One critique of the Fresh Expressions movement thus far has been that a fresh expression of church is not truly church.
It is no surprise that Brandon Proctor of Juicy Ecumenism in his brief interaction with the movement at the Fresh Expressions US National Gathering walked away with the feeling that Fresh Expressions distorts the biblical definition of church.
Critiques of the ecclesiology of the Fresh Expressions movement are nothing new, but Proctor’s critique demonstrates a clear misunderstanding and blatant misrepresentation of the movement’s ecclesiology. What superficial observers might see as a departure from traditional ecclesiology is in fact a rich ecclesiology with both biblical and traditional roots that has been poured over by denominational leaders and theologians for the past decade.
DIFFERENTIATING MATURE EXPRESSIONS AND FRESH EXPRESSIONS OF CHURCH
No fresh expression claims to be a mature expression of church, but each has the potential to become one. The gift of Fresh Expressions as a model is the differentiation of a fresh expression of church from a mature expression of church.
A mature expression of church has all of the marks of the church. Each denomination and tradition has the marks of church that it requires. A fresh expression of church does not claim to have all the marks of the church, but claims to have at least one.
Some begin with the reading of God’s word, some with proclamation, some with discipleship formation, and some with the sacraments. As the fresh expression continues to form it moves towards a mature expression of church.
FRESH EXPRESSIONS ECCLESIOLOGY
Fresh Expressions is a truly ecumenical movement and therefore has to leave enough wiggle room for each denomination and tradition to ultimately define its ecclesiology. Perhaps this is why some critics view Fresh Expressions ecclesiology as wishy washy.
However, in trainings Fresh Expressions gives the skeleton ecclesiology of four marks of church:
Connectedness to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit
Christian fellowship and community
A part of the universal, catholic church
Denominations are then invited to fill in the flesh upon this skeleton.
British Methodists have done this by adding the necessity of the following in their fresh expressions:
the means of grace – Scripture, sacraments and conferring (class meetings and committees)
the ministry of the whole people of God, with an emphasis on lay leadership in pastoral care and preaching
sharing in God’s mission through evangelism, social action, the struggle for justice and the care of creation.
NEW TESTAMENT ECCLESIOLOGY
Proctor seems keen to toss around the term “biblical” without much explanation. Nothing seems more biblical than the slow, contextual work of planting a church in uncharted territory. Michael Moynagh offers a thorough New Testament ecclesiology in his book, Church for Every Context. He quotes Schnaebl’s use of the example of Paul in church planting, “Led by the Spirit, Paul responded when doors opened. He preached in synagogues, market places, lecture halls, workshops and private homes as the opportunity arose.” (Schnaebl, 2008, p 304-306)
We see Paul taking time in new contexts to understand the culture before planting a church. He says, “For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship”
Furthermore, he does not rush into creating a church, but rather teaches in the context of the society. He reminds the Ephesian leaders, “I did not shrink from doing anything helpful, proclaiming the message to you and teaching you publicly and from house to house.”
In this slow process of contextualization and relationship development Paul planted the seed of the church and identified indigenous leaders to carry the formation and maturation of that church. In Phillipi he meets Lydia, at Corinth Aquila and Priscilla. These leaders are the ones to bring the Hellenic fresh expressions of church into maturation.
One friend posited, “The Book of Acts is the recording of fresh expressions breaking out all over the Mediterranean.”
NEW FORMS OF CHURCH ARE NOT NEW
Proctor’s fear that the FE movement is reinventing the wheel is not only disproved by the New Testament, but by the formation of the Post-Reformation Church.
Fresh expressions of church have been in my own tradition since its formation in the 18th century. When John Wesley started the Methodist movement he was not starting mature expressions of church. Instead he started classes and bands intentionally created to work alongside the Anglican Church. As time went on these gatherings grew into mature expressions of church.
According to United Methodist Bishop Ken Carter, “Many of our questions related to the emergence of Fresh Expressions are shaped by existing forms of church; the early Wesleyan movement developed alongside the predominant patterns of church, taking up the essential work alongside them.” Throughout the whole of church history, new forms of church have developed alongside the traditional church (see monasticism, church planting movements in the majority world, etc).
It should be of no surprise that John Wesley also faced great resistance. The Anglican bishop Joseph Butler famously remarked to Wesley that “enthusiasm is a horrid, a very horrid, thing.” Sound familiar?
The Fresh Expressions movement is not a movement of burned out church people looking to rid ourselves of the traditional church. Many of us deeply love the traditional church. However we’ve come to realize that the traditional church no longer reaches a great proportion of our society. We’ve followed the beckoning of the Holy Spirit to start fresh expressions of church that have the potential of one day becoming mature expressions of church. We’ve processed and developed a beautiful ecclesiology that is neither new, nor unbiblical.
It is certainly possible that the ecclesiology of fresh expressions will not fit within all denominations. Proctor’s favored 9marks ecclesiology perhaps is one of them. However, to claim that those who are a part of the fresh expressions movement need to “recover and hold true to Biblical theology and sound ecclesiastical doctrine” is an overly generalized, self-congratulatory assumption that seeks to normalize the ecclesiology of one small sect upon the universal church in order to snuff out a movement of the Holy Spirit in our increasingly post-Christian society. And this Western North Carolina United Methodist has very little patience for that.
To see a full development of the ecclesiology of Fresh Expressions see Church for Every Context.