"The church is like this big magnet that keeps us stuck in the pews," quipped Rev. June Edwards, the North Central district superintendent.
Referencing an upcoming event, “From the Steeple to the Street,” scheduled April 8, Edwards is passionate about Fresh Expressions and doing God's work on sidewalks, in city parks and fast food restaurants—places beyond carpeted sanctuaries, stained glass windowed walls and mahogany-doored buildings.
|On April 8, churches throughout North Central district are being challenged to go outside traditional sanctuaries and look beyond the stained glass windows. "From the Steeple to the Street" is designed as a catalyst for Fresh Expressions.|
She suggests referencing a bible and showing her the gospel "where it says that Jesus made his way up to the temple in Jerusalem and put his sign out front that said: “If you want to know about me, come in here from 11 to 12 Sunday mornings.”
She forged into her new leadership role last year asking a question: How many people worship in the North Central District on any given Sunday? The answer was 13,628. "And I said, what would it look like if we released 13,628 people out to go do ministry in Jesus' name? What difference could we make?"
April 8, and throughout that weekend, church members are being asked to leave their steepled buildings of Sunday mornings and pray, observe and listen—encounter people beyond the church parking lot and see what God has in store for them.
"For most folks, it was like...you want us to do what?" said Edwards.
“This is not handing out a bottle of water and inviting people to church. This is about meeting people, learning more about their story.”
Churches in the district are being challenged to become catalysts to create new Fresh Expressions. Referred to as "13,628 Going," it's hoped that thousands will participate in Steeple to the Street—a name coined from a book authored by Fresh Expressions U.S. Director of Mission Advancement, Travis Collins.
Flip through its pages and you'll read phrases like, "the Fresh Expressions movement is a surprise gift of God to the world church" and "the Christian faith has lost its influence on North American culture.”
It's about engaging people who would likely be more drawn to craft breweries and jazz guitars then they would organ music or sitting in the wooden pews of what many consider traditional church. And in Edward’s view that means getting away from the so-called magnet and reaching out.
“Get out of the car…prayerfully walk and engage”
For Rev. Jim Divine that meant not everyone marching the streets all at once in his congregation. Serving New Covenant in The Villages—a place he describes as a "Fresh Expressions mecca"—Divine’s two campuses include 3,000 worshippers. Fearing they would overwhelm the Village’s town centers and streets, they chose small groups to engage quietly in "normal things—get out of the car and prayerfully walk and engage people. Ask the lord, what are you putting in my heart?”
|Rev. Michael Beck of Wildwood UMC is shown here offering communion at a local park. Beck co-led a district training in January along with Dr. Chris Backert, executive director of Fresh Expressions U.S. Beck is a longtime advocate of Fresh Expressions.|
What is their goal from the April 8 event? Identify more people with a missional heart.
"We felt like Steeples to the Streets captured what we are trying to do," said Wildwood UMC Rev. Michael Beck—who co-led a North Central District training alongside Fresh Expressions U.S. Executive Director Dr. Chris Backert in January. It was attended by 235 people.
"There was a time in my life when I was very far from the church,” Beck said. “I suppose that really shapes my passion to reach the nones and dones. I used to be one." His church has Fresh Expressions in tattoo parlors, burrito joints and dog parks. "Just as many people encounter Jesus in those places as in our sanctuary Sunday mornings," he said.
Beck served several declining congregations. "I have seen firsthand how God can use Fresh Expressions to bring revitalization to churches,” infusing them with younger members. He also appreciates Conference leadership encouraging others to "go out, take risks and fail forward."
Rev. Stacey Spence’s congregation at First Hawthorne plans to visit veterans, elderly, the poor and people who "just need someone to talk to. She hopes the April 8 event will provide a “fresh spirit that blows through local churches.”
Another advocate of Fresh Expressions, Spence's congregation leaves the traditional sanctuary behind every Friday morning with Prayers on the Porch. It includes wooden rocking chairs, brewed coffee, food and conversation—serving 500 mostly unchurched friends.
|Fresh Expressions, such as this one held in a local coffee shop in Jacksonville, offers a form of church for a changing culture. This was part of the Fresh Expression, Urban Soul, held in a downtown neighborhood called the Urban Core.|
"I feel like we are entering a new era of reformation…it's as exciting as it will be challenging,” said Rev. Aaron Rousseau of Trinity UMC in Gainesville.
"I'm afraid it might be a bit ambitious, but I've expressed hope that at least 1,000 of us will participate (in Steeple to the Street)." Trinity's approach to April 8 will be the Sonlight Youth Choir and 50 teens meeting at a local park for a surprise flash mob performance.
“I've been thinking a lot about the fact we have more than 50 neighborhoods within a two-mile radius from our church,” Rousseau said. “How many of the residents in those neighborhoods need a church to call home?”
The Fresh Expressions movement that formed its roots in a wind-blown countryside of old stone churches, country lanes, pubs and monasteries in the United Kingdom has found its way—since 2010—into surfing towns on U.S. 1, palm-treed and cattle-farmed landscapes and tourist-laden cities of Florida. It's hoped the stories collected from this event will help bring change.
"We drive by churches and it doesn't look like there's a single, solitary soul there,” Edwards observed, the passion in her voice continuing to build.
“One of the difficulties of church folks is that they only know church folks," she said.
One pastor in her district challenged by this experimented with an app called Meetup. The pastor entered keywords like spirituality and movies and conversation to lead a monthly movie night followed by dinner and talk about God. She received 20 hits, and sheepishly confessed to Edwards, “I finally had to admit I was a pastor.”
“This is an opportunity for any church no matter their size,” Edwards said. “Walk outside the church and ask God what do you want us to see?"
“We get a lot of people that are on the fringe,” Divine said. Every year the people that are moving in (to The Villages) increase the amount of people that show no church affiliation. If we don't start in the church right now—start looking at the different models of connecting with people—in 12 years, if we say, oh, we've got to start doing this now…it'll be too late.”
--Doug Long is managing editor of the Florida Conference