We may have started out this year’s Fresh Expressions National Gathering talking about the uninhibited growth of sharks in the ocean, but we soon traveled to Ezekiel’s Valley of the Dry Bones. Yes, it was another analogy that gripped us well into Day #2—but this one resonated with most of us pastors and church leaders in a bone-chilling way. As statistics keep showing us a major decrease in the number of church members across most denominations and as we encounter an increasingly unchurched population in the U.S., we can’t help but hear the Lord asking us, too: “Can these dry bones live?” (Ezekiel 37:3b)
“Then he said to me, ‘Prophesy to these bones and say to them, ‘Dry bones, hear the word of the LORD!’” (Ezekiel 37:4)
According to author and director of the 3DM discipleship movement, Jo Saxton, these “dry bones” of the Church can point us in a new direction altogether: “Depending on how you look at it, it’s a massive problem. . . OR it can be an opportunity.” Jo explained how she and her husband had worked together to re-focus the mission of their church and all of its ministries in Sheffield, U.K., toward the inclusion of 3 main directions: upward (God-focused), in (others-focused), and out (world-focused). By including all three elements in every small group of the church, they were able to organically call their city back to God, just by being themselves and being with others. Discipleship is supposed to point to mission, and by intentionally investing in new leaders by meeting, praying, and mentoring them in “huddle groups,” the church can multiply in that mission over time. Jo encouraged the audience not to start a revolution “and tear things up in the Church, instead, look for a slow process that will revolutionize people’s lives. The key is to be defined by our mission, not memories or maintenance.” And that also includes changing our metrics: “Maybe our membership and attendance should count not just those going in, but those going out also.”
“This is what the Sovereign LORD says to these bones: I will make breath enter you, and you will come to life.” (Ezekiel 37:5)
Fresh Expressions UK Team Leader, Bishop Graham Cray gave us the vision for how fresh expressions of church begin, develop, and grow. Describing planters and fresh expressions leaders as “pioneers,” he concentrated on two seemingly simple concepts: follow the Holy Spirit and imitate the Son. “The task of the Spirit in the Church is to create the Church.” The Spirit really isn’t our “mission control;” rather, it’s through listening to Him in the context of the Church and the community that we discern what God may be calling us to do. Bishop Cray showed us how the path from listening leads to loving and serving— that is, being the good news before sharing it. Then we are to build community and explore discipleship—not plan an event. The result of such a Spirit-led endeavor merges discipleship and evangelism while the church takes shape. That allows the Spirit-filled environment to innovate and release creative imagination that is present in a community of God’s people. Imitating the Son requires us, as leaders, to follow suit of the “Word [who] became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood” (John 1:14, The Message). Sometimes, this involves sacrifice of what we consider to be “churchy,” just as a seed must be willing to die to its own comfort in order to produce life where God intends (John 12:24).
Perhaps even abundant life
Bishop Cray closed the day by challenging us to be the ones to change the local church’s default settings to center on “mission and mixed economy.” By reaching beyond the evangelistic range of existing churches, we allow the Spirit to continue to “unfurl Church”—the same Church that spread like wildfire through patient waiting and discernment in the time of Acts. In fact, it was only when the disciples had done everything they knew to do and had been unable to completely fulfill the Great Commission that the Spirit ironically said “Stop.” It was only then that Paul was given a vision of Macedonia, and the doors opened for fulfillment of what Jesus had wanted them to do from the beginning.
Kind of like a Macedonian Fresh Expression, or living water bringing life to dry bones.
Kris Beckert is a licensed minister in the Nazarene Church, a 2nd-year M.Div. student at Wesley Theological Seminary, and discipleship minister at Herndon United Methodist Church in Herndon, Virginia.