What is This?
Fresh Expressions refers to relatively new worshipping and witnessing communities that are reaching those not previously reached by the church. These are not new efforts to include people in existing worshiping communities. They may be initiated by people within congregations but not as an entry point into their churches. The culture in most existing congregations is enough different from the culture of those who never attend church that the fit is usually not right.
“God is completely new to them.” — Fresh Expressions leader
The goal is to begin worshiping and serving communities of faith that fit local contexts of the unchurched. The hope is that as these communities grow with new disciples, they can then reach others for Christ within their own cultures. Fresh expressions are attracting those who might not otherwise go to church. Leaders estimate that just under half are new Christians, about one-third attended church at some time in the past, and the remainder are existing Christians. Half of those attending are under 16.
A fresh expression of church seeks to be:
- Missional — to serve those outside church
- Contextual — to listen to people and enter their culture
- Educational — to make discipleship a priority
- Ecclesial — to form church
Some characteristics the Church of England seeks in these new worshiping communities include:
- It is Christian, communal, new.
- It serves others in the community.
- It engages non-church goers.
- It meets at least monthly.
- It has a name to establish its own identity.
- There is an intention to be church (not something ancillary to a “real church”).
- There is some form of recognized leadership.
- The majority of members see it as their major expression of church.
This movement is not based on the traditional “hub and spoke” model in which a larger unit (normally a denomination or judicatory) develops a program model or initiative that is then implemented throughout their network. Fresh expressions is more locally instigated and shaped, though often with encouragement and support from beyond. Because the movement is so contextually oriented, there is no one type of fresh expressions. Some researchers identified at least 20 different types of fresh expressions in the Church of England alone. For example, a study of just over 500 fresh expressions in the Church of England found that about half meet at churches, though not necessarily in the sanctuary. At least a quarter meets in public venues. Some meet in a mixture of venues. Very few, less than 3 percent, meet in homes.
While only a tiny percentage of churches are establishing new worshiping communities in this way, the result in England alone is thousands of persons are now reached. Even in these early years, the Church of England reports that fresh expressions has reached enough new people to be the equivalent of adding one new diocese.
Are They Sustainable?
Church of England researchers examined those started at least three years prior to the study. They found that two-thirds were continuing to grow or were maintaining their growth. About a quarter were continuing but with fewer participants than previously. Only 10 percent had died. These results are as good as those for traditional new church starts in the U.S., though fresh expressions tend to average fewer people (about 44 by one average). However, the fact that they can function well with fewer people makes beginning a fresh expressions church more viable for smaller existing congregations.
Fresh expressions often have supporters, but the goal is to be self-sustaining for as long as there is a need unless the context makes that unrealistic. Some of the practices of fresh expressions make long term viability more likely. For instance, over half are led by lay people (about equally by men and women) who do this as volunteers.
Virtually all churches are seeking ways to reach people in their communities who are so different from their most active constituents that while these unchurched may be open to faith, they are not comfortable in the local church culture that continues to nourish so many current members. Fresh expressions seek to permit faith to flourish in the cultures more native to those outside the church. It appears to be doing just that in many cases. As one fresh expressions leader put it about those who had joined, “God is completely new to them.”
To read more about the Church of England research, see the Fresh Expressions portion of the larger report “From Anecdote to Evidence” at www.churchgrowthresearch.org.uk.
- Learning From Growing Churches in England by Lovett H. Weems, Jr.
- The “Nones” and the Spirituality of Everyday Living by Keith Anderson
- Taking Church to the Community by Ann A. Michel
- Doing Church “As Usual” is Not Working by Lovett H. Weems, Jr.
- Fresh Expressions US
- Fresh Expressions UK
- Fresh Expressions Canada