Fresh Expressions: What They Are and What They Are Not

By now you’ve probably heard of the fresh expressions movement but may be still asking yourself “so what actually is a fresh expression?”  Is a fresh expression just another type of outreach? Perhaps you started one accidentally? Or maybe you’re unclear what’s the difference between a potential and mature fresh expression of church? It’s possible that you’ve heard the terms “pioneer,” “mixed economy,” “blended ecology” and “remissioning” thrown around as well. I hope to simply explain these terms and answer some of these commonly asked questions in a series of posts.

I want to start with a quick blurb about what fresh expressions is not. It is not a strategy of the progressive church, nor does it “belong” to traditionalists or centrists. One of the most beautiful things about the movement is the diversity across the theological spectrum.

This is a movement of the Holy Spirit that transcends those pigeonholes by being unabashedly focused on reaching new people with the Gospel of Jesus Christ and forming church with them where they do life. Confusion around this diminishes the potential of the whole people of God embracing the movement as their own.

Pioneers do not fit neatly into the theological camps of our declining denominationalism. Their activity and effectiveness challenge the closely defined liberal, evangelical, or catholic theologies, and they move us into new territory. They are contextual theologians who learn in the process of reframing and iterating. They design as they go, working with multiple prototypes, unlearning, learning, and relearning what they need for specific contexts. Their focus is on mission, diversity, dialogue and evolving belief and practice. For more on pioneer ministry see my latest book, A Field Guide to Methodist Fresh Expressions.[1]

Fresh Expressions is also not another save-the-denomination plan that some group of bishops and their inner circle came up with. It is the very breaking-pieces-of-the-body-of-Christ-off-and-giving-them-away-to-a-hungry-world plan. The church is not in the self-preservation business, but the self-donation business.

All over the West, churches are closing. There is no question we need to plant more churches, replant more churches, revitalize existing churches, merge strategically, and so on. However, FX is about releasing the “priesthood of all believers” within existing churches to plant new ecclesial communities. It is about equipping the ordinary heroes, the laity, to turn the practices, hobbies, and interests of their daily lives into forms of church.

When local churches do this intentionally revitalization often does occur, but this is not the “goal.”

Some key distinctions are necessary here:

  • There is a global movement of the Spirit called “Fresh Expressions”
  • There are initiatives called “fresh expressions” (ex. Fresh Expressions FL, GA, NC, etc.)
  • There are charities/5013c/organizations (ex. Fresh Expression US/UK, an so on)

My focus is the overall movement of the Holy Spirit, but initiatives and organizations are key to its thriving.  

I’ve found part of the difficulty of my role as a cultivator has been clarifying and cleaning up the confusion around what Fresh Expressions even is. While the missional church movement and the emerging church movement are similar and interact through key figures and ideas, FX flows clearly in the missional church stream. Meaning, it is not enough to form communities of people who may or may not ever utter the name Jesus. These are communities unabashedly focused on making disciples of Jesus of Nazareth, the fully-human, fully-God, dead, risen, and coming soon one, who’s Risenness now permeates the entire cosmos.

Further, FX is not about just doing analog and digital ministry in new creative ways, we should celebrate those kinds of innovations, but let’s clarify:

Fresh Expressions is about the formation of new Christian communities.

While certainly “fresh” for our time, this is not exactly an anomalous wave of evangelization with no historical precedents.   

For instance, Methodist friends, are you ready for some déjà vu? John Wesley and the early Methodists realized the church of their day wasn’t connecting with most people. They took it to the fields and found a way to be church with people who didn’t go to church. That movement jumped across the pond to a fledgling nation that became the United States, and the rest is history.

Once again, a missional movement that began in the UK, has found a home in the US. An ecumenical group led primarily by British Anglicans and Methodists organized to create a report concerned with the continued decline of the church and the discovery of new contextual ecclesial communities, or “fresh expressions.” 

In the Anglican congregations the preface to the Declaration of Assent that all incoming clergy must confess says:

“The Church of England is part of the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church, worshipping the one true God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It professes the faith uniquely revealed in the Holy Scriptures and set forth in the catholic creeds, which faith the Church is called upon to proclaim afresh in each generation.”

The term “Fresh Expressions” was born from the conviction of this statement, captured by the team led by Bishop Graham Cray, who produced the Mission-Shaped Church (MSC) report in 2004. The report has now become an international bestseller, is credited with transforming the ecclesiology of the Church of England and has catalyzed the development of thousands of fresh expressions. It has also precipitated similar initiatives in Australia, Canada, mainland Europe, South Africa, and elsewhere.

A fresh expression is a form of church for our changing culture, established primarily for the benefit of those who are not yet part of any church. These are forms of church which are:

  • Missional: birthed by the Spirit to reach not-yet-Christians
  • Contextual: seek to serve the context in an appropriate form for the people in it
  • Formational: focused on making disciples
  • Ecclesial: a full expression of the church, not a stepping stone to an inherited congregation

There has been some conversation about the difference between a “potential” fresh expression in its infancy and a “mature” fresh expression. While we should to be careful not to become the “fresh expressions police” and therefore institutionally confine the movement in any way, it is necessary to provide a kind of destination for your team’s missional journey. To that end, Michael Moynagh and I have developed the “Four C’s” as a kind of guide to help identify a mature fresh expression:

  • Creating disciples: disciples of Jesus Christ are being formed. This is not just playing church.
  • Communities of not-yet-Christians: these are gatherings with and for people who are not Christian yet. They are not just groups of already Christians hanging out in the community.
  • Contextually appropriate: this community has emerged organically from the context, it takes on the shape, patterns, and language of the people there. This is not planting our colonial “version of church” in foreign soils.
  • Connected to the larger church: the fresh expression is tethered to the inherited church in some relational way. These are not little colonies isolated from or in opposition to the inherited church.

Check back for the next post on the Fresh Expressions journey, sometimes called the six circles, to see how you can cultivate a Fresh Expression of Church in your context too one step at a time!


[1] Beck, Michael A. Field Guide to Methodist Fresh Expressions. Abingdon, 2020.

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