Haters Gonna Hate: How to Handle Criticism in Fresh Expressions

This post originally appeared on the Fresh Expressions US Blog.

I was talking to someone about the fresh expression I help lead in the county jail. He said his brother was in the jail. I asked if his brother had attended our fresh expression. He replied, “No, he heard your church also meets in a bar.”

It’s certainly not the first time we’ve faced scrutiny for our fresh expression that meets at the pub, but the irony of being dismissed by someone who was currently incarcerated was not lost on me. I smiled and said, “Well, we’d love to have him join us some time.”

Over the past five years of leading a network of fresh expressions connected to a large United Methodist church in addition to coordinating the fresh expressions movement for the Western North Carolina Conference of the UMC, I’ve seen my fair share of resistance. Here’s what I’ve learned:

Know where you’re going

Jesus faced the criticism of religious leaders throughout his journey from Galilee to Jerusalem. His reactions varied from withdrawing quietly to throwing down, yet in each interaction he didn’t let it distract him from his ultimate goal. He listened, responded, and kept walking to Jerusalem. Early on in my ministry I spent way too much time responding to critics, to the point that it was impacting my actual ministry. Criticism can easily send you on a rabbit trail away from your calling. Don’t let it.

Know the rule before you break it

Fresh expressions often have us breaking the norms of our congregations and denominations. That’s fine, but never break a rule carelessly. The responsibility is on you to know why it is ok to break a norm. As King Street Church took shape, it looked very different from a typical United Methodist Church. I studied the United Methodist Book of Discipline and did a great deal of reading in ecclesiology. I was ready when people said, “That’s not church.”

I’ve read theological books and articles on every norm I’ve broken. More often than not, I find out that I’m not departing from the heart of the church tradition but am finding a new way to practice the tradition. It’s also important to discuss these decisions with trusted folks, particularly anyone you report to (i.e. senior pastor, denominational supervisor, etc).

Keep calm and explain your thinking

Shane L. Bishop wrote in a recent post, “Don’t be defensive or terse in the face of criticism. Be open and approachable. Let people know you have thought through things, listened to others and made your call. There is nothing weak about giving an explanation.” It is a good practice to explain your vision and decision clearly and concisely. There’s a good chance that the conversation could be eye-opening for both parties. You might even need to admit that you were wrong. If it goes downhill, feel free to bow out. Also, use your discretion on who is worth taking time to explain something to. A member of your church is always worth talking to; a random arm-chair theologian on twitter might not be worth your time. It’s ok to ignore strangers on social media. It’s also ok to unfriend or block someone who is consistently antagonistic.

Refer back to the mixed economy often

It seems that 75% of critiques against fresh expressions can be settled by explaining the mixed economy. The mixed economy is a term coined by Rowan Williams to describe the ‘both/and’ nature of the future of the Church. Fresh expressions are not challenging or replacing traditional forms of church. We need both to respond to the changing culture of Western Post-Christendom. A new way of gathering the church does not threaten an existing congregation, but rather allows that congregation to reach folks it would never reach otherwise.

Remember tradition changes

Critics would often have you think that they hold the keys to a permanent and unmovable tradition. It’s just not true. The traditions we inherited have taken shape over time. Dianna Butler Bass, the great mainline author and theologian, says, “Tradition changes over time—sometimes as a calculated strategy and other times as an ad hoc sort of popular response to social circumstances… For their entire history Christians have invented, recreated, or adapted traditions when old patterns no longer hold sway.” Major theologians, practitioners, and denominational leaders have carefully reflected on scripture, tradition, and reason to form the theological basis of this movement. It’s not a movement of careless, anti-establishment rebels. Read some Michael Moynagh if you’re not convinced.

It gets easier

If you’ve ever played guitar, you know about calluses. The first time you pick up a guitar your fingertips that press on the strings will be hurting. The next time you’ll have some calluses that have formed, but they still hurt a bit. After a couple weeks of consistent playing the calluses will be fully formed and you will barely feel any pain. Criticism is similar. The first couple times it’s going to hurt. There’s no way around it. You’re going to take it personally. You might even react somewhat rashly. But after a few more times it gets easier. You start to realize that many of the critics are dealing with their own issues and are taking it out on you. You become more confirmed in your calling and you can keep moving forward, barely slowing down.

Stories can keep people from becoming haters

This one is important. Many critiques arise from a lack of understanding of what we are doing. Other critiques arise from a lack of empathy. Telling stories about what happens at your fresh expression and the impact your fresh expression is making in your community can help build both understanding and empathy. My biggest advocates at my anchor church are those who have children who are not going to church. They can picture their children coming to one of our fresh expressions and they defend us at committee meetings and in conversations among other church members.

Work with the willing

Your energy is a finite resource. Use it wisely. Focus on the folks in your community, congregation, or in your denomination who get the vision. It’s usually not a great use of your time to try to convince people who probably already have their mind made up. The kingdom of God is big enough for both of you to live out your callings. Shake off the dust and keep moving.


Criticism and innovation go hand in hand. Enjoy it. Let it sharpen you. Everyone doesn’t need to approve of your fresh expression. After all, if we wanted to do something that pleases everyone we could sell ice cream.

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