Starting a new church can be difficult and expensive, involving paid church leaders and huge start up funds. On the the other hand, the Fresh Expressions movement empowers everyday followers of Jesus to be involved in mission. It provides language and a pathway for the whole people of God—the “priesthood of all believers,” to be in ministry to the community.

For decades, I’ve heard lay people say things like, “So as a committed member, I’m now able to serve on a committee or read liturgy? There’s got to be more!”

For many churchgoers, following Jesus is like playing basketball without a hoop, or soccer without goal posts. You pass the ball, but to no purpose. After a while, you get bored, wander off the court or field, and melt into the crowd walking by. Often, Christians merge into everyday life and become discipled by the world or their politically aligned news network.

The Fresh Expressions way gives focus to our Christian lives, meaning we can find a fuller life in Jesus by cultivating new Christian communities in our everyday spaces and rhythms.

For the past 15 years, in various ministry settings, we’ve been trying to live in a blended ecology of church. Think of this as an ecosystem in which inherited and emerging forms of church live together in a symbiotic relationship.

At one church I helped lead, Wildwood UMC, over the course of 11 years, we had a constellation of a dozen little Christian communities connected to the traditional congregation. I am now also working to help revive St. Marks UMC in Ocala, FL, where we’ve started seven of these new communities since emerging out of the ashes of pandemic lockdown.

In both cases, we employ a very experimental approach, trying stuff, seeing if it works, failing, learning, and adapting. Once several of these missional communities are up and running, it starts to transform the culture of the church. People start to feel empowered. They begin to ask different questions. They often see how their faith in Jesus and their world connect.

The best way to understand this shift can be described as the difference between extrinsic and intrinsic motivation. The church has used extrinsic motivation in harmful ways for two thousand years.

For example, scaring people into a relationship with Jesus through fear of hell. That’s a textbook example of extrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivation involves helping people hear the voice of the Holy Spirit in their own lives.

A “God dream” is an idea that resonates with one’s own unique personality and gifts that can motivate us to change the trajectory of our future. This is the beauty of movements like Fresh Expressions; it plugs into intrinsic motivation by inviting people to gather a group of friends to do something together in a time, space, and rhythm that works for them. There, we gather around Jesus and seek to become church. Intrinsic motivation is entirely more effective than extrinsic motivation in my experience.

For clergy persons like me, this requires a shift in how we lead. I must step out of the role of producer of religious goods and organizational manager and step into the role of noticer, encourager, and guide to the God dreams of others. So, when a culture in which people are listening to God and trying to discern what God might be leading them to start takes root, it generates a lot of ideas! In fact, so many ideas we couldn’t possibly give the time and energy each one deserves. Here’s a framework that has helped me unleash everyday believers for Spirit-empowered multiplication.

The Key Question

The key discernment question: Is this stirring in your soul a good idea or a God idea?

A good idea sounds like something exciting and fun that flows from an inner yearning. But a God idea is a calling the Holy Spirit has placed inside us that could lead to kingdom impact and significance. How can we distinguish the difference?

Here are four questions I use to help in the discernment process.

Have you spent time prayerfully listening?

This is not just about spending time in the prayer closet, although that is always essential. A God idea must be rooted in the place, time, and relationships of our daily lives. The Holy Spirit often moves through our intuitions and feelings, but this requires us to be in a continual state of listening.

We can’t merely have dreams about our community; we must be out in our community, making connections, listening to the hopes, dreams, and fears of others. Do we know of a cool third place where lots of people gather, or do we spend time there ourselves? Have we prayer walked the community with a listening ear, asking God to show us things that might be hiding in plain sight?

Do you have a team?

Jesus doesn’t send the disciples out to be heroic solo leaders; they are always deployed in teams (Lk 10:1). Perhaps we have spent time listening in the community, and the Holy Spirit has impressed a place, a group of people, a communal practice on our hearts – thanks be to God! Now, do we have a team of people who will join us on the journey? Often in the Church, this feels overly complicated and confusing. It’s really this simple:

  • Find a friend (or more) inside or outside the church.
  • Prayerfully discover a simple way to love the people around you.
  • Deepen relationships with them over time.
  • Share your feelings about Christ as part of a fuller life.
  • Encourage those finding faith to form a small Christian community where they are and connect to the wider church.

If a person has an inability to work with others or a track record of leaving damaged relationships in their wake, that could be a warning sign. God is a relational God. God created us to be relational beings. Taking the next hill is not the mission. The relationships are the mission. Communities of kingdom significance are created in the matrix of healthy relationships.

Do you have a “person of peace?”

Jesus instructs us to travel light and leave our baggage behind in order to locate “persons of peace” (Luke 10:6). These are individuals who welcome and invite us into their community or practice, showing us how things work in that environment. They are connectors of people, gateways to relationships, and keepers of knowledge.

Are you considering starting a church in a tattoo parlor or a yoga church? It’s important to partner with those who are already invested in those spaces, like Shawn the tattoo parlor owner or Tracy your yogi friend. Or if you’re planning to invade Moe’s Southwest Grill with Bibles on the tables, it’s important to work with Adrian, the store manager, on how to make that happen in his space.

Without a person of peace, it might be a good idea, but it’s not a God idea.

Do you trust me enough to do this together? 

This is a question from my seat as the clergy person. Basically, I’m discerning if I have the relational credibility with this person to help shape the new Christian community.

A guiding rule for me in all of this is “do no harm.” In a perfect world, every idea would succeed, and every person would be mature enough to start a new Christian community. Unfortunately, I’ve learned through failure that is not always the case. Some people come with bad motives to start a spiritual community. Just scanning the endless examples of cults and the damaged lives they leave behind shows that.

The final question really gets at the character and teachability of the person with the idea. Do we have a sturdy enough relationship so that if I see red flags, they will receive constructive criticism? It’s not that I somehow have superior knowledge, just a different perspective and the ability to notice blind spots they might not see. It’s also my responsibility to protect people from the harm that can be caused by ministry done in the name of Jesus but not in the way of Jesus.

I’m not saying people need to be fully sanctified Christians to begin. I’ve seen people who have followed Jesus for six months start a really exciting Fresh Expression. I believe in “on-the-job training” and a discipleship process that takes place as people start these communities, not before. This is the Jesus way.

The two most important ingredients in this relationship are trust and teachability. If I’m not sure those are there, I’ll spend more time with a person before we launch headlong into planting a church.

Everyone Gets to Play

When you start, grow or invest in a congregation using the Fresh Expressions approach, it’s not just for professional pastors—everyone gets to play!

How do you empower the whole people of God for ministry in your local setting?

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Michael Beck
About the Author

Michael Beck

Michael Beck ( is Director of the Fresh Expressions House of Studies at United Theological Seminary and Director of Fresh Expressions for the United Methodist Church. Michael serves as co-pastor of Wildwood UMC and St. Mark's UMC, Ocala with his wife Jill, where they house a faith-based inpatient treatment center (House of Hope), and a shelter for those experiencing homelessness (Open Arms Village). These are traditional congregations and a network of fresh expressions that gather in tattoo parlors, dog parks, salons, running tracks, community centers, burrito joints, EV charging stations, and digital spaces. Michael earned a Master of Divinity from Asbury Theological Seminary and a Doctorate in Semiotics and Future Studies at Portland Seminary with his mentor Leonard Sweet. He is the author of nine books widely used in the Fresh Expressions movement.