What can we learn from the Fresh Expression movement’s novel approach to reaching people unlikely to attend church on Sunday mornings? Luke Edwards discusses a process of listening and relationship building that can lead to deepening discipleship and the formation of new, nontraditional worshipping communities.
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What can we learn from the Fresh Expression movement’s novel approach to reaching people unlikely to attend church on Sunday mornings? In this episode Luke Edwards discusses a process of listening and relationship building that can lead to deepening discipleship and the formation of new, nontraditional worshipping communities.
Ann Michel: I’m Ann Michel and I’m one of the editors of Leading Ideas E-newsletter. I’m so pleased to be the host of this episode of Leading Ideas Talks. I’m talking today with Luke Edwards who’s the founder of King Street Church in Boone, North Carolina. He’s also Associate Director of Church Development for the Western North Carolina Conference of the United Methodist Church. In that capacity, he has helped to start scores of Fresh Expressions of church. And he’s also the author of Becoming Church: A Trail Guide for Fresh Expressions. So welcome Luke! And thanks for being with us today.
Luke Edwards: Thanks for having me.
Ann Michel: A lot of your work as a church developer has focused on Fresh Expressions of church. And I think some of our listeners may not be familiar with that term, so can you just give a simple explanation of what a Fresh Expression is?
Luke Edwards: Sure. Fresh Expressions simply are just new forms of church specifically for folks that wouldn’t come to church on Sunday mornings. They often meet out in the community. They’re often a lot smaller than a traditional form of church — 15 to 40 people is the average size. And they’re conversational. They often begin with a communal activity or a shared interest, and we seek to form church with this group of people that we wouldn’t expect to see at church on Sunday mornings.
It’s a movement that started in the UK in 2004 and in the Anglican Church there and has come over to the US and really caught on fire, particularly with the mainline traditions here in the United States.
Ann Michel: In your book you write that Fresh Expressions create social community before they create spiritual community. And I think in most cases that’s probably precisely opposite of the way most people have come into traditional churches, where they might get involved first through worship and then get involved in a social group or a small group. Can you comment on that difference and why it’s important?
Luke Edwards: Yeah. Fresh Expressions really is born out of post-Christian reality. So, in a Christendom society where Church is normal and common, then, yes, it’s not too hard for someone to enter into a church through a worship service. But in a post-Christian reality, which more and more of the United States is becoming and pretty soon we’ll all be in a post-Christian reality, then it’s a really difficult jump for someone who’s not used to Christianity — to the language, to the practices, to the beliefs — to enter into a worship service where everyone seems to kind of agree on what they believe and where everyone’s sharing a language that they don’t understand. Fresh Expressions, then, has to flip that and say “Let’s build relationships. Let’s start with where people are, with their spiritual practices or spiritual beliefs and walk alongside folks in a journey towards becoming Christian.” Then, as this group journeys together, sometimes that group becomes a church in itself, a Fresh Expression of church.
Ann Michel: I know some of these communities will form around particular interests or activities or affinities. Could you give a couple of examples of the way some of these communities have taken shape?
Luke Edwards: Sure. We’ve got a church here in Charlotte, just north of Charlotte, North Carolina, called West UMC. They have a network of Fresh Expressions, and over the past several years they’ve started multiple Fresh Expressions. Their first one was a yoga gathering. They had a backroom of a pub where they hosted yoga on Friday nights and incorporated some Christian spiritual practices into that yoga practice. So, that was their first one. Now they have a golfing group. They have a group that goes out on Lake Norman to paddleboard and to meditate. They have a group called “Alive at 55,” which is older adults who are getting together to share life together. And they introduce spiritual conversations to those groups. They pray together. They seek to be a new form of church together. They also have a really cool new faith Community forming called “Growth Co.” which is targeted at Gen Z. This is a group that connects online but also gets together and goes and sings karaoke together and eats dinner together and has spiritual conversations around the table. So, that’s one example of what that can look like. It’s not necessarily complicated but, yeah, just finding a way to bring people together and introduce conversations about faith.
Ann Michel: From the perspective of someone who might be interested in joining a yoga class or an “Alive at 55” group, given the post-Christian reality that you’ve just described, does this feel like bait and switch. I mean like, “Oh, I thought I was joining a golf group and now it’s a prayer group.”
Luke Edwards: Yeah. So, it has to be done with intentionality. Otherwise, it will become something like that, because that’s the last thing we want is for a Fresh Expression to be manipulative or a bait and switch. And there’s a few ways that we teach our folks how to avoid that. One is to just be clear about the fact that this is a spiritual group. It’s a group that wants to talk about spirituality and have spiritual conversations. Actually, a lot of our neighbors who are a part of the Church, want to have those kinds of conversations. We have no shortage of spirituality in our communities, even in our most post-Christians communities. We just have a shortage of people that want to be a part of an institutional form of church, and so that’s one way.
Another way is there’s a Fresh Expression in the UK called “Sorted,” and it’s a youth skater church. And how they did this was they formed a Friday night skate for youth where these youth are welcome to come eat pizza and skate together. The adult volunteers are going to make sure it remains a safe space. But there’s not a spiritual element happening at that particular gathering. But as they build relationships, as the kids got to know these adults, some of them started asking them questions about faith, asking for prayer for different things, and so they started a Wednesday night “Skate and Jesus Story.” In addition to that, they kept the Friday night going, so that’s a kind of purely social gathering on Friday night. And then on Wednesday night, they have this spiritual conversation. You know, they might have 75 kids on the Friday night and only 15 or 20 on Wednesday. But that’s 15 or 20 kids that weren’t going to church or connected to church in any way.
Ann Michel: I believe I read that all of the Fresh Expressions that you’ve worked with in North Carolina are anchored to standing churches in some way, so I wondered what does that mean? And how does it work?
Luke Edwards: I think one of the real gifts of the Fresh Expressions movement is this language of the “blended ecology” of new forms of church and traditional forms of church working together, reaching different people. So, in my context, in the western North Carolina Conference, we’re intentional about anchoring our Fresh Expressions into congregations both for accountability but also just a way of helping our traditional churches, our traditional forms of churches to reach out into their community. It’s a new way of outreach, a new way of connecting with people that wouldn’t come to church on Sunday morning. So we kind of view it like you would with a campus. It’s like a mini-campus, maybe. Or, you might view it as a ministry of that church. But it’s a new form of church in itself. We’re not trying to get those folks to come on Sunday mornings. But there’s a relationship between the leaders of that Fresh Expression and the Sunday morning church.
Ann Michel: If I could follow up on that a bit, I know that the goal is not necessarily to bring the people who are engaged with a Fresh Expression into the standing church. It’s not necessarily going to be a pipeline for them to come to more traditional worship, so I guess the question I wanted to ask is, what is it that makes a Fresh Expression a full expression of church, rather than just a fellowship group? I don’t mean to say “just,” but what makes it different from a fellowship group or a small group or a Sunday school class or something like that?
Luke Edwards: Yes. One of the other helpful ideas about Fresh Expressions is what I wrote the book about. The process of starting a Fresh Expression is called the Fresh Expressions journey, so it’s a process of moving from listening to relationship building to community to discipleship to church. And all of our Fresh Expressions in Western North Carolina are somewhere on that journey, so we might have some that are at this point just fellowship gatherings. But it’s relationship building that’s happening. It’s community building. Their leaders are intentionally looking for opportunities to move into discipleship, so we have this language of “mature expression” of church, which would be one of our Fresh Expressions that we can say without a doubt is church.
River of Life is one of those in Bryson City. They’ve been around for 15 years and it’s a kayaking community. There’s worship happening. There’s prayer happening. They take an offering together. And the word is proclaimed. They are, you know, outwardly and inwardly focused. It’s all these different things that we look for as marks of the Church. They check those boxes off in new and creative ways. It’s not all on a Sunday morning. It doesn’t look the same as a worship service. But, yeah, they check those boxes off, so we feel confident saying, “Hey this is church.”
Ann Michel: You named, you kind of slipped in there, a sequence of steps. Can you repeat that because I know it’s emphasized in your book — that roadmap?
Luke Edwards: Yeah, sure. The Fresh Expressions journey is often illustrated with six circles.
In the UK, as well, there are six steps that most Fresh Expressions will move through. It looks linear and clean. It’s obviously messy in practice.
But it starts with the process of listening, intentional listening to the community, to your neighbors, to what your community cares about. What is missing? What are the strengths? What gaps are in the community?
Then, out of that listening process, you’re building relationships. You’re loving people in your community, kind of trying to invest in new friendships and invest in existing friendships in deeper ways, really trying to put yourself out there as a Fresh Expressions leader, as a Fresh Expressions team. And out of that, you start to discern whom you might connect with.
And out of that discernment, you begin a gathering. You start building community. You might have some one-time events and then start to build an ongoing gathering, a repeatable gathering where community is built.
Then, out of that community, you look for an opportunity to explore discipleship with some or all of the group that you’ve connected with. As disciples are formed and grown, then you look to become church together. And then often one Fresh Expression becomes multiple like West UMC, so you do it again. That’s the process.
Ann Michel: It’s almost the exact reverse flow of the way we do it traditionally.
Luke Edwards: It’s almost exactly the reverse, yeah.
Nature: Our First Way of Knowing God, a seven-session video-based adult Christian study, recognizes our innate and embedded knowing of God in and through God’s creation nature. This popular resource includes videos, discussion questions and a suggested weekly spiritual practice in nature that can be done either individually or as a group. Learn more and watch an introductory video at churchleadership.com/nature.
Ann Michel: So, most of our listeners are not church planters. They’re not church developers like you are. They are sort of your run-of-the-mill pastors and lay leaders, and they’re probably never going to start a faith community at a laundromat or in a brew pub. So, I wondered if there any lessons from your work for people who are ministering in more traditional contexts.
Luke Edwards: Yeah. What you just said about how Fresh Expressions kind of does it opposite. I think this is the way that we should be starting new initiatives in our churches — through a posture of listening first. We go to conferences and read blogs and learn about a cool idea that somebody else had. And we say, “Oh yeah! We could do that.” And you start with that program first. I think what Fresh Expressions has taught me is that the church should be focused on building community, whether that’s starting a Fresh Expression or whether that’s leading small groups, or whether that’s rethinking your Sunday morning gathering. I think community, focusing on building community over focusing on populating programs, is a really important lesson for the whole church.
Ann Michel: There are a lot of churches that have “adjacent communities” already, whether it’s a Scout troop, or a daycare, or a recovery group, groups that are either meeting in their church building or are extensions of their ministry in some way. Are there ways in which some of the lessons of how you cultivate people through Fresh Expressions might be outreach tools for those kinds of communities?
Luke Edwards: Definitely. I think there’s a lot of “almost Fresh Expressions” out there in our churches. The question is, are those relationships there? Because I think in some of those things you described, often it’s a building use relationship. But there’s others that are relationship building. You know, we’ve got a food pantry ministry at a church in Blowing Rock, North Carolina, who had the same people coming every Tuesday and Thursday, and they had built relationships. They knew them. They were praying for them. So, they started a communion service. I’d call that a Fresh Expression of church right there. They just had one more step that they could do with their food ministry. But that relationship part is really essential.
Ann Michel: Yeah, it’s almost connecting the dots with some of the mission that churches are already doing, because I think we sometimes see mission as, you know, so detached from the spiritual life of the Church, or as something that comes at the end of the spiritual journey. I love the way this is a much more integrative approach. One of the themes in your book is this epidemic of loneliness that is endemic in American culture, and that was even before the pandemic. So, I just wondered if you could speak to that. What is the Church’s calling in response to that?
Luke Edwards: I think loneliness is different than isolation. It’s a perceived lack of meaningful connection. It doesn’t necessarily mean you don’t have social interactions. It means that you’re perceiving a lack of meaningful interaction. And so, yeah, there’s a ton of Americans who feel lonely.
We also have something called the “friendship epidemic” or “friendship decline.” We have less friends, less quality friends. I think part of this is social media. It has created a lot of connections but drained us of a lot of meaningful connections that we used to have. I think part of it is we’re moving more. We’re more mobile. We’re busier than we’ve ever been with extracurricular activities and work and family — all these different things. And it has led to … yeah, if you just look at the people you see at the grocery store, you can assume that half of them are lonely. So, it’s this huge issue that every single one of our churches could walk out the door and know that that’s something that they could address. If that’s something we’re going to address, we need to create meaningful connection, and I think Fresh Expressions is one way to do that. But, you know, so is getting lunch with your neighbors or just being intentional about relationships with people that you know. Start to assume that the people you interact with are lonely.
Ann Michel: Or even the people already within our churches may be suffering from loneliness. I just want to add to what you said about some of the causes of this. I think this is a trend that’s been going on for a long time, if you’re familiar with Robert Putnam and Bowling Alone, the decline of social institutions, not just the church, within the broader community. And, also, the trend of people living alone — it was just a few years ago that the balance tipped and there are more Americans living in single households than in a family household. So, I think you’re really onto something with that.
If I can move on, you know a lot of Fresh Expressions that you’ve described, and some of the other ones that I’m familiar with, involve people gathering around either a particular interest, like you mentioned yoga or golf or woodworking or whatever, or meeting in a particular place, like a bar or a community dinner or something like that. And so, I’m really wondering, how have these Fresh Expressions changed in an era of social distancing?
Luke Edwards: Yeah, so the pandemic was really hard on our Fresh Expressions. In Western North Carolina, we had over 100 churches that were working on starting dinner churches, and almost all of those pumped the brakes as soon as the pandemic hit. A few of them transitioned to drive-through ministries, where they’re providing meals and people were driving through. A few of them experimented with Zoom. But it just didn’t quite fit with a lot of our Fresh Expressions. And so, yeah, it was it was pretty devastating to our Fresh Expressions movement for a while.
You know, to start a Fresh Expression is so personal and social and relationship-focused that it was really difficult to do that in lockdown and social distancing, so there really was this period where only a few of our Fresh Expressions were able to adapt quickly. We do have some faith communities in our conference that are our digital communities, and those just really took off. We also had a couple of outdoor gatherings that were able to really maintain their momentum even better than their anchor churches, which was interesting. You know, we had that River of Life, the one with the paddlers. There’s another group called Lake Church. Those groups almost became the anchor church for a while because the indoor gatherings weren’t happening so the churches kind of shifted to those outdoor ones. Yeah, it was a difficult time. But I think as we’ve become vaccinated and as we become more used to figuring out how to gather, our Fresh Expressions are really picking up. You know those gatherings of 15 to 40 feel a lot more comfortable than a gathering of 300 right now, so they are picking up now.
Ann Michel: That leads me to ask, with so much interest in online ministry and digital ministry through the pandemic, have you had an experience with creating Fresh Expressions that are purely in online space? Do you see that as a direction the movement might go in?
Luke Edwards: Yeah, I think it’s going to be a part of it. You know, we’re seeing several purely digital faith communities, purely digital Fresh Expressions. I think you guys have had Michael Beck on before. He’s got Living Room Church, which has both a Facebook group church and also they’ve started recently a virtual reality gathering. We had a virtual reality Fresh Expression in Western North Carolina that is kind of story-based. Yeah, I think definitely what I’m seeing now is that almost all of our expressions have some kind of digital presence, as well as being in person. So one more example. We got Checkpoint Church, which is a church plant in the Western North Carolina Conference. It’s for gamers, geeks, and nerds, and they have a stream on Twitch, which is kind of their proclamation, their kind of audience building gathering. And then they have a Discord channel where folks can interact together, build community, pray together, be the church there. So that’s one example of fully digital faith community. But that’s a group of people that are digital natives.
Ann Michel: Yeah, you pretty much lost me in the description.
Luke Edwards: Yes, so for the specific part of our society that fully digital, virtual faith community works for them. But I think for a large portion of our society, they want that a “in real life” (IRL) faith community, as well. You know, Springtide Research had some stuff on email sent out the other week about Gen Z — that a large percentage of them actually aren’t interested in a fully digital faith community. And yet, most of our Fresh Expressions that we’re starting now have a digital element to them. You know, I lead a Fresh Expression in Hunters Field called Who Let The Dads Out. It’s a dads’ group. And we gather once a month, do something, fun stuff, with our kids. We also have a Facebook group, a group text. So, we’re interacting throughout the month in that digital space.
Ann Michel: Yeah, that sounds great! Luke, it’s been fantastic to talk to you today. I’ve learned so much from what you’re doing, and I’m also really admiring of all that you’ve accomplished in this ministry and your time in the Western North Carolina Conference. Thanks for sharing with our listeners your learnings. It’s been great to talk to you.
Luke Edwards: Thanks so much.
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- Becoming Church: A Trail Guide for Starting Fresh Expressions (Harrington Interactive Media LLC , 2021) by Luke Edwards
- Coffee, Kids, and Chaos by Jessica L. Anschutz
- The Bright Promise of Alternative Faith Communities by Ann A. Michel
- 7 Steps for Making Disciples Through Relational Mentoring by Ken Carter And Audrey Warren