- New followers of Jesus, and those who describe being previously harmed by the church, are finding a spiritual home in Methodist “fresh expressions of church.”
- In the Florida United Methodist Church alone, more than 300 fresh expressions have sprung up in homes, offices, restaurants and elsewhere, and the movement is gaining traction across the U.S.
- In the nautical practice of kedging, the anchor is used to pull a ship forward in tight harbors. For Methodism, Jesus is like the rowboat carrying the anchor into the future, and we just need to grab hold and pull ourselves forward.
The United Methodist Church can feel like an ocean liner being tossed on a stormy sea of cultural change. Sometimes all our efforts can feel futile, as if we’re rearranging deck chairs on a sinking ship.
While the seemingly endless debate about schism rages on among the Methodist family, taking up headline space about the denomination, a movement of the Holy Spirit has been quietly spreading. New followers of Jesus, and those who describe being previously harmed by the church, are finding a spiritual home in Methodist “fresh expressions of church.” These are forms of church for our changing culture, established primarily for those not connected to a church.
Consider for example the Florida Conference.
Jessica Taylor, a 24-year-old Florida lay church planter, noticed more Americans were moving into RVs. She and her husband, the Rev. Jeff Taylor, envisioned a kind of church that doesn't need walls but could take place in campgrounds or online among people who RV. They purchased an RV and began living incarnationally among RVers. RV Church was born.
At Grace Church in Cape Coral, Florida, Heather Evans, a lay person, oversees fresh expressions. Her biggest focus is “making disciples of Jesus among the nones, dones, lonely and marginalized people in the 239 area code.” She personally leads a Dinner Church, Messy Church, and a fresh expression for single moms called Our Time. Grace is a large church, living into a “blended ecology,” in which inherited and emerging forms of church live together in symbiotic relationship.
Piper Ramsey-Sumner is lead cultivator of Fresh Expressions Florida. As a lay person, she does public theology and creates community in digital spaces like TikTok and Discord, as well as locally through a book club and pub community. Piper started a thriving network called Tallahassee Brew Theology, a community that meets in local breweries to engage in meaningful conversations on subjects related to religion, philosophy and culture.
These leaders are graduates of the Adventurers Leadership Academy, a multi-conference collaboration in partnership with United Theological Seminary that equips lay, licensed and ordained adventurers to cultivate fresh expressions and other forms of innovative ministry.
In the Florida United Methodist Church alone, more than 300 fresh expressions have sprung up in homes, work, school and “third places.” These churches are gathering in tattoo parlors, dog parks, burrito joints, running tracks, yoga studios, Zoom, Facebook Groups and virtual reality.
But Florida is not alone. This is a movement gaining traction across the U.S.
In Washington, D.C., Pastor Raimon Jackson planted The Well, a creative arts and conscious awareness faith community. Between writing, producing, performing his own R&B/inspirational tracks and running for mayor, Rai leads an expression that unites community, embraces the arts, navigates purpose and evokes healthy conversation around spirituality, justice and Jesus.
In Mooresville, North Carolina, 26-year-old church planter Lexi Hernandez leads Growth Co., the fusion of spirituality and everyday life for people in their 20s and 30s. She encourages spiritual growth through self-reflection and intentional conversations via online and onsite gatherings within the community. Lexi provides a safe environment for those seeking meaning and love in unconventional ways.
The Rev. Heather Jallad is Lead Fresh Expressions Cultivator for The United Methodist Church’s North Georgia Conference. As a practitioner starting fresh expressions, she is simultaneously identifying and equipping other potential practitioners. Around 70 fresh expressions of church have come into being as she works with local church pastors and superintendents to identify potential district cultivators.
The Journey Church is a fun and life-giving 3-year-old multiethnic church in urban Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, planted by the Rev. Kris Sledge. Its desire is to help people find belonging, experience the liberating spirit of Jesus, seek justice in the world and radically love our neighbors. Sledge’s congregation spans generations, ethnicities, socio-economic status, sexual orientations, gender identities and spiritual backgrounds. The members remain intentional about spiritual formation in and outside the church walls, including community groups that foster deep belonging, and a shared commitment to seeking the welfare of their city.
These expressions are not limited to molecule swapping spaces only. Nathan Webb leads Checkpoint Church, a ministry that is reaching “the nerds, geeks and gamers of the world with the purpose to create a community that seeks to do good, do no harm, and strive to grow together.” By meeting new people regularly online via weekly streams, it has created a pseudo-monastic community on Discord that is active around the clock. This community is seeking spiritual growth through exploring the intersection between faith and fandom in weekly nerdy sermons and discussion groups.
Some of these emerging faith communities may not check the boxes of vitality metrics appropriate for a 1950s Christendom scenario, but one doesn’t have to look hard to see how they are indeed vital in their own way. These incredible young leaders are reaching new people, younger people and more diverse people in exciting ways. They are the present-future of United Methodism.
Throughout 2022, Path 1 at Discipleship Ministries has been providing support through Fresh Expressions UM, a distinctly Wesleyan Spirit-led movement seeking to cultivate communities of love and grace for people neglected by the church. This movement seeks to reclaim a Methodism that started in the fields, spoke plain truth for plain people, and empowered laity to lead new faith communities. FX UM describes the four values of these new expressions as:
- Inclusive: a manifestation of God’s outreaching love.
- Accessible: culturally appropriate, close and contextual.
- Transformative: empowering spiritual growth and equipping for works of love.
- Connectional: existing in a relationship with each other and the wider church.
By “bringing forth treasures old and new” (Matthew 13:52), FX UM synergizes the values of early Methodism and Fresh Expressions “to serve the present age,” as Charles Wesley put it in “A Charge to Keep I Have.”
This emerging Methodism takes its cues not just from the past but from what God is doing in the present and future.
Perhaps Methodists can learn how to navigate these turbulent times using an old sailor tactic called “kedging.” Most of the time an anchor is used to hold a ship in place. However, kedging involves using an anchor to pull a ship forward. It was a means to maneuver large engineless ships in and out of tight harbors and adverse weather conditions. Sometimes rowboats were sent out carrying the anchor of a larger ship in the direction they wanted to move the vessel. They would then drop the anchor and pull the ship up to the anchor point.
When it comes to the future of Methodism, it’s all about kedging. We grab the anchor of hope God has thrown from the future. Hebrews 6:19-20 reads, “We have this hope, a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul, a hope that enters the inner shrine behind the curtain, where Jesus, a forerunner on our behalf, has entered … .”
This “anchor of the soul” is a future-oriented hope, rooted in God’s compassion, fully embodied by Jesus. Jesus is like the rowboat who has carried the anchor into the future, making it possible for us to grab hold and pull ourselves forward.
This hope is not of the pie-in-the-sky, cross-your-fingers optimism variety. It is a rope we can feel, hold and use to navigate the storms of change.
Might these emerging communities be little rowboats, pulling us forward into God’s future?
Perhaps they are reminding us that churches not rooted in the passio Dei (the passion of God, a self-emptying, other-oriented and sacrificial love) are not being faithful to Jesus’ “way, truth and life” (John 14:6)? Amid a brand of faith that is seemingly all head and no heart, might forms of church anchored in the passionate love of Jesus for the world be a way to bring back into balance orthodoxy (“right belief”), orthopraxy (“right practice”) and orthopathy (“right pathos”)?
Many of us will continue as orthodox United Methodists, longing for a faith that is more deeply Wesleyan but not limited by an overly conservative, exclusive, legalistic vision. We know changing the logo on the sign will not magically lead to “making disciples for the transformation of the world.” We are rolling up our sleeves and joining what the Holy Spirit is up to in our local communities. We are not waiting for the future; we are kedging it out day by day.
Every Christian can cultivate fresh expressions in the daily rhythms and spaces of life. Congregations that are engaging in this work are experiencing renewal. The blended ecology enables diverse streams of theology and contextual forms of church to live alongside existing forms of church in such a way that a new kind of Methodism can flourish amid a churning sea of change.
Beck is co-pastor at St. Marks United Methodist Church and director of Fresh Expressions House of Studies at United Theological Seminary; director Re-Missioning, Fresh Expressions US; director of Fresh Expressions in the Florida Conference of The United Methodist Church; and director of Fresh Expressions UM at Path 1, Discipleship Ministries.
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