Embracing the Mixed Ecology

How emerging and inherited forms of church belong together

Published
three neighbors talking to eachother
october monthly theme of faith & non-creepy evangelism

Diverse ecosystems thrive when different kinds of organisms share life and energy together in a particular place. In western European nations with a long legacy of state churches such as the U.K., the inherited system of local, geographically based congregations no longer connects with the vast majority of neighbors in a meaningful way. While most of those neighbors don’t mind that a historic church building is part of the cultural landscape, they have no interest in participating in what goes on there.

Over the past few decades, churches in those contexts have developed a vision for a “mixed” or “blended ecology” of inherited and new forms of Christian community coexisting together. The word “inherited” is deliberate. Like any inheritance, traditional forms of institutional church bear a wealth of gifts but also sometimes a complicated legacy. 

Fresh Expressions of church

The Church of England began to encourage what it called “fresh expressions” of church alongside these inherited forms. Rather than assume a one-size-fits-all approach for what Christian community should look like, the Fresh Expressions movement emphasizes a variety of different forms that meet people where they are. For instance, there are Christian communities started among families with young children (“Messy Church”), for people who share hobbies or interests (biker church, runner church, boxing church), within public spaces (café church, dinner church, forest church), or as part of a particular social network (such as families affiliated with a particular school). These expressions are all relatively simple in their practices and far more culturally accessible than traditional churches. Read about a specific example.

Fresh expressions of church begin wherever people are already living life. Christians invest presence and relationship there, initially by listening; then by loving, serving, and building community; and eventually by exploring discipleship with those who are interested in doing so. Rather than trying to get these neighbors back into the structures of the inherited church, new forms of Christian community take shape within neighborhood spaces. This means different things in different contexts and results in a multitude of Christian communities of various sizes and shapes that fit into the diversity of how people live life today. Within a mixed ecology, traditional inherited churches have their place, but not as the only option for reaching people. 

Fresh expressions are connected to the larger church under systems of accountability in a network structure. Fresh expressions are not expected to fit into the old boxes of what church should look like. They carry forward simple, essential Christian practices, such as studying the Bible, prayer, fellowship, and service. Yet they thrive where traditional churches have little credibility or access. Some are birthed out of inherited congregations and might arise on the margins of established church life or within the same geographical space. Others begin from scratch as small groups of leaders initiate expressions of church within their existing social networks or intentionally inhabit community gathering spaces. 

The maternity ward and the hospice ward

In a mixed ecology, there is a symbiotic relationship between inherited and new forms of Christian community. Inherited congregations can initiate and support fresh expressions, and fresh expressions can help bring new learning and vitality to established forms of church. Through all this, we must keep in mind that the church is an organic, living entity. Cycles of death and rebirth are a normal part of the church’s life cycle. We should never assume a particular organizational form of church will endure forever in a particular place, especially given the constant nature of cultural change. As my colleague Michael Binder reminds us, it’s much easier to embrace a full hospice ward in a hospital when the maternity ward is packed and thriving. As some expressions of church die, new forms will arise to take their place in the larger ecology. 

In my experience, far too little energy and attention is dedicated to birthing and nurturing new forms of Christian community that are uniquely designed for today’s world. Most church leaders at both the local and regional (or national) levels spend the vast majority of their time trying to sustain and revitalize inherited forms of institutional church. This is understandable, as these forms are meaningful and precious and tend to bear within them the bulk of the church’s existing membership and resources. But while starting new expressions of church is inherently risky, it is actually far riskier to bet on achieving a transformation of an inherited church that was designed for a different era. The odds of success are much lower. Yet that is what I see mostly taking place.

Your turn

As you consider a fresh expression of the church, good questions to ask would include: 

  • If you were designing a form of church to reach spiritually curious but religiously unaffiliated people in your context, what would it look like? 
  • Where and when would it meet? 
  • What cultural languages would it speak or forms would it take? 
  • What questions would it help people answer? 
  • What practices would it embrace? 
  • How would it stay rooted in the ancient Gospel and make that message come alive in ways people could understand?

  • Dwight Zscheile

    Dwight Zscheile is vice president of innovation and professor of congregational mission and leadership at Luther Seminary. His latest book is Leading Faithful Innovation: Following God into a Hopeful Future (with Michael Binder and Tessa Pinkstaff, Fortress Press, 2023).

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