As he was growing up, Wildwood UMC Pastor Michael Beck came to a crossroads.
An alcoholic and addict, jailed for dealing drugs, “my life was in shambles,” Beck said. When his grandparents, who had adopted him as a child, took him to St. Mark’s United Methodist Church in Ocala, he saw the possibility for another kind of life.
“They were positive, loving people who gave me a family and community,” said Beck, who remembers the pastor mentoring him, helping him find the path to recovery, and telling him that he was destined to be a religious leader. “I cried out to Christ, and he came.”
Beck was brought to the church but knew, especially among people who were at risk or outside traditional society, that was increasingly rare.
|Wildwood co-pastors Michael and Jill Beck|
“People aren’t coming to church anymore, but they want a church,” he said. “I knew I was going to have to go to them.”
His first posting as pastor was in the tiny town of Lochloosa, south of Gainesville. The church had a congregation of 12, so Beck’s blended family of eight children with his wife and co-pastor, Jill, doubled its size.
There, at the local diner, he started his first Fresh Expressions group, though he didn’t yet know to call it that. He just knew this was the place to connect with people.
“We asked what they needed and created a service for them, around their needs. It was its own church, and we connected to the existing church,” Beck said.
Within a year, the little congregation swelled to 100, and Beck was sent to Wildwood to revive another struggling church with an aging congregation.
“I took my office door off to let them know, ‘I love you and am going to care for you, but I won’t be like other pastors,’ ” Beck said.
“Like John Wesley said, the world is my parish. I let people know that would be my office – being out in the community, connecting with people by being in their spaces.”
He built on the FE model that had been such a success in Lochloosa, creating a group for people in alcohol and drug recovery along with a gathering at a tattoo parlor.
“When we heard about FE, we realized this is what we’d been doing,” Beck said. “It gave us whole language process and the missing pieces to connect everything.”
Wildwood Associate Pastor Nicole Larrabee leads the tattoo parlor FE at Fat Kats Artistry, which began when they noticed many people in the recovery group had tattoos.
“It was like the spirit led to where it was going to be received,” Larrabee said.
To Brittany LeClair, who attends the group, it becomes more than a tattoo parlor.
“It’s God in the world,” she said. “We’re together, sharing communion, singing Amazing Grace.”
It has opened avenues that had previously not existed.
“It’s the opportunity to be with people who are never going to walk into our church on a Sunday morning,” Beck said. “We’ve seen incredible things – tattoo artists accepting Christ, taking communion for the first time, bringing us their prayer requests.
“All of the ingredients of church are here. We’re tethered to an existing congregation, and we’re studying scripture; people are talking about things they’re wrestling with and how the Lord is bringing them through. It’s a full expression of the church of Jesus.”
If a few Fresh Expressions are good, more is better.
|Kayleigh Higgenbothem, left, speaks at dog park FE meeting|
Wildwood now has more than a dozen groups, including yoga therapy, Burritos and Bibles at Moe’s Southwest Grill, Church 3.1 exercise group, and Paws of Praise dog park.
There is Shear Love, where a parishioner cuts hair and, Beck said, “lets people know they are loved by God,” Faithfully Fit, a short devotion and group walk, and Taste of Grace, in which community members gather for prayer and a meal.
And the outreach continues to grow.
Beck, a competitive inline skater, recently started a new FE group, Skate. Pray. Repeat. Attendees work on both spiritual and physical fitness, and learn to skate if they don’t know how.
“When [Beck] first started talking about Fresh Expressions, we were skeptical,” Wildwood UMC member Cindi Gillis said.
“We felt he was ignoring the needs of the older parishioners, who, because of their loyalty to the church, deserved his time and attention. It was interesting to see how, at a certain point, the Holy Spirit took over.”
Beck said his goal was to “navigate those two worlds, the saints who have been holding the church together, and at the same time, bring in the people who have a vision” for FE.
He created a pioneer learning community to provide immersive FE leadership training.
“We’re encouraging people, letting them know that they don’t have to be a professional minister, that God has called them right where they are,” Associate Pastor Krista Spagnola said. “They’re able to start up smaller communities inside their own community.”
Parishioner Kayleigh Higgenbothem, who is starting her own FE group, said she was “at the point in my life where I probably wouldn’t have stepped foot in a church because I’d been hurt. But then I went to a Fresh Expressions meeting, and I re-fell in love with God.”
In addition to connecting with the community, FE groups have little or no cost, a big advantage for a church that is financially fragile and operates on a small budget.
|Michael Beck prays with parishioners|
“In a smaller church, we sometimes look at our barriers rather than our assets,” Co-Pastor Jill Beck said. “So, we have to get permission to fail forward. It’s okay to throw a lot at the wall and see what sticks, what comes out of it.”
The Becks have worked hard to heal Wildwood’s long history of racial prejudice and segregation, developing relationships with local black church leaders. When God’s Glory Ministries, a historically black church, lost its worship space, Beck invited Pastor Bernard Taylor and his congregation to share the Wildwood UMC site and hold joint ministries and events.
Michael Beck now leads the FLUMC Fresh Expressions effort and serves on the national FE leadership team. After having dropped out of school in ninth grade, he went on to earn a Master of Divinity and a doctorate in Semiotics and Future Studies, the first person in his family to go to college.
He has written two books on Fresh Expressions and cultivating a “blended ecology” of traditional church and nontraditional outreach, and his doctoral dissertation will soon be published. He has witnessed and experienced the power of redemption and inspiration in unexpected places.
“We do all those things normal churches do, like Bible study. But almost every day, there’s a Fresh Expressions meeting in the community, co-existing beside all the traditional things happening in the church,” Beck said.
“They are giving life to each other because the traditional forms are sending people out to FE, and FE is sending people back to the church. That, I think, is the most powerful thing about FE: you release the mission force that’s sitting in your pews every Sunday.”
--Eileen Spiegler is a freelance writer based in Fort Lauderdale