions encourages collaboration between the clergy and laity. There is no expectation for church members to move their membership from one church in order to begin a new expression of church. Fresh expressions are designed to maintain a link with the established expression so that the one can call the other ‘church’.

If every existing congregation (and this means new congregations too) would seed 1 or 2 Fresh Expressions with 5 or 6 people from their congregation, each of these expressions would conceivably reach 25/30 people outside the congregation. If there were no expectation for these new people to join the existing structure of the sponsoring church, we would have a genuine missionary movement on our hands.

In a day when it seems popular to question the future of the church, let’s step out and trust that our changing culture is actually good news for Christ’s community.

Will you join us?

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Chris Backert
About the Author

Chris Backert

Working with church leaders to develop new expressions of Christian community is the passion of Chris’s life. In addition to his role as National Director of Fresh Expressions US, he serves with the Baptist General Association of Virginia the area of church planting and serves as the Director & Organizational Architect for Ecclesia, a national network of missional churches. Previously, he served as pastor of New Life Christian Fellowship, a large university congregation in Blacksburg, Virginia. Chris holds a D.Min. in Missional Church Leadership from Fuller Theological Seminary. He lives in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania with wife Rachel, daughter Elliana and son Jase.