Approximately 75 of us gathered on a recent Saturday at San Clemente Presbyterian Church for the second of two ‘Fresh Expressions Vision Days’ hosted jointly by Fresh Expressions US and the Presbytery of Los Ranchos.
Granted, the day was hot and the air conditioning was a draw in and of itself. But there was more going on in that fellowship hall than simply escaping the heat – of the day, but also the heat that we find ourselves in the midst of the threat of declining membership, budgets and the other host of dire predictions that seem to be swirling.
Something ‘fresh’ was stirring.
Fresh Expressions, as many of you know, is a movement born in the UK that is slowly finding its way across the pond to the US. Though it has entered via a partnership with the Virginia Baptists, it is taking root in Presbyterian soil as well, as it comes alongside and strengthens the existing 1001 Movement.
Yes, there are things to be worked out – we are, of course, not Baptists. But at its core the Fresh Expressions movement seeks to be ecumenical, embracing a wide swath of the church in this new thing that the Spirit seems to be up to in our midst.
Our own Cheryl Raine, pastor at First Presbyterian Church Garden Grove, offered this insight: “The Fresh Expressions movement certainly reignites the ‘imagination’ in our commitment to serve the people with ‘energy, intelligence, imagination, and love!’” Those are, after all our ordination vows.
Susan Lubushkin, of Common Villages, put it this way: “Fresh Expressions helped me to see that out of ordinary life the extraordinary is possible. That being said I still struggle with the context in which we live here in Orange County. Finding what our neighbors need is difficult because they tend to stay to themselves.”
“In many ways this is a frightening era in the church in North America,” admitted Travis Collins, Director of Mission Advancement for Fresh Expressions. “It is an unsettling time – an unnerving time. But if you are willing to think like a missionary it is also an exciting time,” said Collins.
The problem, according to Collins, is that there is a gap between where the existing church finds itself, and where the culture now finds itself. The question becomes, how does one span that gap?
“Do we wait for those outside the church to come to us?” asked Collins. This has been the model of church that we have, intentionally or not, assumed in North America. The ‘build a church on the corner, open the doors, and wait for people to show up’ model. The only problem is, in much of the country, this model no longer serves.
The second option, according to Collins, is to build some sort of bridge across the chasm so that we can try to get those outside the church in order to get them to come back to the church with us. “There are many people who are open to coming to your church if somebody would just cross the bridge over the chasm to invite them,” acknowledged Collins. This is not a bad option – and, in fact, is one that many churches might attempt to do better.
“But what if we were to cross the chasm and, instead of trying to bring them back here, what if we were to do church there?” he challenged. “What might church look like if we were to do it there?”
“At its core, a fresh expression is a form of church for our changing culture that is established primarily for the benefit of people who are not yet members of any church,” explained Collins.
Minda Schweizer, one of our own candidates for ministry, currently beginning a worshipping community in her home (see link to her articles) found the day not only to be informative, but also validating. “The Fresh Expressions Vision Day helped confirm the ideas I’ve been having about new ways to do ministry in my community.”
“What we are really trying to do is to put the church that Jesus loves closer to where the people whom Jesus loves actually are,” Collins continued as Saturday’s training unfolded.
Is this just a re-branding?
A way of rearranging the deck chairs on the sinking ship?
Is this church-light?
Is this only about being relevant or hip?
“The issue is not relevance,” insisted Collins. “The issue is incarnation.”
Shannon Kiser, the PCUSA’s East Coast Director for the Presbyterian Centers for New Church Innovation echoed that theme. “Fresh Expressions is about scanning the horizon for who God loves and rushing toward them on the road, right where they are.”
Today we need to find ways to put the church closer to people, she challenged, because often the church is farther away from them than ever.
Kiser illustrated this point with a story of her own daughter, asking a friend where the friend went to church. “We don’t go to church – my parents say it is a waste of time.”
Lest one be quick to condemn those parents as selfish or otherwise inwardly and not community focused, Kiser explained, “They are not self-absorbed, they are incredibly active in the community and in the life of their children.”
“That is the culture in which we are living,” suggested Kiser – and the culture in which we are seeking to minister.
We tend to assume in the church that what we lack, what ails us, is an inability to do what it is we are doing well – whether that be worship, evangelism, discipleship, service. But that, according to Kiser, is not the point, not the question.
“The question becomes, who are you not likely to reach, even if you do what you do really really well?”
With the follow-up being, what might you do to change that?