By Robert Dilday
About 80 percent of North Carolina’s 9.7 million people don’t attend church and reaching them will require a “mixed economy” of both existing congregations and new forms of church, a group of Baptist leaders was told Feb. 1.
“We are attempting to re-evangelize a previously evangelized society. That has never happened in the United States,” said Chris Backert, national director of Fresh Expressions, a movement which aims to help churches engage postmodern culture through new creative communities of faith.
Backert was one of several leaders at a Fresh Expressions “Vision Day” — an introduction to the movement — held at First Baptist Church in Greensboro, N.C. A capacity crowd of about 150 attended the event, sponsored by the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of North Carolina, the national CBF, the Center for Congregational Health and the Baptist General Association of Virginia.
“In response to changes in our culture we can have great hope,” Backert said. “It’s not our job to fix it. God is not unaware of the changes and he is responding and inviting us to join him. We’re just trying to keep up with where the Holy Spirit is taking the church.”
Following that lead will require “fresh expressions” of church which have a strong mission focus, a willingness to re-imagine the shape churches can take, and a commitment to both existing and new forms of church, Backert said.
“A ‘fresh expression’ is putting the church Jesus loves closer to where the people Jesus loves actually are,” he said.
Those new forms must be “soft and pliable,” said Ben Jamison, director of training and operations for Fresh Expressions.
“Flexible structures are needed to bridge the gap between church culture and the cultures around us whose people are unable or unwilling to come to church,” Jamison said. “One of the marks of a ‘fresh expression’ is adaptability and flexibility.’”
Jamison insisted there’s no fixed strategy for developing new communities of faith.
“The ethos of Fresh Expressions is not about saying something which worked in a particular place can work in every place,” he said. “It’s not about a model but about a mindset.… We need a form without a formula, an intention without an equation.”
Unlike creative ministries initiated by existing congregations, these new communities of faith aim to be church — though often in unfamiliar and unconventional forms, said Backert. “They will come into being through the principles of listening, service, incarnational mission and making disciples,” he said. “They will have the potential of becoming a mature expression of church shaped by the gospel and the enduring marks of a church in its cultural context.”
Gannon Sims, director of networking and communications for Fresh Expressions, said a “symbiotic relationship” between existing and new forms of congregations is the “brightest hope” for the church.
“A ‘fresh expression’ can mobilize God’s mission force which is by and large found in existing or inherited congregations,” he said. “They provide space for innovation and mission.”
He added: “Let’s not keep all our eggs in the old basket. We need to figure out how to diversify.”
Three examples of new church forms were offered by George Linney, pastor of Tobacco Trail Church in Durham, N.C.; Cheryl McCarthy, executive director of Seeds Ministry in New Bern, N.C.; and Greg LeMaster, pastor for outreach at Graceland Baptist Church in Powhatan, Va.
A common thread in their comments — listening and waiting.
“Listening is the No. 1 key thing,” said McCarthy. “It’s learning what it means to be the sheep when the shepherd is Jesus, and learning how to hear what he says no matter what.”
“Risk the false start,” said Linney. “Stay there and lean into it a lot longer than you probably did to get your degree or to get married or anything else. These are longer waits.”
LeMaster experimented with several approaches before the emergence of Joy Church, which aims at families with special needs. “It takes a while,” he said.
Fresh Expressions is the American franchise of a movement begun nearly 10 years ago among Anglicans in the United Kingdom. Baptist General Association of Virginia leaders subsequently developed Fresh Expressions US, which now receives additional support from several Christian faith traditions.
Participants at the Greensboro event said they found plenty to chew on.
“Having been exposed to the Fresh Expressions movement in Great Britain (from a distance) and in the U.S. (primarily in Virginia), I’m excited to introduce it to the CBFNC community,” said Larry Hovis, CBFNC executive coordinator. “Fresh Expressions, I believe, will provide an important pathway for our churches to make shifts toward becoming missionaries in our communities.”
“My big takeaway is that Christians have made expanding the Kingdom of God too difficult,” said Ka’thy Gore Chappell, the CBFNC’s leadership development coordinator. “God means for us to simply relax and listen, and then proceed — in a thoroughly professional way, but in relationship with people. Sometimes that’s just sitting in a chair next to someone, and listening and having a conversation over coffee.”
Finding patience for the new
Mike Queen, retired pastor of First Baptist Church in Wilmington, N.C., said the Vision Day delivered a “big message.”
“Everyone knows the world has changed. Everyone gets that. But everyone is bewildered about what to do,” said Queen, currently interim pastor of First Baptist Church in Greensboro. About 20 members of the church attended the conference.
“We are so distracted by numbers and success and we don’t have patience with something new,” he added. “What the Fresh Expressions leaders shared is that it doesn’t have to bear fruit tomorrow. We have to take a long-term view. That’s important for people to hear. They also said you don’t have to give up what you’re currently doing, and that’s important.… What this conference did was give us a framework for a conversation.”
That conversation will shake the conventional view of a “professional” clergy and an “amateur” laity, said Bill Wilson, president of the Center for Congregational Health.
“The Fresh Expressions model and the missional model essentially say we’ll flip that perception,” he said. “The people who have the most problem with that are the clergy. The laity are ready to go.”
Matt Cook, current pastor of First Baptist Church in Wilmington, said the conference made it clear that “if the church is going to take its role to be a witness to the world seriously, that means we have to hold on to our traditional ways of doing things loosely enough not to get in the way of doing new and creative things.”
Offering freedom to think “outside the box” could allow existing church ministries to become “fresh expressions,” Cook said.
“But there’s no way churches with limited resources can hire enough staff to do that,” he said. “We’re either going to be content with a very low ceiling or we’re going to have to unleash the passion of the whole church and send them in the same way we send missionaries — release them and trust them. They are capable of being at the center of a new movement of God’s spirit alongside the traditional church. That’s a prophetic word.
“But a hopeful word for the traditional church is that it’s an ‘alongside movement,’ not a rejection of the traditional church,” he added. “It was good for me to hear that God is blessing us by giving us some mature expressions of church in which we can still operate. [Fresh Expressions leaders] don’t think and I don’t think that God’s intent is to burn down the traditional church. We can celebrate it. We just can’t be so bound to it that it stifles the new thing God wants us to be doing.”