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Fresh Expressions: A Movement Begins

The first in a series of reflections on the Fresh Expressions movement and its relation to The United Methodist Church and recent research related to "unchurched," "dechurched" and "Spiritual but not Religious" persons.

After two years of strategy, prayer, correspondence and time set aside in “vision days," a small group from the Florida Conference, along with three friends, journeyed to England in July, 2015. We were there as disciples, students seeking to learn about a movement that God is using to renew the church. This particular movement, Fresh Expressions, has taken root over the past decade in the United Kingdom and beyond.

So what is Fresh Expressions, and why travel to England to learn more about it? These are great questions, and are worthy of an extended and clear response.

The Fresh Expressions movement began in England in 2004, through a report of the Church of England about the state of the church in that nation, and the need for a new direction. The word “fresh expression” is taken from the Book of Common Prayer:

“The Church of England...professes the faith uniquely revealed in the Holy Scriptures and set forth in the catholic creeds, which faith the Church is called upon to proclaim afresh in each generation.”

The report was entitled “Mission Shaped Ministry." Those who helped to draft the report note that the original title was “Dying to Live," but the latter title was thought to be too dire and inflammatory. The conclusion of the report coincided with the beginning of the ministry of a new Archbishop, Rowan Williams. In his conversation with Rowan Williams, Bishop Graham Cray quickly learned that Williams was not only supportive of Fresh Expressions; he had anticipated many of these missional moves in his former diocese in Wales.

In meeting with Bishop Cray in York, he shared with us that, upon publication and endorsement of the report by the Church of England, the British Methodist Church immediately became a full partner, through the leadership of Martyn Atkins, General Secretary of the British Methodist Church. As Bishop Cray told us, “this was Anglican and Methodist from day one." The Florida Conference, led by Team Convenor Audrey Warren, is in partnership (and in a learning relationship) with Fresh Expressions US, which is seeking to translate this extraordinary work of God across denominations in England onto American soil. But the more profound reality is that Fresh Expressions is an international movement, with partnerships developing in Canada, New Zealand, Australia and other nations, and across a variety of denominations and theologiclal traditions.

But what is a Fresh Expression of church? Here is the working definition:

“A fresh expression is a form of church for our changing culture, established primarily for the benefit of people who are not yet members of any church. It will come into being through principles of listening, service, contextual mission and making disciples. It will have the potential to become a mature expression of church shaped by the Gospel and the enduring marks of the church and for its cultural context.”

In a nation that is increasingly multi-religious and non-religious, these two church traditions (and others) have recognized the need for planting expressions of Christianity outside the pattern of traditional church practice. Careful statistical work has been done by the Church of England and the British Methodist Church, with results that mirror realities in the United States: the growth of the unchurched and the dechurched, who correspond to the Pew Research language of “nones” and “dones," and the differentiation of persons into categories such as “open unchurched” and “closed dechurched."

One insight that came to me in England was related to my presumption that Fresh Expressions was post-denominational. I came to grasp, in listening, worshipping and observing, that it is better described as deeply ecumenical; traditions do not lose their distinctiveness, but rather contribute the riches of who they are to others, and in return receive new and distinct strengths from beyond themselves. This differs from the common (and important) work of ecumenical movements that often occurs from the thirty-thousand foot vantage point of councils, dialogues and agreements. Fresh Expressions, particularly in post-Christian contexts, will necessarily have a deeply ecumenical character.

It is also clear that much of the initial work on Fresh Expressions in England in 2004 is in response to a previous report, Breaking New Ground (1994), which had been the Church of England’s response to the experience of and the need for new church planting. While this response is both appreciative and respectful, there are clearly cultural and ecclesial shifts which move the authors toward both a new language and a bolder vision. I am convinced that we find ourselves, in the U.S., in a similar place: we have invested greatly in new church planting, and will continue to do so. This work has arisen from a variety of motives, many of them faithful ones. Yet it is also true that our cultural landscape is clearly shifting, and we are called to consider diverse strategies.

Twenty-five years ago, Stanley Hauerwas and Will Willimon wrote Resident Aliens, perhaps the first popular and sustained engagement with the reality that we are entering a post-Christian context in the United States. Our brothers and sisters in England are living more fully in this new world, and we can learn from their creativity and faithfulness. This is our motivation in partnering with what God is doing through the Holy Spirit in this new venture.

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