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As the UMC looks for a way forward, it's all about a mission beyond the walls

As the UMC looks for a way forward, it's all about a mission beyond the walls

Missions and Outreach

The Rev. Dr. Martyn Atkins has long been an influential voice for the Methodist Church in Britain.

He was the Principal of Cliff College, a noted training ground for Methodist Lay ministers. He was General Secretary of the Methodist Church in Britain, including President and Secretary of the Methodist Conference.

Rev. Atkins also served as Superintendent Minister at Methodist Central Hall, Westminster.
“Martyn is a very warm, genuine, caring person that just loves Jesus and loves the church,” said Rev. Clarke Campbell-Evans, Director of Missional Engagement for the Florida Conference of the United Methodist Church.

Rev. Dr. Martyn Atkins

“He’s very approachable. I remember, long before I got involved with him, I was aware that he related to people across the spectrum of the United Methodist Church. ”

He became a leading voice in the Fresh Expressions movement along the way. He became close friends with Rev. Dr. Kenneth Carter, the resident Bishop for the Florida and Western Carolina conferences.

Largely through that relationship, Rev. Atkins is spending a year as the Senior Pastor at Lighthouse UMC in Boca Grande. He also has a surprising observation about the movement he helped create: Maybe it’s time to call it something else.

“In Britain, lots of people are tired of the phrase Fresh Expressions of church, but not the concept. You can only have something so long before it isn’t fresh,” he said.

“The name Fresh Expressions is not important, but the activity is. Focus on the need for new kinds of church, for new people, in new places, in new ways. That’s the way forward."

Mission-shaped churches

A more accurate description of the path forward might be mission-shaped churches. That is, congregations don’t wait to be discovered. Instead, members intentionally seek to build relationships outside the church walls, understanding and accepting that those people may never set foot inside their building.

That is what many Fresh Expressions try to do, partly because they appeal to those who are dismissive and skeptical about the traditional church but have an innate desire to know more about Jesus.

People form their groups with various approaches and locations, such as bowling alleys, bars, parks, restaurants, and even a tattoo parlor. More about that later.

Maybe most of the attendees in a given group are members of a regular church, or maybe not. The location doesn’t matter, but the message—and what it took to get that message—is everything.

“It is a going to thing rather than an inviting thing,” Rev. Atkins said. “Fresh Expressions don’t sit at the door and expect people to come. They’re very concerned about people and not so concerned and keeping the traditional church show on the road.”

Rev. Dr. Michael Beck, the Florida Conference Director of Fresh Expressions, agrees. And he said during a review of the concept that it became clear that freedom for people to create their version of church, and therefore the way they encounter Jesus, should be at the core of every group.

“One of the things that came up was people didn’t want to be too dogmatic about Fresh Expression or too rigid about what they wanted it to be,” he said. 

“We don’t want to become the Fresh Expression police. We don’t want to put them in too tight of a box.”

Hence, tattoo church.

Attendees share fellowship, hear a message, take communion, and do other churchy things. And, it’s normal for someone to check out a bit to get a tattoo before returning to the service.

Beck jokes, “I’m running out of space on my arms.”

That church has been around for years and finally began to outgrow its space at a tattoo parlor in Ocala. To meet the need, Beck offered the group space at Ocala’s St. Mark’s UMC, where he serves as Pastor.

And there’s R.V. Church, led by Rev. Jeff Taylor of Faith UMC in Hudson and his wife, Jessica.

The young couple didn’t just reach out beyond the church walls; they went the distance. They live in an R.V. park where they hold meetings with the residents. There are campfire meetings and an online presence.

“This group is wise beyond their years, and they see that regular church is not really working for their generation,” Rev. Beck said. “They’re finding a lot of energy in this.”

The way it has to be

It’s no secret that regular attendance is down significantly at many churches. Online services help reach people, but being intentional about mission-serving and new community building has to be the standard as congregations move forward.

“It’s about finding methods of being a church that is unlike what we already have but will serve as the building of a community that currently does not have a church,” Rev. Atkins said. 

“The idea is giving people free samples of Jesus. The church has to become unlike itself to benefit other people. Is that worth it? Of course, it is.”

It can be as simple as organizing church members to pick up litter in neighborhoods and then engaging neighbors who might stop to chat.

It’s not about being preachy; it’s about authentic caring and sharing. That might help bust some of the stereotypes that may have built up about what the church is or isn’t.

‘More people are open to God and the good  God. And they’re open to Jesus as a good guy, if not the messiah. But not so much about the church,” Rev. Atkins said.

“We know what many people say about churches--they’re all selfish and want money for themselves. I talk about Fresh Expressions as a free gift of God’s grace instead of a group of salesmen trying to sell you an encyclopedia, so come to church.”

That attitude is taking root.

“All churches need to become mission-shaped, which means looking outward from themselves. Christ calls them to make disciples,” he said.

“It requires a lot of listening, a lot of self-sacrifices, and a lot of moving forward. If the goal is to get more people in your 10 o’clock service, it won’t happen. But you will help people come to know Christ. And the church arises from that.'

That’s the mission.

Joe Henderson is News Content Editor for

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