RICHMOND — Fresh Expressions, a movement which aims to help churches engage postmodern culture through new creative communities of faith, has taken the next step in its development with the launch this month of its first learning communities in the United States.
The two communities, called Mission-Shaped Ministry, are based in the Washington and Trenton, N.J., metropolitan areas. More than 50 people gathered Jan. 18 for a combined initial retreat at a church north of Baltimore.
An earlier pilot project paved the way for the first communities, said Chris Backert, national director of Fresh Expressions US.
The learning communities are networks of ministers and laypersons seriously exploring “fresh expressions” of church during a year-long process that includes two weekend retreats and several Saturday sessions every six to eight weeks. Teams explore the theological foundations of Fresh Expressions, interact with practitioners and have access to coaching for the duration of the community. Participants will join a continuing peer learning network when the process is completed.
Four denominations are represented in the initial MSM communities — the Baptist General Association of Virginia, the American Baptist Churches of New Jersey, the Anglican Church in North America’s Diocese of the Mid-Atlantic and the Church of the Nazarene’s Mid-Atlantic District.
“I was encouraged that so many from such diverse traditions and contexts could gather for substantive dialogue about the nature of God’s mission and the Church,” said Ben Jamison, director of training and operations for Fresh Expressions US.
Gannon Sims, director of networking and communications, said the “age and ethnic diversity was amazing.”
Fresh Expressions is the American franchise of a movement begun nearly 10 years ago among Anglicans in the United Kingdom. It caught the attention of Baptist General Association of Virginia leaders, who believed North America’s mission challenge resembles Britain’s. Eventually the BGAV developed Fresh Expressions US, which now receives additional support from Anglican, Nazarene, Presbyterian and other groups.
A denominationally-varied governing board of trustees, which reports to the Virginia Baptist Mission Board’s executive committee, was organized last fall.
In addition to Backert, Jamison and Sims, two contract workers flesh out the staff roster: J.R. Briggs, Northeast regional coordinator, based in Lansdale, Pa., and Stan Graham, mission strategist and trainer, based in Forest Hill, Md.
Much of Fresh Expressions’ strategy is centered on Vision Days — one-day awareness events — and on the MSM learning communities.
North Carolina event
A Vision Day set for Feb. 1 at First Baptist Church in Greensboro has sold out with about 150 registrants. The event is hosted by the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of North Carolina, the national CBF, the Center for Congregational Health and the BGAV.
“The overwhelming response indicates the need for another Vision Day in North Carolina later this year,” said Backert.
Sims said an interested person’s engagement with Fresh Expressions typically begins with a Vision Day, where the concept is introduced.
“If there is interest in learning more, they would take part in the year-long learning community process,” he said. “It’s the 2.0 version of Fresh Expressions — a little more depth.”
Though the Washington and Trenton MSM communities are the first in this country, Jamison said about 70 are currently running in Australia, Barbados, Canada, New Zealand, South Africa and the United Kingdom.
The Jan. 18 retreat was a long-sought opportunity, said participant Mia Chang, pastor of NexGen Church near Princeton, N.J.
“As a pastor of a young church of four years, I’ve been praying and searching for opportunities to dialogue with other pastors and leaders about new possibilities to engage our community,” she said. “This learning community may serve as the forum for those who are passionate about reaching the ‘not-yet-Christians.’ We may further grow as leaders, and inspire and support one another as we take risks in our community for the purpose of making Jesus known.”
Chang said she hopes the experience will both enhance her church’s current ministries and inspire new ones.
“Our church has been successful in creating various ministries to reach children and families in our community,” she said. “Instead of constantly beginning new ministries, we need to develop our existing ones in order to further impact the people whom we now serve. … We are looking forward to applying what we’ve learned and discussed during the learning community into our NextGen Church context.”
Backert said Fresh Expressions’s staff is a key component in the organization’s effectiveness.
“One of the satisfying things about collaborating with other denominations is the recognition of the quality people on our team,” he said. “I got lots of feedback about how Ben and Gannon are helping them through this process. I hear that consistently.”
Robert Dilday ([email protected]) is managing editor of the Religious Herald.