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Fresh Expressions, United Methodism and "Saving the Institution"

Tenth in a series of reflections on Fresh Expressions of church, the Florida Conference and United Methodism, and our relation to the “Nones,” “Dones” and the “Spiritual but Not Religious.” Our mission as United Methodists is “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” As a United Methodist or Wesleyan expression of Christianity, we are shaped by a few distinctive marks and beliefs about God’s grace. We understand these convictions to be deeply-held and widely-shared core values within the Scriptures. These distinctive marks are: 1) the importance of searching the scriptures; 2) the value of singing our faith; 3) the centrality of Holy Communion; 4) relationships of friendship and advocacy with the poor; 5) the necessity of small group support and accountability, and 6) the power of testimony about the work of God in our lives. These beliefs are: 1) that God’s grace is present in our lives prior to our awareness; 2) that the image of God is present in all people; 3) that we are saved by God’s grace, though faith and trust, and that this is God’s gift and not our achievement, and 4) that salvation is a lifelong process of transformation whereby we love God (personal holiness) and our neighbor (social holiness). As United Methodists, we are a connectional church. We believe that disciples of Jesus represent Him not only in local churches, but also in campus ministries, camps, children’s homes, immigration ministries, and through missionaries, chaplains and professors. In this way the world is our parish: the larger purpose of our becoming disciples is so the world is transformed toward the purposes of God and for the glory of God. Increasingly, there is a distinction between discipleship and membership (in a local church). Discipleship is the more basic, foundational and essential term for a follower of Jesus. Membership is an important but secondary description of a disciple who is led to give his or her “prayers, presence, gifts, service and witness” to strengthen a local church. Without discipleship, membership can become institutional, perfunctory and even trivial. Having just written the previous sentence, I would quickly add that many of us benefit from the existence of institutions. At their best, they embody values that provide our security, health, development and flourishing. And there is a dynamic relationship between institutions and movements. I believe the Church of England and the British Methodist Church are examples of institutions that have birthed a significant movement—Fresh Expressions. Given our programmatic orientations in the mainline churches in the U.S., United Methodism among them, there is a natural response, borne of some (justified?) cynicism, that this is nothing more than an attempt to “save the church” or “preserve the institution.” I don’t presume to attempt to persuade you about the motivations and intentions here. I simply share my own experience with leaders and practitioners of the movement in the U.K. and the U.S.: they seem to me to be deeply missional with theological convictions that are at the heart of our faith; they have taken risks to align church structures and channel scarce resources toward a movement that is not universally affirmed, and they have been patient in observing the unfolding work of God that is fruitfulness (John 15). From Rowan Williams, Adrian Chatfield, and Graham Cray to Martyn Atkins, Angela Shier-Jones and Bob and Mary Hopkins to Gannon Sims and Chris Backert, I have been impressed by those in leadership roles who have been open to innovation and the movement of the Holy Spirit, for the sake of God’s mission. There is also the important distinction between New Church Development (NCD) and Fresh Expressions. I have been careful in interpreting Fresh Expressions as one of the pathways God is using to renew the church, for the sake of the mission. We will continue to plant new churches; and even within New Church Development, there is differentiation and creativity, such as multi-site campuses, mergers and worship services for particular generational groupings within vital churches. Fresh Expressions is distinct from NCD in that the former will not require an investment in the purchase or renovation of facilities. Fresh Expressions instead will call for an investment in people, chiefly by resourcing clergy and lay leaders through coaching, training, supervision and equipping. Some Fresh Expressions leaders (in the U.K. they are known as “pioneers”) will be bi-vocational, and here the learnings from social innovation will be crucial. Other pioneers will be clergy who are appointed to contexts that do not require their full-time energy. Gil Rendle has noted that in 2008, among the 35,000 local churches of United Methodism in the United States, 10,000 had 35 or fewer in average worship attendance. Clergy will increasingly live into a “mixed economy” through the direction of their own time and energy toward the mission that is within the walls of the church and the mission that is beyond it. And laity will be authorized to share their gifts in marketplace ministries where next generations live and gather. Questions: How would you briefly summarize the beliefs and practices of United Methodists? How might Fresh Expressions be seen as an attempt to "save" the established churches of the U.K. and U.S.? What are the problems and possibilities of bi-vocational ministry? Next and Last Reflection: Joining Jesus in His Mission through Fresh Expressions of Church To Learn More: Ken Carter, A Way of Life in the World: Spiritual Practices for United Methodists Gregory Dees, "The Meaning of Social Entrepreneurship,” Bob and Mary Hopkins, "Streams of Missional Multiplication,” Angela Shier-Jones, Pioneer Ministry and Fresh Expressions of Church Andrew Thompson, The Means of Grace

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