Revitalizing the Church: Exploring Fresh Expressions for Authentic Connection in a Regional Church System

Embodying the Jesus Story is key for cultivating a Mixed Ecology to create community engagement in a Regional Church System.

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Faith+Lead

Today’s decline in traditional forms of worship and fellowship calls for a new approach to engaging with neighbors and sharing the message of Jesus. One exciting response that’s emerging is Fresh Expressions, a transformative concept that breathes life into the Church and connects people in ways that extend beyond conventional pews. 

In a compelling conversation on the Pivot Podcast, hosts Terri and Dee sit down with Calla Gilson, a passionate advocate for Fresh Expressions and a staff member at the Northwestern Ohio Synod. Together, they dive into the power of cultivating a mixed ecology within the regional church system, bridging the gap between faith and everyday life.

Northwestern Ohio Synod community practicing social distancing to celebrate 2020 Diakonia graduates and instructors

[Photo Credit: Northwestern Ohio Synod – Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, members of the NWOS community practice social distancing to celebrate the 2020 Diakonia graduates and the instructors who mentored and guided them along the way.]

Lessons from Introspection: The Unexpected Blessings of COVID

The pandemic’s disruptive force presented an unexpected blessing for the Northwestern Ohio Synod. When Calla joined the synod in April 2020, she witnessed a unique opportunity for church and ministry leaders worldwide: a chance to reevaluate and reinvent. 

“From the very beginning of my walk with the staff of the Northwestern Ohio Synod, we were trying to find a way when it seemed that there was no way, when everything as we had known it – kind of was gone.”

The pandemic acted as an incubator for some of the region’s most valuable learnings and initiatives that emerged, inviting a return to the roots of faith and rediscovering the simplicity of the Jesus story. 

The forced pause enabled the synod to evaluate the patterns and traditions no longer serving their rural community. Amidst the chaos, they also found solace and inspiration in the foundational roots of faith, realizing that the simplicity of the Jesus story should take precedence over all else. For Calla’s synod, the forced pause of the pandemic gave them the opportunity to reflect on their historically agrarian communities’ rhythms, honoring and returning to their roots in some ways. 

For instance, while tackling the task of creating new prayers specifically for farmers and times of planting, blessings for just that purpose were found in the archives, reinforcing the idea that communities of faith truly do cycle through rhythms and norms over time.

Returning to the Essence: Rediscovering the Transformative Power of the Jesus Story

During this pandemic-induced introspection, the Northwestern Ohio Synod uncovered profound insights into the practices of the emerging Church as described in the Acts of the Apostles. 

While some mourned the loss of familiar church settings, Calla’s leadership team seized the opportunity to simplify and return to the essence of every Christian story—the life and teachings of the embodied Christ. 

The synod realized that amidst the gilded and liturgized trappings of tradition, the Jesus story, in its simplicity, held the most transformative power. 

“It’s interesting that COVID gave us the time to kind of pause and sort through all of these things that we thought were so important, that were gilded and liturgized. We came away just finding that, wow, maybe the Jesus story is and always has been the most important thing. And maybe if we lead with that, we’ll discover some cool new territory.”

Recognizing the potency of starting with the Jesus story, Calla and the Northwestern Ohio Synod wholeheartedly embraced Fresh Expressions as their goal. With this, they embarked on a journey of exploration into uncharted territories of faith. 

The main factor influencing this decision? 

The pivotal realization was the fact that the “stuff of life” resonates more deeply with people outside the church than the bells, smells, and polished elements. 

Essentially, the simplicity of the Jesus story might be all that’s needed in order to connect with folks otherwise uninterested in becoming involved with the traditional church.

“Somehow, the stuff of life resonates with people outside the church more than our bells and smells and shiny things. And that was a learning that I didn’t expect to come by. But the incarnation of the Jesus story, as it’s still being played out today, is a lot simpler than we make it out to be.”

Northwestern Ohio Synod celebrating recipients of the 2020 and 2021 Imagining Renewal Microgrants, sharing stories, dreams, and good food.

[Photo Credit: Northwestern Ohio Synod celebrates our recipients of the 2020 and 2021 Imagining Renewal Microgrants by gathering to share stories and dreams, good food, and celebrate all that the Holy Spirit is shaking up in northwest Ohio.]

Overcoming Challenges: Fresh Expressions and the Mixed-Ecology Approach

Embracing Fresh Expressions did not come without challenges. Calla sheds light on three fundamental challenges that her synod has tackled through their journey of introducing Fresh Expressions and the mixed ecology approach to their church region:

  1. Establishing Connections with the Neighborhood: Many church families in the community struggled to establish touchpoints beyond the walls of the church. In response, Calla and her team shifted their emphasis to building neighborhood connections. They ventured outside their comfort zones, engaging in simple Fresh Expressions practices like prayer walks and dinner church.
  1. Fostering Collaboration: The inclination of church members to “do it alone” presented another hurdle. Exploring new ways of doing church demanded collective effort and the spirit of collaboration reminiscent of the early Church.
  1. Breaking the Barrier of Tradition: Traditional church settings often appear off-putting to community members seeking relatability. The power of the Jesus story lies in its simplicity—a simple man who ate and drank, was born in a humble cave, and likely had smelly feet. Embracing this authentic portrayal of Jesus, rather than the polished facade, became a powerful tool to reach those who were put off by traditional expressions of church.
The second cohort of innovators for the Innovator Learning Academy gathers for community exploration and brainstorming.

[Photo Credit: Northwestern Ohio Synod – The second cohort of innovators for the Innovator Learning Academy gathers to explore what it means to listen to the community and the Holy Spirit, how to reconnect with our communities, and brainstorm what makes spaces safe, sacred, and playful.]

Stories of Church Innovation: Exploring the Community with Fresh Eyes

Within the Northwestern Ohio Synod, one of the most successful and exciting Fresh Expressions initiatives was the Innovator Learning Academy. This program welcomed individuals from diverse backgrounds, each with their own passions and perspectives. Providing support and guidance to lay innovators in pioneering new practices and ministries within their own communities, the 16-month program emphasized collaboration, equipping participants with coaching and teachers who traveled to work with them locally, and offering five intentional retreats throughout the program.

Among the inspiring outcomes of the Innovator Learning Academy is one of Calla’s favorite examples: Heather Smith’s Hike and Seek program. 

Recognizing the value of intergenerational connections, Heather initiated a Visio Divina nature-based experience called Hike and Seek. Families and grandparents joined together for a hike, where they engaged in scripture readings and sought out specific words, such as “love” or “faithfulness,” observing and discussing evidence of these concepts in nature. 

This unique experience fostered meaningful conversations, intergenerational bonding, and spiritual reflection on the beauty of the natural world.

Calla’s key takeaway from projects like Hike and Seek is that they may not necessarily fill more pews, but they do provide the church with a deeper understanding of their neighbors and their needs.

Synod staff members gathering together for collaboration and discussion.

[Photo Credit: Northwestern Ohio Synod]

Embracing Transformation: Breaking Boundaries and Meeting People Where They Are

As we contemplate the concept of Fresh Expressions, it is vital to recognize that it is not a quick fix or a means to save the established church. The “inherited church” honors the deep-rooted traditions and practices passed down through generations. Fresh Expressions, however, offer an opportunity to expand the church’s understanding of community and engage with neighbors in new and meaningful ways.

“These projects don’t put more butts in the pews, but they do encourage and help that church understand more about who their neighbor really is.”

Fresh Expressions break the boundaries of physical buildings, extending into the lives of everyday people. By meeting individuals where they are and connecting through shared experiences, churches can discover the transformative power of Fresh Expressions.

It’s helpful to remember that Fresh Expressions are not a one-size-fits-all solution, nor are they intended to replace traditional church practices. Instead, they coexist alongside established churches, creating a mixed ecology that embraces both the inherited church and the emerging expressions of faith. This holistic approach allows for growth, adaptability, and a deeper understanding of the diverse ways in which God works in the world.

Synod staff members and St. Mark's Campus Ministry Leadership Team collaborating to explore ministry gifts and contextual resources in a Campus Ministry setting.

[Photo Credit: Northwestern Ohio Synod – Synod staff members joined St. Mark’s Campus Ministry Leadership Team to explore ministry gifts, contextual resources, and what discipleship might look like in a Campus Ministry setting.]

Revitalizing the Church: Nurturing Innovation and Embracing Fresh Expressions

As we venture into the realm of Fresh Expressions, may we find joy, inspiration, and a renewed sense of purpose in creatively engaging with the world around us. The stories shared by Calla highlight the immense power of innovation and Fresh Expressions in revitalizing the church. In navigating this new era, let’s remember the three key lessons Calla shared:

1. Embrace the Origins: Rediscovering the Spirit and Simplicity of Early Christianity

To find inspiration for creative and meaningful expressions of church, we should ground ourselves in the spirit and simplicity of the early Christian community as depicted in the Book of Acts. By revisiting the roots of our faith, we can tap into a wellspring of ideas that resonate with the present age.

2. Address the Challenges: Breaking Down Barriers between the Secular and Sacred

One of the significant challenges lies in breaking down the artificial divisions between the secular and sacred worlds. Pastors and church members should actively engage with their neighbors, forming collaborative teams that bridge the gap between the church and the community. By rediscovering the authenticity of faith in everyday life, we can build genuine connections that transcend traditional boundaries.

3. Reimagine Church: From Shiny Facades to Genuine Connections

Rather than focusing on polished facades, we can shift our attention to building genuine connections. The power of the Jesus story lies in its relatability—a simple man who lived among us, sharing meals and stories, born in a humble setting. By embracing the essence of Jesus’ ministry—bread, wine, soil, and seeds—we can create transformative and inclusive spaces where all can experience the love of Christ.

Let us keep our focus on nurturing relationships and meeting the needs of our community. The church transcends the confines of a building; it encompasses the entire community—the places we frequent, the people we meet, and the experiences we share.

The 2021-22 and 2022-23 cohorts of the Innovator Learning Academy gather to explore community engagement outside of church buildings.

[Photo Credit: Northwestern Ohio Synod – The 2021-22 and 2022-23 cohorts of the Innovator Learning Academy gathered to explore ways of listening to their communities, shared ideas, and pondered how our congregations might build relationships outside of the four walls of our church buildings.]

The Power of Fresh Expressions: Adapting, Evolving, and Thriving

Fresh Expressions offer the church a pathway to adapt, evolve, and thrive in a changing world, understanding that it does not replace traditional practices but coexist alongside them, creating a vibrant mixed ecology. 

Let’s accept the challenge of approaching our communities with fresh eyes, mapping out the places where life happens and seeking ways to bring the love of Jesus into those spaces. Then, embracing the spirit and simplicity of early Christianity, we can address the challenges of connecting with the secular world, fostering collaboration, and creating genuine relationships. 

By doing so, we participate in the transformative power of Fresh Expressions, nurturing growth, adaptability, and a deeper understanding of God’s work in the world.

In this new era of the church, let’s keep in mind that the heart of the Jesus story lies in its simplicity. Through Fresh Expressions, we can revitalize our churches, engage with our communities, and embody the love of Christ in tangible and transformative ways. 

Together, we can embark on a journey of innovation, building bridges, and sharing the message of God’s love with every corner of our world.

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