By Melissa Lauber
“ … These people who have been turning the world upside down have come here also,” read the Rev. Bill Brown, with hushed anticipation from Acts 17:6 to a group of people gathered Nov. 4 at the Baltimore-Washington Conference Mission Center. He was hoping a similar reformation might be stirring among United Methodists.
“What would it take for us to turn the world upside down,” Brown asked. The 25 people enrolled in the Affiliation’s new Fresh Expressions Academy, didn’t bat an eye. They went right to work – imagining new ways of being church and reaching new people – those who tend to run from established religion – with the Gospel.
For Brown, the BWC’s director of Innovative Evangelism, the future of church vitality lies in creating a Methodist renaissance by crafting a movement – unencumbered by irrelevant traditions, trauma, and tired souls – and inspired by the call and boldness of the Holy Spirit.
To this end, Brown invited the Rev. Michael Beck, a pastor in Florida and the denomination’s premiere expert in, and practitioner of, Fresh Expressions, to guide BWC’s clergy and laity on a year-long journey of experiential learning to explore and create innovative communities of faith.
Beck, who is employed 10 hours a week by his local church, lifted up 13 examples of Fresh Expressions that he and his lay people have created. They include a church in a tattoo parlor, in a Burrito joint, in a rehab clinic, on yoga mats and running tracks, with drug dealers, and around EV charging stations.
Along the way, he’s watched some of the members in his “inherited church,” which holds traditional Sunday morning worship, come alive in faith. One older man transformed his weekly practice of going to the dog park into a spiritual community. The first question that ignited this Faith Expression was, “If God was a dog, what kind of dog would God be?” The conversation opened people to new ways of being together.
A lay woman who was a leader at Beck’s church, admonished him that holding church in a tattoo parlor would lead to damnation. But after opening her mind and experiencing church in that setting, the woman ended up getting her own tattoo. She also joined others in ministering to unhoused people who lived in that area. One day she found herself on her knees washing a homeless man’s feet and using her nursing expertise to tend to his wounds. In opening her mind to this new expression of faith, her soul was opened, too.
Beck also learned a lesson from Sandra, the women who knelt before the homeless man. “Sometimes, like when you’re on your knees bandaging a homeless person’s wounds, the Kingdom of God stinks, Beck said. “But most of us never get close enough to the Kingdom to smell it.”
‘Gather, Go, Grow'
Each Fresh Expression is unique, shaped by the context of the people who create it, Brown stressed. But in the gathering retreat, Beck laid out some common traits and lessons of Fresh Expressions.
Fresh Expressions, Beck explained:
- Happen in the places and spaces of our lives. But they do need to be connected to established congregations and are built alongside the inherited church.
- Their hallmarks include curiosity, wholeness, connection and flexibility.
- They are communities of belonging; belief comes to participants at the pace of grace; and people begin to behave differently only as part of their journey of transformation.
- Fresh Expression are seldom financially self-sustaining through the offering plate.
- It is best to start a Fresh Expression with a team of people, including the unchurched, and a “person of peace” who has a specific connection to the place where you’ll be meeting and the people who gather there.
To create a Fresh Expression there are five steps along the journey:
- Listen – to God and to the people in your context. (There is a difference between “listening to respond” and “listening to understand.” Seek to understand.)
- Love these people. Start your ministry at a point of need, start with service. You could address things like food insecurity or the mutuality of loneliness. “Isolation is the great soul wound of our time,” Beck said.
- Build community. Communities, Beck said, are like cloud formations. They are ever-changing, living, breathing, evolving eco-systems.
- Share Jesus or explore faith. Tell short Jesus stories and then offer questions and opportunities for conversation. For example, Beck said, read or tell a story of Jesus and then ask, “If this story happened today, what would it look like? or What does this story say to you? These “sermonic conversations” orient people around Jesus in a safe space.
- Adopt an attitude of play and never let a fear of failure limit your possibilities.
United Methodists claim the Great Commission in Matthew 28 as a foundation of their faith – seeking to become disciples of Jesus Christ who will transform the world. But too many people overlook a vital part of that commission – the word “go!”
“We must go,” Beck said. Doing church in creative, life-giving ways and sharing faith, must become “part of the embodied rhythm of our life.”
Doing Life Together
The Fresh Expressions movement is not about growing the inherited church, Beck stressed. In fact, they are designed to reach people who might never feel comfortable with traditional religion.
Research indicates that more than 40 percent of Americans have no interest in church and won’t walk into one on Sunday morning. They believe the church is irrelevant, but they do express significant interest in spiritual matters and finding meaning, purpose and a sense of community.
Fresh Expressions offer the ideal means to meet these people in contextually appropriate ways. God is still present, God is always present, Beck stressed. But a Fresh Expressions church does things a little differently. Rather than prayers, one starts with a “moment of reflection”; worship music is replaced with secular songs that carry special meaning for listeners; Bible study is transformed into open-ended questions that lead to deep discussion. Amid these elements, participants begin to feel a sense of unity and their desire to care for one another deepens and multiplies. “They do life together,” Beck said.
Beck’s biography describes him as an author, pastor, professor, coach and cultivator of movements. He began creating Fresh Expressions when he served as co-pastor with his wife, Jill, at Wildwood UMC in Florida. Recently, he was appointed to St. Marks UMC, where he was born addicted to drugs, and baptized into a loving community where the pastor recognized his gifts for becoming a preacher. Coming full-circle – back as a leader to a congregation where some of the members were present at his baptism, is humbling and exciting. It also fuels Beck’s desire to continue to practice what he preaches.
He will be offering monthly coaching to the participants of the BWC’s Fresh Expressions Academy, and in March will host a field trip to Florida to experience these new ways of being church.
Too often, the church offers “one and done trainings,” Brown said. “This is very different.” Participants will have a year to study, explore, learn and begin their own Fresh Expression.
In encouraging them on this venture, he quoted from the Star Wars-related show Andor. “There comes a time when the risk of doing nothing, is the greatest risk of all.”
And in that risk, that learning to be the church anew, Brown said, the world just may turn upside down.
- See a listing of books on Fresh Expressions and other missional resources by the Rev. Michael Beck
- Amplify Media is a streaming service that delivers videos with an emphasis on Wesleyan perspectives. Access on any device at any time for group study – all with one subscription for your entire congregation.
If you haven’t already registered to participate in the Fresh Expressions Academy and would like to do so, it’s not too late. Contact the Rev. Bill Brown.