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Expanding Fresh Expressions: 3 key ideas

By: Doreen Gosmire, director of communications, Dakotas UMC

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Rev. Micheal Beck leads teaching session about Fresh Expressions at the 2023 Dakotas Annual Conference. Photo by jlynn studios.

The Fresh Expressions movement in the denomination offers a viable way forward. Attendees of Futuring Forward: The Reawakening of the People Called Methodist, the first national meeting of the group that explored alternatives to the traditional focus on Sunday morning worship. Fresh Expressions emerged in Anglican churches in England in the early 2000s, and the concept caught on in the U.S.

Bishop Lanette Plambeck and the Dakotas Conference's appointive cabinet joined hundreds of innovative and inspiring United Methodists from across the country in Charlotte, North Carolina. The event, sponsored by the General Board of Discipleship of The United Methodist Church, was organized to unite United Methodist leaders for fellowship, learning, energized by fresh imagination and hope, and curating the best practices from the field. 

The Dakotas-Minnesota Area of The United Methodist Church is engaged in learning about and creating fresh expressions of faith. All across Minnesota, North Dakota, and South Dakota, faith leaders are creating new forms of church for those not connected to any church. These expressions take shape outside of the walls of the church in places where our neighbors are already gathering.

"(Fresh Expressions) was born out of this realization that people are not coming to the church," said the Rev. Michael Adam Beck, who leads Fresh Expressions UM under the umbrella of United Methodist Discipleship Ministries and also teaches the concept to leaders across the Dakotas-Minnesota Area.

Rev. Dan Bader, Southwest District Superintendent and leader of the Dakotas Conference Fresh Expressions movement said, "The first Fresh Expressions UM National Gathering was amazing. Being in a place with these passionate and creative leaders gives me so much hope for the future." 

Bader shares three lessons from the national gathering and key ideas for Dakotas-Minnesota United Methodists as they launch fresh expressions of faith. 

Go to where the people are. 

National surveys consistently show declining interest in the traditional mainline church experience, especially among younger people. Surveys show that 79% of adults in the U.S. believe in God, but not 79% of our population is in church on Sundays.

The traditional church model, also known as the inherited church, does not speak to many people. People are longing for connection. 

"People are hungry for authentic community," said Bader. "They are disconnected from the inherited [traditional] church and looking for ways to connect."

An essential lesson for Bader and all of us, is to create a fresh expression that meets people where they are. It is easy to create something likable for those who already attend church and are engaged in the inherited church.

"We should not think that we have the corner on creating Fresh Expressions. We shouldn't create the fresh expression that we want, thinking that people will identify with it. One of the pieces that has been a part of learning is that we need to be about sincere listening. We need to listen to what people want and hunger for," said Bader.

Dinner Church is one way authentic connection is happening. It is an outreach, a fellowship, a gathering. It is a genuine and ancient expression of what Jesus commissioned us to be and do. People gather around for food, to laugh, have conversations, and talk about our mission—ultimately, to change the world. Around the table, people share their own stories about Jesus and how they encounter Jesus. 

Dan shares one example of dinner church. "I heard about a Fresh Expression in Florida called Football Fondue. People get together for tailgating and fondue. At the gathering, there is sharing of Jesus stories. It meets people where they are. There is a connection with the food and faith."

External focus goes beyond the church doors.

For many people, the word "church" sounds serious. It might bring to mind stiff liturgies, outdated suits and ties, or serious discussions of eternal consequence. The Fresh Expressions movement permits people to fling open the doors and go outside the church walls, the idea of meeting people out in the community.

"We need to be willing to think "outside the church," said Bader.  "One of the presenters from Florida shared that they have church at horse shows. The church owns a horse arena. During the weekend, the church hosts horse shows, or other groups host them. They provide hospitality and have started reaching people."

Knowing your community, what engages the people, and what occupies their minds and hearts is critical to reaching the next person for Jesus. How can the passions and hobbies be used to build God's kingdom? 

Fresh expressions are not random. An intentional focus gives us permission to turn play into faith. Play, intentionally focusing on faith, is a way to connect with each other and God. When we play, we are together physically and emotionally. 

"A fresh expression most commonly starts in one of two ways. The first is by observing and meeting a need in a community. The second is by observing one's passions and hobbies and exploring how those things could be used to build a community of faith," said Dan.

Activate Day April

Join Activate Day, with a team, and plan a Fresh Expression. Photo illustration by Dave Stucke, Dakotas Conference.

It is a matter of heart.

There is no one activity or model to replicate regarding Fresh Expressions. It is a matter of heart: sharing Jesus' heart and building God's kingdom. It takes a passion.

A passionate faith is shared in a grassroots movement that embraces the spirit of the creative entrepreneur and visionary evangelist. It takes grit and faith to go out, listen, love, serve, tell people about Jesus, and work with their new communities to create a new and authentic expression of church that makes sense to them.

"We all know the demographics. We know that there are many people in our communities who are unchurched. Yet we are not really wanting to open the conversation about Jesus," said Dan. "It might be a fear that we will lose the inherited church. It could be a fear that we will fail. It takes heart—a heart and love for Jesus and the future of the church. The mission field is ripe."

As UM Fresh Expressions expands, two major themes are clear: there is great hope for the future of The United Methodist Church, and we already know the way--it's our Wesleyan roots and built on a missional imperative.

Read stories about Fresh Expressions happening across the Dakotas-Minnesota Area.
Join the monthly Fresh Expressions coaching calls.
Attend Activate Day on April 20 with a team.


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