Somewhere in a small Florida town, a dog named Rocky plays and sniffs around the park while his owner, 70-year-old Larry, chats with friends. They’re talking about football – the weather – and Jesus. This is Paws of Praise, a dog park-based offshoot of Wildwood United Methodist Church. The men share stories, ask questions about the Bible, and pray together.
This is church in its truest form.
The Shifting Landscape of Church Ecology: Forms of Mini-Churches on the Rise
For more and more Christians across the world, ideas around what church can and should look like are shifting. Here in the States, mini-churches are popping up all over the place – from yoga studios to Tex-Mex restaurants – led by passionate lay people and sustained in community.
“When we think of sustainability in the church, it’s like we want to build a building. It’s that Christendom mindset: let’s build the building! It’ll be here 1500 years later. But what we’re talking about now is different – it’s sustainability through multiplication, disciples coming to faith and then taking that faith and going to make more disciples.“
The Pivot Podcast recently featured Dr. Michael Adam Beck, a missional innovator, author, and professor who could be considered the American expert on Fresh Expressions.
Let’s define it: What ARE Fresh Expressions exactly? Essentially, we’re just talking about those creative ways to take church outside of a building’s walls and into the everyday lives of believers. Check out this more thorough description.
The Director of the Fresh Expressions House of Studies at United Theological Studies and the Director of Remissioning for the Fresh Expressions North America movement, Michael is also the co-pastor of St. Mark’s United Methodist Church with his wife, Jill. He’s authored nine of what his wife calls “church nerd” books, primarily focused on Fresh Expressions and missional innovation (you can find a partial list here). He previously pastored Wildwood United Methodist Church – Larry, the dog owner mentioned above, was a part of his congregation. Larry’s story is just one example of the many micro-communities that bubbled up during Michael’s time in Wildwood.
Other forms of Fresh Expressions Michael has started includes:
- A little Saturday morning breakfast church for kids at the (formerly in disrepair) Martin Luther King Jr. Center – think arts and crafts, a Jesus story or two, a little outdoor play, and some fellowship time for parents!
- Trap Stars for Jesus was created for people stuck in a life of selling drugs and looking for alternative ways to make a living. Sometimes, when they gather, they talk about Jesus – and other times, they focus on gaining practical skills for legitimate business ownership.
- Tattoo Parlor Church has been going strong for eleven years now! “I’m running out of places to go get more tattoos,” Michael says.
- Taste of Grace is a dinner church formed together with a couple partnering congregations, including Pastor Taylor’s African American Pentecostal church plant, God’s Glory Ministries. The congregations live together as one church – a particularly inspiring story considering the turbulent history and lingering racism and segregation of the sundown town of Wildwood.
- Participants in the runner’s church, Church 3.1, pray and share Jesus stories before running a 5K together!
- Burritos and Bibles involves, unsurprisingly, Bibles and burritos – and has been running happily for ten years.
From Listening to Discipleship: The Loving First Journey Framework
Michael is emphatic that these creative micro-communities and church offshoots occur organically when congregation members are inspired, passionate – and given the tools they need! One of the first helpful frameworks Michael points to for getting the ball rolling? The Loving First Journey.
What is the Loving First Journey?
It’s an instrumental first-step process for Fresh Expressions of the church, learned from the mission field, that begins with:
- Listening – to God and to the community, in order to identify needs and pain points.
- Loving and serving – use what you hear to love and serve the community best!
- Building community – love and service will build those relationships over time.
- Exploring discipleship – share the Gospel and focus the work.
- Letting the church take shape – dive into the traditional activities of prayer, Bible study, worship, and baptism.
- Doing it again – as community members mature in their journey, they may then feel an intrinsic motivation to go create yet another little Christian community themselves, following the same pattern, in some corner of their own lives!
“It’s just that journey of listening, loving and serving, building relationships, exploring discipleship, a church taking shape, and then repeat!”
Ministry leaders are meant to serve as cheerleaders and encouragers for their laity, and that starts with discerning their individual community members’ intrinsic motivations by asking good questions – “What is the Holy Spirit calling you to? Who do you spend time with? Where do you go and what do you do? How could you think of that community as a little form of church?” During Bible studies in particular (which he describes as almost “underground seminary work”),
The Power of Storytelling: Sharing Jesus Stories and Your Personal Experience of God’s Grace
Michael makes a point to introduce his congregation members to theological concepts as well as practical tools and processes for bringing their own Fresh Expressions of church into new areas of their community and life:
- Tell a Jesus story: Telling Jesus stories is one of the simplest and most powerful tools to bring to a community member interested in starting a fresh expression of church.
Let’s define it: What is a Jesus story? Michael defines this as a five-minute story from Jesus’ life, or a teaching of his, that’s particularly significant to the person sharing, and a bit of their own personal testimony that goes along with it. The person speaking can then pose a couple questions to get a conversation going.
- Share your testimony: Sharing testimony goes hand in hand with telling Jesus stories. Michael points to his own personal draw to the origins of the Methodist movement – “a heart, strangely warmed” – with its emphasis on a personal, shareable experience of God’s grace. The problem, in his opinion, is when community members believe they have a “boring” testimony – a life spent in the church, with no dramatic events or revelations to report. Michael encourages them to dig deeper, finding those little moments and pain points when they felt the Holy Spirit reach in and touch their lives. Everyone, he assures them, has a testimony to share.
- Learn the art of telling a good story: Continuing on the theme of story, Michael emphasizes the power of simple narrative skills while creating Fresh Expressions of church – he starts by simply having his teams read Frog and Toad out loud together! With the wholesome children’s story as a backdrop, they can then discuss the basics of voice and facial expression and other essentials of good storytelling before turning those skills to the sharing of Scripture and testimony.
Another key skill for those interested in exploring a Fresh Expression of church?
Knowing what questions to ask yourself. Get a team together, pray, get a whiteboard or sticky notes ready.
Here’s questions to ask yourself when looking to start a Fresh Expressions micro-community:
- Is there a group of people in our community we want to serve?
- Is there a third place – a coffee shop, a dog park, a community center – where we could go to connect with people and hear stories?
- Is there a person of peace we know who we could connect with on this? Someone who God might be calling into deeper relationship with?
- Is there a practice, something we like to do together that we would do even if no one else came, that we could invest our time in and bring those spiritual elements to?
Start with low-risk, small-scale experiments, Michael advises.
Making church-building complicated, Michael says, is to do it a disservice. “I think Jesus made the church so easy that any follower, any disciple, could cultivate more disciples and create new Christian communities. I think to be faithful to Jesus’s design, it needs to be that simple.”
“This is the most hopeful, explosive part of the movement: that it really does unleash the whole people of God into ministry.”
The Lifecycle of Fresh Expressions of the Church
While some Fresh Expressions ebb and flow over time – Michael points to a gathering of soccer parents who, ultimately, stopped being soccer parents at a certain point – others can continue on for years! (Think back to the tattoo parlor and Bibles and Burritos communities mentioned earlier.) Regardless of when and how these efforts end, celebration is necessary.
A particular Fresh Expression may fail spectacularly, or even be dead upon arrival, or another may momentarily swell with successes before fading out.
In so many traditional congregations, Michael observes, there is a heaviness around failure – a knowledge that one wrong move could mean the congregation could be gone in a year. That’s a hard place to innovate from, so he tries to honor failure, celebrate failure, and even point to the Bible as a story of human beings failing forward with God. In his own teams, they even have a counterintuitive practice: when someone brings a failure to the group, they receive a standing ovation.
“Celebrate them, give them a good funeral, celebrate the fruit of any people who came to Christ in that, and then go and start new things.”
Edwin Friedman talks about the trap of imaginative gridlock – of attempting the same thing over and over without varying your patterns. Teams interested in creating Fresh Expressions of church really have to play, experiment, and let themselves fail to get out of that gridlock!
There is, however, a broader, ongoing challenge for these Christian micro-communities in the U.S.: the tension between the inherited mental model of church, and this new, Fresh Expressions model.
People really have to stretch their minds about what counts as church. Michael recommends approaching this tension by caring for the Fresh Expression, showing the folks in the inherited system the fruit of it, and helping them stay connected and invested in it. They may not physically show up for it; but they’ll be praying and resourcing it, and even restructuring to support it.
“The UK is 10-20 years ahead of us in terms of the decline of Christendom, really, but they’re also ahead of us in this very missional way of thinking. They’ve made the mixed ecology a major expectation of their ecclesiology. We’ll see that here in North America too – we’ll see more churches, but smaller ones, different churches that are connected back to inherited churches. The blended ecology will be the norm.”