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Revitalizing an Entire District Using a Fresh Expressions Approach?

We know Fresh Expressions can catalyze the renewal of existing congregations, but can this approach bring revitalization to an entire district?

The North Central District of the Florida Conference of the United Methodist Church is about to find out! I was inspired when our new district superintendent, Rev. June Edwards, preached in her inaugural address from her favorite passage, Luke 4:16-21:

"The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,

because he has anointed me

to bring good news to the poor.

He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives

and recovery of sight to the blind,

to let the oppressed go free,

to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor."

Rev. Edwards reminded us that the mission of the church was to be doing the things that Jesus did, as the body of Christ in the world, setting the expectation that the churches in the North Central District would be doing just that. Then she declared a district-wide vision. She reminded us that there are an average of 13,628 United Methodists worshiping in the North Central District each week.

What would it look like if we mobilized as God’s mission force and went out into the plentiful fields to do some harvesting?

Throughout the US, most churches are in decline, including many of the churches in the North Central District. Yet all over the world, something is happening. God’s spirit is on the move. Churches once in decline are now again looking outward, asking who their neighbor is and engaging communities in fresh, incarnational ways.

This January, Dr. Chris Backert led a district-wide training on Fresh Expressions. Every church represented was challenged to go back to their local context and get to work catalyzing fresh expressions. The first step of a fresh expression is “listening,” which for the North Central District will be called “13, 628 Going!”

On April 8th 2017, the churches of the North Central District mobilized for a district-wide “Steeple to the Streets Day.” I wanted to share the process of what we did in the North Central District with the hope that it can be replicated for kingdom impact. You may find the following steps helpful for your own local congregation, district or regional grouping. Feel free to adapt them to your context.

How do we go “From the Steeple to the Streets?”

Step 1: Form a Fresh Expressions Team

On that team, you want a healthy mix of pioneers, supporters and permission givers. You also want to recruit people from the core leadership of your church, people on the fringe of your core church leadership, as well as people who are not connected to any church, if possible. Having an “insider” or a “person of peace” in the micro-communities you want to engage is crucial.

The initial responsibility of that team, is simple:

  • Use a tool like MissionInsite to get to know your community. If you need assistance, find someone within your sphere that can help interpret the demographic data.

  • Pray about where God is inviting you to engage that community.

STEP 2: From your findings decide on one or more places to visit on your chosen date.

Examples include your church neighborhood, park, town square, sports complex, coffee shop or local restaurant. Understanding the demographic data about your community is a helpful first step. However, to truly understand your community, you must experience and be a presence within it. There is nowhere you can go that the Holy Spirit will not go before you.

Recently, the Fresh Expressions Team of Wildwood UMC gathered to create a “People Map.” This can be as simple as a white board and a marker.

  • Pick a “home base” (your house, church, etc.)

  • Draw the locations in proximity that show where different groups of people live, eat, play, hang-out, go to school, etc. Write a short description of them.

  • Prayerfully decide as a team which of those places God wants you to go and engage. If you will engage multiple locations, assign different team leaders for each location.

STEP 3: Mobilize your congregation for “From the Steeple to the Streets” Day.

From all available communication channels, begin to promote the upcoming day. The goal is to turn out your average worship attendance on this day.

  • Creating a way for people to sign up or register is helpful, you can then divide people into the various “go teams.”

  • Some folks may prefer to gather at the home base as your teams go out. Those folks have the essential role of covering the go teams in prayer.

STEP 4: On your chosen day visit your identified areas: Pray, Observe, Encounter.
  • Pray: For your community and the people who live there. Taking a prayerful posture of listening as you walk, what is God saying?

  • Observe: Make observations about your community. What is God showing you?

  • Encounter: If you encounter a stranger, smile and engage in a loving conversation to make a connection.

Pray. Observe. Encounter. That’s it! This is not about passing out water bottles or light bulbs. This is not an outreach event. This is not about getting people to come to your church. This is about getting your church involved in the lives of the people of your community.

STEP 5: Plan a way for folks to report their findings to leadership.

This information will become crucial in helping congregations take the next step of a fresh expression, loving and serving.

This could be:

  • Meet back at the church to share their experience

  • Plan a time for “Glory Sightings” to be shared in worship—even the next Sunday

  • Provide a place to return any information that was gathered from their experience that day

For example, we distributed these bulletin inserts to every church in the North Central District. At the bottom of the insert is a returnable section:

From the Steeple to the Streets Report