Fresh Expressions of Church: The Missionary Holy Spirit Goes Ahead of Us

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The Bishop's Blog

Eleventh and last in a series on the Fresh Expressions Movement in the Florida Conference and in United Methodism, and particularly in relation to the Nones," the Dones and The Spiritual, but Not Religious.
In conversation with our team from Florida last summer, Bishop Graham Cray, one of the pioneers of Fresh Expressions, was in the midst of describing the existing church structures and cultural shifts in which present-day Christianity exists in England.  At times these must have seemed insurmountable—clergy and laity, many of them leaders, who have settled into predictable rituals, a growing sector beyond them which seems either bored with or cynical about the faith.  And then he paused and there was a twinkle in his eye:  "But, you know, the missionary Holy Spirit is always going ahead of us!"
The simple call to "proclaim the gospel afresh" assumes that the Triune God indeed goes ahead of us.  In the Wesleyan tradition we describe this as Prevenient Grace.  Our missionary strategy does not presume to take God to people.  We trust that God is already moving in the hearts of men and women, constantly engaging their minds with questions.  At times the movement of the Holy Spirit is disruptive and public, like a Pentecostal storm; at other times, there is a still, small voice, an awakening.
When the missionary Holy Spirit moves, we find ourselves caught up in something new; the Greek word is koinonia, often translated fellowship or community.  In his magisterial autobiography A Song of Ascents, E. Stanley Jones notes that Pentecost does not give birth to the church.  The latter appears in Acts 8.  Pentecost (Acts 2), he suggests, creates koinonia:  
"The believers devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching,
to the community, to their shared meals and to their prayers." (Acts 2. 42, CEB)
When the gospel is proclaimed afresh-- and in the present moment such a word will be shared within the context of listening and incarnational mission—we discover that walls crumble and relationships form. Fresh Expressions of church are one sign—and not the only sign—of the new creation. A part of the disillusionment of the dones and de-churched may be that many came searching for koinonia and they could not find it.
The question at the heart of our reflection together is whether we can imagine a future that is both/and—a mixed ecology of vital traditional churches and life-giving gatherings of the nones and dones far outside the boundaries of Sunday morning at 11:00? Can clergy imagine serving traditional parishes and at the same time developing new forms of community? Do (we) judicatory leaders possess the courage to align resources with new consciences who are now in power? And to push the question a bit further, can we imagine a Creator who loves diversity and desires that all come to the knowledge of the truth: in other words, a God who works through our churches but also at times beyond them?
In the role of pastor (28 years), district superintendent (1 year) and now bishop, God has allowed me to see fresh expressions of church with my own eyes and to touch them with my own hands: in pubs, prisons and hotel dining rooms, in dorm rooms, executive board rooms and coffee shops, on street corners with day laborers and in a sex offender village, beside a river on Sunday morning and in a trailer park on Friday evening. In the persecution of Cuba, the secularism of urban England, the serenity of the Western North Carolina mountains and the beautiful isolation of Florida's interior, I have witnessed Acts 2. 42.  Women and men have been bold enough to proclaim the gospel afresh, and koinonia happens.
In the lives of these leaders, laity and clergy, I have observed a holy risk and a profound trust. In each instance they love the church.  But they also know that God loves the world (John 3). And in ministries that are "both/and,” in church parlors and third spaces, among members and disciples, cynics and seekers, these leaders are doing a new thing.  The church, either through desperation or inspiration, or some holy combination of the two, comes to a place of blessing this movement; in the process she is herself transformed. This is the call to be a mission-shaped church.
Thank you for engaging with these reflections over the past months.  I am grateful for the conversations we have shared about them. One of the most critical movements ahead of us will be a willingness to move beyond our cynicism about the church and our confusion about the culture.  This is a work in progress, but there is a future with hope. The One who began a good work in us will be faithful to complete it (Philippians 1. 6).
So I ask you to join me in prayer:
May the Creating God baptize our imaginations to discover new forms of koinonia.
May the Saving Lord Jesus meet us wherever we break bread, and may our hearts once again burn within us.
May the Missionary Holy Spirit be poured out on all flesh, empowering us to proclaim the gospel afresh to next generations.
To learn more:
Fresh Expressions U.S.
Fresh Expressions
Florida Conference Fresh Expressions
Archbishop’s Council on Mission and Public Affairs, Mission-Shaped Church: Church Planting and Fresh Expressions in a Changing Context
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together
Elaine Heath and Scott Kisker, Longing for Spring
E. Stanley Jones, A Song of Ascents
Lesslie Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralistic Society
The Missio Ecclesia Conference, February 17-19, 2016, Grace Church, Cape Coral, Florida
The Fresh Expressions U.S. National Gathering, April 7-9, 2016, Alexandria, Virginia
Seattle Pacific University, Program in Christian Social Entrepreneurship
SEJ Vision Day, United Methodist Church Lake Junaluska, North Carolina

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