A fresh look at church means redefining community

LAKELAND -- Times, they are a-changin’, and never more so than for religious institutions.

Technology, skepticism, the time constraints and pressures of juggling work and family and the challenges of addressing the needs of an increasingly diverse population all signal a need for church renewal, and not necessarily in the ways people have thought about church for centuries. 

Bishop Ken Carter headshot
Bishop Ken Carter

“The changing culture is real in our conference, and we are all participating in the shift,” Bishop Ken Carter told a working group assembled this week to talk about a project tentatively dubbed Fresh Expressions. The group comprised about 15 people – representing clergy, laity and campus ministers – who gathered at the Florida United Methodist Center to talk about a project inspired by church rebirth in Great Britain.

Carter is challenging Florida Methodists to experiment with ways to reach people of all ages, interests, ethnicities and worship-style preferences and rebuild the Christian church, whether that means using concrete or context.

“This is kind of my dream,” Carter told the group. “For me, this is about making disciples for the transformation of the world.”

The challenge is to come up with new ways to experience Christ in community with others, the group agreed.

“We are called to be in community, but it doesn’t necessarily mean a building,” said Janet Earls, Congregational Vitality specialist with the Florida Conference. “A sanctuary can be wherever we are in community.”

Representatives from ministries across the Florida Conference talked about ideas that already show promise, from meeting people at coffeehouses to holding services in private homes on days other than Sunday to offering coffee and prayer to day laborers waiting to find out if they have a job.

Carter said he experienced firsthand the flight from Sunday services when he was a church pastor in Charlotte a few years ago.

“As a pastor, I would have people come to me and say, ‘We love the church, but you probably won’t see us for the next few years,’” the bishop recalled, explaining that they would apologetically let him know that their children were involved in weekend travel for soccer or other competitions.

“We can throw rocks at those people … or we can try to adapt.”

Young people and busy older people might be more open to connecting virtually or organizing through an Internet opportunity similar to the “meet-up groups” that now recruit people interested in hiking or kayaking, working group members suggested. 

Fresh Expressions working group meeting
Bishop Ken Carter, right, talks with members of a new working group charged with thinking about nontraditional ways to build church communities. Photo by Don Youngs.

More worship leadership training for lay members also might be explored.

Carter said he is not advocating that the conference abandon the concept of clergy-led church buildings but develop new ideas that will exist alongside the time-honored ways of worship.

The mantra of “Open hearts, open minds, open doors” that has guided United Methodist churches for years is not enough, the bishop said.

“That was essentially a passive campaign: It assumed that people would come to our church and we would be hospitable,” he said, noting that United Methodist Communications has replaced that slogan with “Rethink Church.”

“Our current system is not sustainable.”

Carter said after the meeting that the group agreed to take time for prayer and discernment while also keeping eyes peeled for new opportunities. Participants were given assignments that included exploring the role of laity in Fresh Expressions, as well as whether small monetary grants could be made available for experiments in ministry.

The bishop said he has been pondering and researching fruitful church renewal strategies for some time and has been most impressed with the Fresh Expressions model pioneered by the Church of England and The Methodist Church in Britain. The effort, now about 10 years old, targets lapsed churchgoers and people who have never been to church.

“When we don’t create fresh expressions of the church, we are really constraining ourselves to where we have been,” Carter said.

Fresh Expressions

This initiative began in 2004, endorsed by both the Church of England and The Methodist Church in Britain.

A “fresh expression of church” is defined as “a new form of church for a fast-changing world that serves those outside the existing church, listens to people and enters their culture, makes discipleship a priority and intentionally forms Christian community.”

Examples include café churches, cell churches (house fellowship groups), midweek worship congregations, youth congregations and so-called “Messy Church” groups.

For more information, click here.



-- Susan Green is the managing editor of Florida Conference Connection. 

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