United Methodist churches across Florida are spreading Christ’s message in community centers, pubs, beside rivers and inside culturally diverse eateries. So far, 150 Fresh Expressions (FE) of church are taking place each week or month.
The goal of the Florida Conference is to have at least 500 Fresh Expressions of church in operation by 2025. Rev. Dan Jackson, director of The Vital Church Initiative for the Conference, said he believes it could be sooner.
|A crowd gathers and mingles at Collective Church's Sunday Soul Brunch in DeLand.|
“We are running ahead of that,” he said. “I think we can be at our goal quicker than that.”
Recently, the Conference hired a team of three to lead Fresh Expressions initiatives across the state. They’re enthusiastic and eager.
“I’m one-third of our newly formed Fresh Expressions team and can’t wait to be working with people all over Florida, especially on expanding our Pints and Parables and Sunday Soul Brunch Fresh Expressions.” She will also be responsible for continuing the Spark and Surge information and training events.
These outbound ministries are happening through churches of every size, not just big churches.
“We began with Fresh Expressions in 2014 by the creation of a task group that looked at how Fresh Expressions of Church could extend faith to new people in new ways and in new places,” Jackson said.
The conference partners with Fresh Expressions U.S., and early on sent a team to Great Britain, where it all began.
“Fresh Expressions of church came out of a joint effort of the British Methodist and the Anglican churches,” Jackson said.
“They created them about 20 years ago when British churches realized how their membership and their attendance was declining, and they were looking for new ways to connect with their communities. We went over to see how they are doing that.”
About 20 percent of Methodist ministry in the United Kingdom is now Fresh Expressions. Florida is a leader in the programs for the United States.
“No other annual conference has 150 Fresh Expressions of church,” Jackson said.
There are Bible studies in bars and yoga chapels and one church that’s been created in a tattoo parlor.
“There’s a Fresh Expressions called Burritos and Bibles. And something we are making a big push on is dinner church.
“Dinner church is a Fresh Expression that happens outside the walls of the church, and it is an intentional effort to model the way Jesus met with people around meal tables … The concept is that people gather in a location, and a meal is prepared for them,” Jackson said.
“Usually there is some story of Jesus told, explained and discussed It’s a very simple model. The desire is that it become more and more of a discipling model. The idea is to gather at a place like a community center and the people from the church make and serve the food.”
|A tattoo parlor is hardly the likeliest place that Christians would be found on a Saturday morning studying the Bible. But nearly 40 members of Wildwood UMC did just that in February 2015, meeting at Fat Kats Artistry in Ocala.|
It’s about going to where people are gathering to share the love of Christ and extend an invitation to know Him better.
Jackson said the next goal is to create 80 new Dinner Church Fresh Expressions within the next 12 months, building on the work of Matt Harrell, the lead on Florida Conference Fresh Expressions until January 2018. Jackson praised Harrell’s foundation building.
Following his departure, the Fresh Expressions Steering Committee, led by co-conveners Rev. Kevin Griffin and Rev. Dr. Audrey Warren, developed a concept based on the Fresh Expressions experience in Florida. “The new staffing is being created with part-time people. We were committed to staying within the existing budget while moving Fresh Expressions of church to a new level.” Jackson said. “We wanted three people who all lead Fresh Expressions themselves; and we wanted to organize not by geography, but by specific ministry needs.”
Rev. Michael Beck is the senior pastor for Wildwood United Methodist Church. His church currently has 13 Fresh Expressions led by different “pioneers.”
“We have one that meets in a tattoo parlor, several that meet in Mexican restaurants, one that meets in a dog park, a yoga studio, a makeshift salon, a runners’ track, a park, the Martin Luther King Junior building and a dinner church. There are more,” Beck said.
Beck has been the cultivator of Fresh Expressions for the conference’s North Central District for the last three years. There are more than 60 Fresh Expressions in the district’s 87 churches.
Beck combines his local work with serving the national program, where he is lead trainer throughout the United States and is the South Atlantic coordinator. In July, he will assume a new role as a Florida team member with White and Heather Evans focusing on district Fresh Expressions Leadership and Conference-wide business/ministry partnerships.
Pastor Heather Evans is on staff at Grace Church in Cape Coral as the director of Fresh Expressions and is the campus pastor at the Fort Myers Trinity Campus.
“Two years ago, with a team of leaders, we launched a Thursday night dinner church called Eat, Pray, Love in Suncoast Estates, the second largest trailer park in the United States,” Evans said.
“Since then, we have launched a second site of Eat, Pray, Love on Tuesdays, and God has given us a grander vision for dinner church seven days a week in seven different locations.”
Grace Church has several other Fresh Expressions in operation with plans for more.
They’ve seen a lot of positive results.
Families of all types gathered around tables, joined together in fellowship and prayer over a hearty, healthy meal. Lonely senior citizens find love and friendship with younger generations who care about their well-being, according to Evans.
Those who serve take pride in their responsibilities as table setters, greeters and mashed potato scoopers.
“We are seeing many people come to faith in these Fresh Expressions,” Beck said. “Wildwood has had 20 to 50 professions of faith every year and multiple baptisms. These are brand new Christians coming to faith in Fresh Expressions. Also, the inherited congregation has grown as a result.”
—Yvette C. Hammett is a freelance writer based in Valrico.