For many of us, Fresh Expressions is a new way of thinking. Like many people, I grew up in the church and have been connected to a United Methodist Church my whole life.
From 2011 to 2016, I had the privilege of serving as the Youth Minister at Stockbridge First United Methodist Church, just south of Atlanta. I came into this role right after graduating college. I was young, energetic, and excited about helping students understand their purpose and grow in their relationship with God. For the first two years, I focused intently on the students that attended our church. I spent most of my time planning our weekly programming as well as larger events like summer mission trips and winter retreats. My sole focus was shepherding the young people of our church.
In March of 2013, I had an experience that I remember like it was yesterday. It was one that completely changed the way I did ministry. One of my students was on his high school football team and invited me to his spring game. The spring football game is an exhibition game where the team is split into two and they play each other. This particular game was well attended by students, primarily as a social hang out. That particular night, rather than sit up in the stands with some of the parents that I knew, I decided to watch the game from the fence line. There were a large number of students around me socializing and not paying any attention to the old guy up against the fence.
Over the course of the next two hours, God broke me. I listened to the conversations around me, and observed some of the interactions taking place between students. There was a lot of negativity, hurt, brokenness and a deep longing to belong. I realized then, my job as the Youth Minister of Stockbridge First was much more than just a ministry to students that already attended our church. I was called to be a minister for young people in the Stockbridge community. I was called to provide new spaces for students to ask questions, wrestle with faith and talk about the hardships of life. This shift in thinking began to shape everything we did in our youth ministry. No longer would we solely be a program driven, “come to the church building” type of student ministry.
I recognized that no matter how great of an event I planned at the church, it wasn’t going to bring 95% of the students in our area simply because the church was an unfamiliar and uncomfortable place to many of them. I had always had a heart for students on the peripheral of the church, but all routes for them to connect to our church led back to the church building.
Our leadership team began to reimagine what it would mean to engage and be in ministry with students beyond the ones that were already comfortable in a church setting. We began to change our weekly meetings so that half of them were held at the church where we would go a little deeper in the Bible and the other half were somewhere in the community (the park, Chic-Fil-A, Sonic, etc.) where we focused on engaging new students, building relationships and sharing life together.
My pastor empowered me to spend less time in the office and more time connecting with students. My office hours on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons were replaced with being a part of an after school mentoring program through the arts at the alternative school. Friday afternoons were spent giving a character lesson to 100 student leaders who played on the High School football team. Summer afternoons were spent at Sonic following a tweet that read – “want a FREE slushie? Meet me at Sonic at 2pm!”
When I shifted my focus away from a numbers driven ministry, I realized there was great freedom to interact with hundreds of students in our community. Some of the students never came to a Bible study, but they knew that I was there if they needed someone to talk to after their parents got a divorce. Some of the students never went on a mission trip, but they knew our church was there for them if there was a death in the family.
What if we as the Church, began to think about ministry differently? What if we made the change from figuring out how to get people in the doors of the church to providing ways for our community to experience the transformational power of God?
In the book The Shaping of Things to Come, Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch share this passage that I love:
“The missional church is always outward looking, always changing (as culture continues to change), and always faithful to the Word of God. In many places it is so radical it barely resembles church as we know it. In other cases it might appear conventional but is in fact incarnating itself into its community in surprising and exciting ways. Above all, we’re convinced that what will ultimately be required is Christian leadership that values imagination, creativity, innovation, and daring.”
My prayer for the Church is that we begin to shift our thinking toward imaginative, creative, innovative and daring ministry. Not so that we will have more people in our pews on Sundays, but rather so that we can share with our broader communities the love and grace of Jesus. What would it look like if your church began to shift your ministry thinking beyond the walls of the church?
Matt Harrell is the Fresh Expressions Coordinator for the Florida United Methodist Conference. He has a passion for coming up with new and creative ways for people to experience the love of God. Matt and his wife Nina live in Orlando, FL.