Fresh Expressions in a Traditional Church.

Take a look around the majority of traditional, mainline denominational church and what do you see?  Empty pews, empty classrooms, empty bank accounts; a skeleton congregation compared to the good old days.  The reality of decline is felt on so many levels.  Survival has become the goal.

If we are willing, we can do better than that. It will mean change and change is hard, resisted and unwanted.  In Alan Deutschman’s book Change or Die it is detailed that if given this stark choice of Change or Die; 90% of people choose to die.

Introducing a traditional congregation to the Fresh Expressions mission is very doable but it does take some thought and may even be painful at first.  There is a process or path to walk that can lead to new life and an energized Gospel mission.  Here are some essential steps.  

The Diagnosis

People have to be convinced that change is necessary.  Facing the hard facts of decline is never easy and very sobering.  While entertaining a call to churches a few years back I read some 75-100 profiles of congregations looking for a priest. All of them in one way or another said they wanted someone who could bring in young families and children.  Don’t we all!  We can’t keep looking backward to what was. The world has changed and it calls for a necessary adaptation to the new realities we face.   What worked 20 or 30 years ago in terms of church growth will not work today. 

Some congregations need to get what they call in recovery, the gift of desperation realizing if they do not recapture the church’s mission they will soon disappear. An unsustainable operation will be the demise; bills cannot be paid, staff will be part-time then volunteer, deferred maintenance will cause buildings to crumble.  The pandemic has forced us to come to grips with a changed world and how we must change our tactics as we navigate the challenging landscape before us.

This is the first and hard step as it begins telling a congregation that their current condition is terminal. It is a moment full of shock, grief and often denial as they hear a death sentence.  We have to add immediately there is a treatment, there is hope and the medicine, the prescription to bring about health, wholeness and new life is a Fresh Expressions mission.  Coming to grips with this reality is hard but once this hurdle is cleared progress can be made to a new era of meaning, purpose and vitality.

The Desire

The mission of the church is compelling. We begin as we pray with our eyes open, seeing the pain, lostness, darkness; the depraved manner in which people live.  Our hearts need to break and we need to embrace a godly burden for our neighbors.  God can give us divine empathy to understand and see the world from a secular perspective and enter those places of darkness with Kingdom light and life. 

Too often we can live in what I have termed as The Christian Ghetto. We can get so insulated in our Christian subculture that we do not see and more so we do not understand the world around us.

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As Christendom continues its decline, we must recapture this incarnational posture of entering a person’s context authentically, motivated by love and compassion.  This is what Jesus did over and over again throughout the Gospels; He was with people.  (The Woman at the Well, Zacchaeus, the in-firmed, the poor, the foreigners, etc.) 

Being from an Anglican tradition I especially love this quote from Archbishop of Canterbury William Temple; The Church is the only society that exists for the benefit of those who are not its members.  We are here as a part of a rescue mission to see people come in from the cold and be warmed by the love of Christ. 

We need to see the world around us. We need to look out for our neighbors who are struggling on so many levels.

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The Doable Mission

Once we see the need for change and understand the WHY of our mission the call becomes very doable.  As we pay attention to context, we can begin to employ strategies that will build community with the people around us.  Essentially the church is: a faith community; doing life together; with Kingdom purpose. 

The what may vary and that is where Fresh Expressions comes in to model multitudes of examples, a wide variety faith communities and how they form. Here are a couple examples from my context…

A few months ago, a new member of the congregation I serve, after hearing the call to new forms of mission in many sermons, asked me about starting a Writer’s Group.  She is an English Professor at a local state college and is publishing her first novel as she completes her dissertation. We formed the Cedar Key Writer’s Guild which would gather people who had an interest in writing; fiction, non-fiction, poetry, etc. and be a place to encourage, support, discuss and mine literary endeavors. We threw an invitation into the community and at our first meeting had 7 people show up, 3 of which had no connection to church or even faith.  We’ve been building community, getting to know one another and in the midst there have been some significant moments and conversations around faith. 

We are launching a Community Dinner.  In our traditional context we are doing this in a themed manner around St. Nicholas Day (December 6th in the church calendar)  This is a Dinner Church model (www.dinnerchurch.com) and on one level is something we already know how to do; churches can be famous for a pot-luck meal.  We are doing so with the intention of connecting with our neighborhood and especially those who really have no sense of community in our little town. This will be an inter-generational event with folks of all ages and is designed to share faith through Jesus Stories from the Gospels. Our first one, we will tell the story of the real St. Nicholas, a Bishop in the early church and was known for his generosity and Christ-like compassion. From this saint eventually comes our modern day Santa Claus.

A Fresh Expression can form anywhere and around anything. Wherever people gather there is an opportunity to engage and connect authentically in friendship. Authenticity is central.  I’ve connected with people in a Jeep Club – people who are enthusiast about Jeep Wranglers.  There is a whole subculture, community of Jeep owners.   I can do this because I like them, am an enthusiastic Jeep Wrangler owner.  I did not have to borrow or rent a jeep or pretend as I am passionate about my 4-wheel drive Wrangler. It is an authentic engagement.

Not all attempts will be successful. Like the Parable of the Sower (Matthew 13) we throw a lot of seed and in that account only 25% of the effort yields fruit.

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There is growth in the other 75% and that needs to count for something.  Even in what looks like failure there are lessons to be learned in the attempt of scattering seed.  

The Delightful and Daring Difference

We can play it safe, keep trying in our old fashioned and unproductive efforts.   We can however dare something different. What do we have to lose? A Fresh Expressions is where lost people get found.  Like Isaiah 61 declares about the Ministry of the Messiah and Jesus claims this or himself in Luke 4 – The Spirit descends and; brokenhearted folks are mended, Prisoners and captives are set free, those who mourn and grieve are comforted, good news is declared,  healing takes place and in all these things the world changes!

Sadly there are a lot of churches where this missional presence is not happening. The good news for us is it can if we are willing to listen, have empathy, engage, interact, love and serve, connect and share – lives are changed.   In this context people can discover God who wants to be reconciled with them.  The church, that is the people of God can discover a life giving, fruitful mission that changes the world one life at a time.

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Jon Davis
About the Author

Jon Davis

The Rev. Jon Davis PhD is an Episcopal Priest, church planter, teacher, worship leader. He is on staff with Fresh Expressions as a mission strategist and is launching some Fresh Expression gatherings through the Abbey Mission in a NE suburb of Orlando.   jon@freshexpressions.com