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Help at the starting line

Berkley First found help in Fresh Expressions.

Pastors and churches in Michigan have gone through months of learning new things. More help is available from the Office of Congregational Vibrancy.

REV. DIRK ELLIOTT
Director of Congregational Vibrancy

Eli, our grandson, came to visit last week. Eli is an old soul for a nine-year-old, and he likes to reflect on our visits. After this visit, he said, “I think I’m exhausted from learning so many new things this week, but I’m glad we did them.” An event-filled week can be exhausting – but good. 

As I’ve been in conversation with clergy and laity throughout our conference, I’ve heard similar reflections. “2020 has been quite a year, one thing after another!” “Keeping up with all the changes is an exhausting learning curve.” I heard one person compare 2020 to Jumanji, saying, “I’m afraid of what the next level will be.” 

As you navigate this challenging year, it’s good to remember that God has always breathed hope into our most challenging times. In Isaiah 43: 19 (NRSV), God says, “I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.”   

The text reminds me of a hopeful phrase I saw on Carey Nieuwhof’s Facebook page. (Carey Nieuwhof is the founding pastor of Connexus Church in Ontario. He is a much sought after conference speaker, podcaster, and thought leader.) “When change is as profound and disruptive as what we’re going through right now, this next season isn’t a finish line. It’s a start line.”

What opportunities are inherent in your church’s current challenges? For example, in mid-March, with only a few days’ notice, churches had to cancel in-person worship services and transition to on-line worship. That was the challenge. Now, most United Methodist churches in the Michigan Conference have on-line worship and are reaching new people in their virtual congregation. There is the opportunity! 

Churches are using Zoom and GoTo Meeting, YouTube channels, FaceTime Live, and FaceTime Watch Parties. Some churches are using Free Conference Call.com to host worship. Some have purchased Zoom licenses, new cameras, and sound systems to accommodate this technological learning curve. 

Though the learning curve has been exhausting, churches are being adaptive and discovering opportunities during these challenging times. Because of COVID-19, the House Church movement is experiencing a resurgence. One model of the House Church is called a “Cell celebration.” The church meets in homes three weeks in a month, learning and growing in small, relational groups. Then, on the fourth week, the cells come together as a group of house churches for celebration, worship, and sacraments.  They often end the celebration with a meal. This model combines the deeper relational aspects of the house church with the celebration of the larger body of Christ.

For example, one United Methodist Church in Pennsylvania is addressing the COVID-19 restrictions on large-group gatherings by forming smaller home churches. They currently have seven home churches of 10-12 people that meet on zoom to watch the worship service together, discuss the message using questions provided by the pastor, pray together, and care for each other. Once restrictions are lifted, they will meet in-person in homes. The home churches provide a relational component missing in many virtual worship services. (Click here for more information.) 

Another opportunity is Fresh Expressions. A Fresh Expression is “a form of church for our changing culture, established primarily for the benefit of those who are not yet part of any church.” (Fresh Expressions US website is found here.)  

Fresh Expression groups are typically groups of 10-25 people that come together around a common interest. Some groups come together because of their interest in bicycling, running, or working out. Some gather around a shared hobby such as scrapbooking or skateboarding.  Others are Dinner Churches that meet to share a meal together. They may meet at a restaurant, in a church, or a park. As the Fresh Expressions website explains: “New kinds of churches are growing alongside existing congregations to more effectively engage our growing post-Christian society.” Fresh Expressions provides a viable solution to the COVID-19 concern regarding large-group gatherings. 

Here in Michigan, we have several Fresh Expression type ministries. One example is Berkley First, under the pastoral leadership of Zack Dunlap. Zack has been leading “Brews and Views.” Zack writes, “Brews and Views gathers the first and third Thursdays of each month. Each week, we crack open our beers and our Bibles, delve into a particular Scripture text and explore what it means for us today. We don’t fear rabbit trails and take the conversation where it leads. While we previously met in local bars, the group, like so many others, moved to Zoom. Now, we offer two gathering options – on Zoom and in a congregation member’s front yard. We’ve even made connections with some of the neighbors who wouldn’t have otherwise come out!”

If you want to learn more about Fresh Expressions, we have four upcoming training opportunities. 

  1. Leadership Academy 2020. As one of the webinars offered as part of the Annual Conference follow-up, Leadership Academy 2020, Michael Beck leads a one-hour webinar focusing on “A new kind of local church for a digital frontier.”                                                             

    Michael Beck says, “The future has come in the night, and we are here now. COVID-19 has thrust us fully out onto a digital frontier. We will explore Wesleyan theological underpinnings for the new fields, as well as share practical tools, practices, and processes to help local congregations become a new kind of local church.”

    This webinar was aired on August 4 but will be recorded and available soon on the conference website.

  1. Expresiones Divinas. Starting on Saturday, August 8, and each Saturday in August, we will be hosting a virtual Expresiones Divinas,  a Spanish version of Fresh Expression and Dinner Church training.  Click here for more information.   
  2. Fresh Expressions Vision Day. On September 9, the Michigan Conference will sponsor a virtual Fresh Expressions Vision Day.

    Amid a rapidly changing ministry landscape, we will:

    • Catalyze a vision for a church that sends out the everyday people of God to be on mission in their networks and neighborhoods; 
    • brainstorm ways to connect with people your church may not be currently engaging;
    • discover how fresh expressions of church can emerge alongside your traditional church; 
    • explore creative ways of being the church in the world today.

      Please click here for more information or to register

  1. Fresh Expression Reach Network group. As part of the Reach Summit and Reach Network Groups, we will be offering a Network Group of pastors and lay leaders who want to start Fresh Expressions in their community. The Network Group will meet monthly (via Zoom until it is safe to meet face-to-face) to encourage, support, and coach through the start of new Fresh Expression groups.

Although 2020 has been and will continue to be a challenging year, what opportunities are there within these new challenges? In the challenges you see in your church and community, what are the “start lines” for new ministry opportunities to reach more people with the love of God? 

As we identify the new things God is doing, we will be able to reflect on this challenging time and say, “I was exhausted from learning so many new things, but I’m glad I did.”