“Because I didn’t grow up in the church, it’s always been important to me to go to those who are outside of the church,” says Rev. Bill Poland, Director of New Communities of Faith for the Iowa Conference. One of the newest ways he has found of doing that is through the worldwide movement Fresh Expressions of Church, or Fresh Expressions for short.
“It is a missionary-oriented movement that recognizes in today’s increasingly secular world that folks are less likely to make the entrance into the church,” he explains. “So we have to figure out a way—and Fresh Expressions is one of those ways—of taking the church to them. And the exciting thing about it is almost anyone can be trained to be able to do that.”
Click here to listen to the podcast about Fresh Expressions
In fact, coming up on February 15, 2020, there will be a Fresh Expressions Vision Day event at First UMC in Ankeny, where anyone interested is welcome to learn more about getting involved and hear firsthand from people who are doing their own Fresh Expressions (register here).
Listening to your community
A key aspect of Fresh Expressions is about starting with your networks and getting a feel for where there is need in your community. “What is the call of that particular community to make an impact on the world around them?” asks Poland. “The desire to make the world better, to make one’s community better exists everywhere. We have the opportunity in listening to that conversation to enter in to it, not with a predetermined outcome, but to join with God, with the spirit, in what God is already doing.”
For some, Fresh Expressions might be making sandwiches and taking them to the homeless. For others, it may be cultivating a faith community in a local bar. Poland even points out that the first sermon he’s aware of being preached in Iowa was in Dubuque at a public house (or pub), so there is a local history of this kind of outreach.
Going where we are needed
That said, the Fresh Expressions approach is different from what many churchgoers are used to, which is more of an “attractional model” that has been based on trying to entice people to come into the church. Fresh Expressions turns that around and asks members of the congregation to go where the people are. It can be a difficult shift for a church.
“One of the things that I often hear when I’m visiting with an existing congregation about this is, ‘Well, how does that help us if they’re not going to come and join us?’ I just remind them that our mission is to make disciples—that is, followers of Jesus—not to make our own friends. Not to fulfill our own budget,” says Poland. “Our goal is not just to make a small community better, our goal is to make the whole world better.”
Meeting people on their turf
Poland points out that for some people who have been going to church their whole lives, entering into a place like a bar, for instance, might make them a little uneasy. “They feel uncomfortable, they feel like the other, like they don’t fit in. What I would like to help them realize is that when we ask someone who has no experience of the church to come inside the church, they experience that very same thing. The otherness. By us going to them, we can take away that otherness. We can start on their turf, where they are, just as the apostles did in the beginning of the early church.”
Just where that turf is can be quite unexpected indeed. One example that Poland gives is of a group of primarily women who did kickboxing together every week. A member of the group passed away, which created a situation where people started asking questions. “They began to pray with each other, because one of those persons was a person of faith who was attentive to what was happening there—and that community really became a community of faith,” he reports. “That’s an example of how we can begin to connect with that, by being attentive to what’s happening around us and the groups we’re already a part of.”
A new kind of church
“It is a time of change and transition in the church and in our culture. Fresh Expressions is an opportunity for us to begin to join in with what God is doing, to create a kind of new ecosystem, if you will, for faith,” says Poland, noting that part of that will involve equipping missionaries to go out and carry that faith to others.
“I think that the vision of the church that is evolving will be congregations of people, part of one church, that are worshipping and living both outside of the walls of the church, and, at the same time, there will be groups that will be gathering inside the walls of the church building. But all of us together will make up the church,” Poland envisions.
“This is a time of innovation and of new beginnings. It is a time when I believe God’s spirit is acting in a powerful way. Isn’t it a wonderful thing that we can all participate in these fresh expressions of church, and of faith?”
Click here to find out more about the Fresh Expressions Vision Day on February 15, 2020.