“The church of Jesus Christ will not die.”
So believes Michael Beck, Director of Re-Missioning for Fresh Expressions US and Cultivator of Fresh Expressions for the Florida Conference. Beck, who also serves as co-pastor with his wife Jill at Wildwood UMC in Wildwood, FL, presented during the teaching sessions of the Dakotas Annual Conference on Thursday afternoon and Friday morning.
Individual churches or expressions of faith may die, Beck proclaimed, but the church of Jesus Christ will continue and flourish, so long as people creatively engage the task of bringing church into the world. Still, Beck is acutely aware of the challenges.
“Most days, we are trying to find which way the wind of the Holy Spirit is blowing, trying to join that flow and figure this out as we go along,” he said, comparing the task of reaching modern people to building an aircraft while flying it.
One of the key challenges lies in the disconnect between typical modes of church and the actual lives of normal people. Whether because of changing attitudes, economic necessity, or spiritual trauma, a significant number of Americans—particularly young people—will never enter a church on a Sunday morning.
“Right now, church is really inaccessible for most normal people,” Beck said. “Even if we put up a sign that says 'All Are Welcome', our behavior suggests that they’re not.”
Along with trying to attract people to church, Fresh Expressions seeks to take church out to where people already gather. Beck believes such an incarnational approach has deep roots in the Wesleyan movement, which began not as a theological framework but as a missional impulse.
In order to build the bridge to where normal people are, Beck suggests, we need to realize that our culture has shifted from a neighborhood society to a network society. Regional relationships have given way to domains in which technologies and practices connect people more than geography. Faith communities can spring out of the domains in which people are already doing life together.
With this in mind, Beck has helped start ministries in a variety of settings, including Yoga Church, Tesla Church, Tattoo Parlor Church, and Burritos and Bibles. These are generally small but cohesive groups that foster what he calls “sermonic conversation.”
Of course, not every idea pans out. Skydiving Church, for instance, literally failed to launch.
“The plane broke down,” Beck explained.
Still, Fresh Expressions is not a matter of rejecting one model for the sake of another. He still sees value in attractional models and emphasizes the need for in-person connection. Attractional and missional, he insists, should complement each other.
On Friday morning, Beck turned his focus to rural ministry, which have fewer “third places” for people to gather. God, he said, is God of the wilderness. Many of God’s mightiest acts involved a time in the wilderness at some point—including Jesus’ life and ministry. Our task in a state like North or South Dakota is to recognize and embrace our rural reality and develop ways to engage it.
The decline of population and rise of poverty in rural areas, combined with the massive disruption of new technology, have created a game in which conditions are constantly changing. Beck likened it to “alien tennis.”
In such a world, fresh expressions of faith are essential to continuing the work of the church. Given our history, Methodists should be well-positioned to meet the challenge. Early Methodists were compassion driven, reproducible, flexible in terms of time and rhythms, and willing to go into the fields or mines to meet people. American Methodism began as a rural movement in camp meetings.
Those of us continuing the work today—particularly laity—must learn to hear and respond to those we encounter in our various contexts.
“The key thing is that we cultivate communities of love and grace for the people neglected by the church,” Beck said.