My mother was unable to care for me at birth. My biological father is unknown to this day. In my earliest memories, I am sitting beside my grandmother on the front pew on the preacher’s right at St. Mark’s United Methodist Church in Ocala, Florida. Pastor Holland Vaughn and the people of St. Mark’s gathered around me at my infant baptism. Together they took responsibility to surround me with “a community of love and forgiveness.” They stepped into the gap of loss in my life when my grandparents died and fed me through their never-ending potlucks.
Unfortunately, most people born in the 1980’s and beyond like me, do not share that formative experience with the church. Increasingly they have no experience with the church or even worst they feel the church has harmed them. In my own life, I shudder to think what I may have become without those beautiful people. Nevertheless, I ran from the love of Jesus they embodied. My altar-ing moment did not happen at the altar in a sanctuary but in a jail cell.
I grew up in a world of strange dualisms: of light and dark, of mean streets and soft sanctuary pews, of ruthless victimizers and selfless saints, of deep hunger pains and extravagant potluck spreads. This has created the sense of tension I feel as an ordained elder in the Florida Conference of The United Methodist Church. I treasure the inherited church that gave me life. I love the pews, hymnals, candles, and all the bells and smells. I also realize that attractional forms of church are no longer connecting with most of the population.
My love runs deep for both traditional forms and fresh expressions of church. To live into a new and thriving future, we need both. This is not an either/or proposition. It’s a both/and way. In fresh expressions language, we speak of the “mixed economy” where traditional and emerging forms of church can exist in a life-giving, symbiotic relationship. I have written about this phenomenon as the “Blended Ecology.”
Jesus took my broken life, and “revitalized” it. He relentlessly pursued me and rescued me from a living hell of brokenness and failure. He sent servants into my life to reach me where I was. This is part of the “why” that drives my passion for fresh expressions. I believe in a relentless seeking God who leaves the 99 to go after the one. A God who puts on flesh and moves into our neighborhood. The church is an extension of Jesus’ activity. Most of our population will never show up to our church compounds on Sunday mornings. We need to find ways to be the church with them.
I believe churches can experience new life in the same way individuals can. In a landscape where fewer people know the love of God revealed in Jesus Christ, I believe we need every church in every community engaging the mission field to awaken people to that love. Just as we must be willing to go through a journey of death and resurrection, so must our churches. The fresh expressions movement releases the priesthood of all believers to be a missionary force for God. It allows us to sustain the center and do missional experimentation on the edge.
As a missionary pastor, I have served a succession of revitalizations. For the past six years, one of those revitalizations has been Wildwood UMC: a church that has received over 200 new members, the clear majority by “profession of faith.” Wildwood is growing not by already-Christians playing church musical chairs but by reaching not-yet-Christians.
On one hand, we are a traditional United Methodist congregation with all the typical offerings. Office hours, Bible studies, United Methodist Women, quilters guilds, pews, bulletins, hymnals, candles, and so on. However, on a normal week, some not so “traditional” things are occurring as many more people are also gathering in thirteen fresh expressions. These micro-churches gather around the risen Jesus in tattoo parlors, Mexican restaurants, community centers, dog parks, Yoga studios, libraries, running tracks, and makeshift salons.
Three years ago, I started on the staff of Fresh Expressions US as a national trainer. I travel the United States to help leaders develop pioneers and plant fresh expressions of church. At that same time, I also became the cultivator of fresh expressions in the North Central District. We now have about 70 fresh expressions in process in the NCD. I have walked beside dozens of churches in our own conference in the planting of fresh expressions, and I currently coach pioneers throughout the state.
This year, I began an expanded role as a cultivator of fresh expressions for the Florida Conference. I am already working beside district superintendents to identify leaders to serve on district teams, whose primary work will be to plant fresh expressions. We also hope to multiply certain third place fresh expressions (for instance in Moe’s Southwest Grills, Dog Parks, and Tattoo Parlors). My focuses in this movement are coaching fellow pioneers, helping existing churches plant fresh expressions, and the revitalization of declining congregations.
Jill, my wife/co-pastor, and I have a blended family of eight children and a pug named Vader. For fun I enjoy inline speed skating and beach getaways. I’ve also been known to instigate a bit of dance, play, and kingdom trouble!
Please reach out to me if I can assist you in any way. I look forward to serving Jesus alongside you on the new missional frontier.
Want to connect with Michael? Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.