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Church is moving out of the building

Man standing next to motorcycle

Some 50 Fresh Expressions have popped up in the Michigan Conference as ministry leaders discover new ways to reach people for Christ.

REV. DIRK ELLIOTT
Director of Congregational Vibrancy and Leadership Development, Michigan Conference

The church is moving out of the building. As the population of the United States becomes more and more spiritual but not religious, we, in the church, need to find new ways to relate to our neighbors. This term, spiritual but not religious, “is a popular phrase used to self-identify a life stance of spirituality that does not regard organized religion as the sole or most valuable means of furthering spiritual growth.”

Fresh Expressions is a movement throughout the organized church that moves the focus out of the church building and into places where people more naturally gather. The Fresh Expressions website defines a Fresh Expression as “a form of church for our changing culture established primarily for the benefit of people who are not yet members of any church.” Each Fresh Expression is grounded in the language and culture of the particular community it is trying to reach. “Based on its context, the fresh expression seeks to find culturally appropriate and effective ways of reaching people to share about Jesus.”

The Michigan Conference has approximately fifty Fresh Expressions started by United Methodist churches. Below is a sampling of some of the Fresh Expressions throughout the conference.

Rodney Gasaway, a Deacon at Livonia: Newberg UMC and Chelsea: First UMC, loves to ride his 2008 Yamaha V-Star 1300 Tourer and has started a Motorcycle Fresh Expression. Although he loves to ride, he sees a bigger reason than personal enjoyment. Rodney connects with fellow motorcyclists and is making a difference in people’s lives. Riding, wearing his black leather vest with “Chaplain” patch, opens doors to conversation. His vest also contains combat patches from his time in military service. As a combat veteran, many people open up to him. They ask about his faith or share their own struggles. Rodney says, “People are drawn to Christ’s light, and they open up.” Rodney has a group of people that gathers as he shares his faith with them.

Rodney’s next step is to start a group called “Service Riders.” This will be a Fresh Expression for first responders and veterans who ride motorcycles. This group will be built on the foundation of community service, sharing, fellowship, and support.

Group meeting outside near a shelter house
Church of the Wild is a Fresh Expression of Holland: First UMC. They meet monthly and have a contemplative focus on gathering to worship in God’s creation. ~ photo courtesy Holland: First UMC

Lexington UMC offers a Pub Theology every Thursday afternoon at 4:00. Sixteen to eighteen people gather weekly (with a total of thirty-five who attend) at a local brewery owned by one of their members. They use a resource from PubTheology.com, which sends out a weekly email that provides timely discussion topics on religion, culture, ethics, and current events. Generally, more men attend than women, and they come from various walks of life, religious backgrounds, and viewpoints. Pastor Susan Youmans says, “There is an eagerness of the people who attend. They believe it is a wonderful way to model to the community that we have different perspectives, and we can still get along.”

The Holland: First UMC website advertises their new Fresh Expression group, Church of the Wild, by stating the following: “Love nature? We do too! If you are a person who seeks and experiences God in Creation, we invite you to join us for a different kind of worship experience! We are a small group of contemplative souls who are seeking God in the Holy One’s most beautiful cathedral: Creation. We see God revealing God’s self in nature and care deeply about the natural world, particularly the Macatawa watershed.”

Church of the Wild started during the summer of 2022 with eight weeks of meeting. Pastor Tania Dozeman admits that was too ambitious. They have since agreed to meet once per month. During nice weather, they would gather at a park shelter house, have a stated land acknowledgment, read scripture from the Old and New Testaments, engage in a short reflection, then walk a trail through the park. During the walk, they alternate between walking, pausing for reflection, reading more scripture, walking, and having a reflective question and discussion. Between fifteen and twenty attend each session.

Pastor Dozeman says, “This worship fosters experiences in which people feel safe. It is something I look forward to.” One attendee said, “I enjoy the simplicity—short and sweet but meaningful.” Another said they appreciated “connecting with God and others in and through natural surroundings.” One family started attending and credits Church of the Wild as their first experience with any church.

Serving food at a church ministry
Romeo UMC has started His Table, a dinner church-style Fresh Expression that serves weekly hot meals and then provides a time for fellowship and friendship. ~ photo courtesy Romeo UMC

His Table is a Fresh Expression ministry of Romeo UMC, although it has partnering support from twelve other groups around Romeo. Open to the entire community, His Table provides a hot meal every Tuesday evening. This ministry grew out of a food pantry that the church operated and a desire to reach more people with God’s love. The free meals are enjoyed by sixty to seventy people per week at Romeo UMC, with an additional forty meals delivered to people who cannot come to the church. This ministry is different from a church social or a money-raising event. Instead, it is about providing a hot meal and a time for friendship. Only about twenty-five percent of the people attending are church members.

Although the meal is served at 5:15 pm, many people arrive at 4:00 for conversation and coffee. Pastor Devin Smith says, “When I arrived to become the pastor of the church, I questioned why we were hosting this meal. Now I realize the importance of the fellowship and friendship the people enjoy.”

After people have a chance to eat, their attention turns to a spiritual focus. Sometimes they have a Bible Study, sometimes a discussion on popular trends, and sometimes a sing-along. This winter, they are watching the third season of the TV series The Chosen. Thirty to forty people stay for the study portion of the evening.

To learn more about this style of Fresh Expressions, read Dinner Church: Building Bridges by Breaking Break, by Verlon Fosner.

Levi’s Table is a Fresh Expression started by Bay City: Grace UMC. Levi’s Table engages between twenty and forty people meeting in a diner to share a meal together. The primary purpose is to be a place where disconnected people can reconnect with others in the community and with their faith. They have a meal plus good conversation. According to the pastor, Eric Kieb, Levi’s Table is there to “scratch an itch.” Eric says, “We are creating as many front doors as we can to open life in Christ. We have the front door of the church for people to attend on Sundays, doors through activities like backyard barbeques to get to know people, and Fresh Expressions to create another door. Levi’s Table gives us another entry point for a life in Christ.”

The goal is for about half of the people attending to be from the church, with the other half being invited from the community. Currently, about two-thirds of the people are from the church.

Levi’s Table provides an opportunity for people to build relationships and grow spiritually. New people can connect with the church people in a deeper way than they could on Sunday morning.

Would you like to brainstorm ways to move outside your church building and reach people for Christ? The Michigan Conference is hosting a Fresh Expressions Cohort. This group meets monthly for coaching, support, and encouragement as churches start new Fresh Expressions. The group learns about the experiences of others who have started Fresh Expressions in our conference and from national experts in the Fresh Expression movement.

Learn more from these resources:

Last Updated on February 15, 2023

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The Michigan Conference