When our team first learned about the Fresh Expressions movement in 2015, the concept grabbed our attention and filled us with excitement. As a group, we had sensed that God was doing new things in the life of our church, and we had become convinced that the Holy Spirit wanted to send us out into the community in new ways. In fact, some of our people were already doing that very thing. Ministry leaders were already exploring new opportunities to bring the church to people, as opposed to bringing people to our church (building). For 20 years, the leaders of Grace Church had faithfully prayed, “Lord, send us the people nobody else wants or sees.” We decided for our next 20 years, God was leading us to change that prayer by adding one word: “Lord, send us TO the people nobody else wants or sees.” The stories and values of the Fresh Expressions movement arrived at the perfect moment in the life of our church.
Birthed in the Church of England in 2004, Fresh Expressions was the name chosen for a fresh movement of God’s Spirit amid a declining denomination situated in a drastically different cultural landscape compared to what it was just a few generations earlier. Sound familiar? A pioneering group of church leaders, both clergy and laity, cast a vision for “a form of church for our changing culture, established primarily for the benefit of people "who are not yet members of any church” (Fresh Expressions UK). These spiritual entrepreneurs envisioned innovative churches that gathered in pubs, coffee shops, living rooms, outdoors, cafes, boats, local businesses, and anywhere else people interacted, including existing church buildings. These new forms of church aimed to meet people where they were at, both literally and culturally, instead of solely trying to attract, invite, draw, plead, convince, cajole, and beg unchurched people to attend a Sunday morning worship service in the sanctuary. Over the past 10+ years, this movement has exploded across the United Kingdom and jumped over the pond to the United States, where Fresh Expressions US has pioneered the movement’s rapid spread across denominational lines nationwide.
Thanks to the leadership of Bishop Ken Carter, along with several early adopters in the annual conference, the Fresh Expressions movement has taken root throughout Florida, with United Methodists leading the way. After our team was first exposed to the idea of Fresh Expressions, we were hungry for more. Over the following months, we spent time learning together in several ways:
We read two books together to develop a common language: Fresh Expressions of Church by Travis Collins and Surprise the World! by Michael Frost.
We invited several key leaders to join us at a regional Fresh Expressions vision day organized by the Florida Conference.
We gathered and shared stories of successful Fresh Expressions around Florida and spoke with several practitioners about how they got started.
We spent time with our key stakeholders sharing with them what we were learning and talking about the future of our church.
We started including Fresh Expressions language in our sermons and worship services to help the congregation become more familiar with the ideas.
Our people were extremely receptive to the concept, although it helped quite a bit to introduce the new vision over a gradual period of learning and experimentation. Many of our leaders were quick to embrace the Florida Conference’s simple definition of a Fresh Expression: “Church for new people, in new places, by new ways.” Some of our people pointed out that the Fresh Expressions movement was providing us with a vocabulary and theology for a missional way of being the church in the world that was already intuitive to us. Moreover, we realized early on that Fresh Expressions is nothing new; it’s a return to our biblical and Wesleyan roots, recast in a way that engages our postmodern, post-Christian context.
The Importance of Listening
I cannot stress enough the helpfulness of the materials available for free online at the Fresh Expressions websites (both UK and US), especially in the very practical task of getting started. The Florida Conference has also recently launched a Fresh Expressions website, www.freshexpressionsfl.org, with several great resources. The Fresh Expressions model uses six stages, represented as overlapping circles, to trace a new gathering all the way from birth to a mature expression of church that is making disciples. Over the past two years, we have learned that the first stage is absolutely essential to the development of a healthy and sustainable Fresh Expression. It cannot be skipped or rushed, and there are no shortcuts. This first crucial stage is called Listening. Plan to spend several months listening to the needs of your community. This requires getting out of the office and spending lots of time with “boots on the ground.” For us, this meant going a few miles up the road to a trailer park hidden in plain sight that we discovered is the poorest area in our county and one of the poorest in all of Southwest Florida. In the listening stage, we started by establishing a consistent presence at the local elementary school, showing up for events at the community center, doing prayer walks in the neighborhood, playing soccer with kids after school and helping them with their homework, sharing donuts and coffee with a weekly gathering of moms, and eventually hosting a weekly dinner in the middle of the neighborhood for anyone who wants to come. The goal in our listening phase was not to get people to come to our church. We simply wanted to build relationships and get to know the needs, the assets, and the pains of our community. Eventually, the Holy Spirit began to open doors, both literally and spiritually, as we were invited by key community stakeholders into their homes and lives. Only then, after our team started sharing life together with people in our community, did the next right steps become clear. This was difficult at first, the idea of not showing up with a master strategic plan, and just making ourselves present and available to the leading of God’s Spirit. There was no agenda on our part to somehow invite or attract the residents of the trailer park to our Sunday morning services. Instead, we discovered that God’s grace was already at work in their lives and families in powerful ways, and we simply joined in with the work God was already doing in that place.
After a great deal of patience, and more than a few failures, a team of leaders, comprised of both Grace Church members as well as trailer park residents, together designed and launched what is now called “Eat, Pray, Love,” -- a weekly gathering in the middle of the neighborhood. On a normal night, 80-100 people will sit down for a meal together, pray for one another, share about their week, and discuss a scripture passage and what it means for their lives. Along the way, there have been several baptisms, a Christmas Eve candlelight service, and even a wedding, right in the middle of the community center room where the group eats dinner together. Eat, Pray, Love is becoming a mature, full-fledged expression of church, a true disciple-making community where Christ is transforming people’s lives. We are already in the process of launching several more Fresh Expressions, as more and more of our people feel God leading them to get involved. Our church has caught the vision of reaching new people, in new places, by new ways, thanks be to God!
Kevin Griffin is the Pastor of Transformation at Grace Church in Cape Coral, FL. In his current role, he provides leadership and support to all ministries with adults at the Cape Coral Campus, as well as serving on the Grace Church Teaching Team with ongoing responsibilities for preaching and teaching. Kevin received a bachelor’s degree in English and Music Theory from the University of Kentucky and a Master of Divinity from Asbury Theological Seminary. He is married to Ashley, and they live in Cape Coral with their three children.