Fresh Expressions Connects with the Unchurched

By G. Jeffrey MacDonald
Correspondent

Once a month in Casper, Wyoming, 15 people roll out yoga mats inside their homes and hop on Zoom for a session with YogaSoul. It’s a gathering for people who love yoga, appreciate sacred texts, and don’t attend church.

“We always start with a centering practice that could be both yogic and Christian,” said Jessika Girod, an aspirant to ordained ministry in the Episcopal Church who coordinates YogaSoul and leads traditional worship at Christ Church in Douglas, Wyoming. “The stillness, the quietness. … There’s nothing you have to do or be. Just dwell in the presence of God.”

As the body loosens up, so does the spirit. Regulars at YogaSoul look forward to gathering in person as they used to before the COVID-19 pandemic. Then they’ll sit on their mats in a circle,  have what Girod calls “an embodied experience,” and share in the Eucharist with a priest who practices yoga.

Come for the yoga, stay for the gospel. It’s a soft form of evangelism within an international movement called Fresh Expressions, which fosters Christian community among people who are unlikely to enter a steepled building on a Sunday morning.

“Fresh Expressions is the medicine that’s needed to make the church healthy and strong again in its mission,” said Jon Davis, an Episcopal priest, mission strategist, and trainer with Fresh Expressions US. “We thought the mission was to fill the pews with people, but that’s not the mission. The mission of the church is to fill people with God.”

Launched in the highly secular United Kingdom in the early 2000s, Fresh Expressions has grown to encompass tens of thousands of small communities that meet in dog parks, tattoo parlors, hair salons, gyms, burrito joints — anywhere people share a bond. With light guidance, often from laypeople linked to an established church, these new churches aspire to grow as groups that study the Bible, worship God, and change lives through discipleship.

At least 450 Fresh Expression churches have an Episcopal affiliation, said the Rev. Katie Nakamura Rengers, staff officer for church planting at the Episcopal Church Center. She says most rely on three to five parishes to provide some type of support, whether that means a few dollars for Communion supplies, a space to meet, or guidance from one or more people in a congregation. Many gather around food — a vegetable farm, a food truck, or a diner.

“I’m getting nonstop emails and calls from folks who have been awakened to new possibility for how to do church,” Rengers said by email. “The pandemic, and other events of the last year (including George Floyd’s death and the impeachment), have forced us to look outside the physical boundaries of our churches to see the Holy Spirit at work out in the world. New ministry leaders are chasing after it.”

The time is ripe for Fresh Expressions in the United States, organizers say. While 54 percent of Americans said they attended religious services at least monthly in 2007, only 45 percent said the same in 2018-19, according the Pew Research Center survey. Pew finds that 17 percent of Americans self-identify as “nothing in particular” in religious affiliation, but they’re neither agnostic nor atheist.

The pandemic’s restrictions might have stirred a pent-up desire among the unchurched and de-churched to connect, with faith in the mix.

“People have been isolated, and they want to move beyond their isolation,” said the Rev. John Motis, a deacon who leads Fresh Expressions in the Diocese of Central Florida.

The pandemic has apparently helped to scale up YogaSoul, which used to attract just three or four people in person. Now as many as 25 sign up to participate in an online session.

Spreading the vision isn’t always easy in established church settings, Motis said.

“When I try to pitch Fresh Expressions to groups of clergy, I don’t have a great deal of success there,” said Motis, who leads a Fresh Expression for about 30 men in Lake Wales, Fla. “By and large, their responsibility is to put butts in their pews. Ultimately, they’re answerable to somebody: a board or somebody like that. We need them to be the empowering person, we need their support. … But more often than not, it takes someone other than the clergyperson of the church to put together the Fresh Expression.”

An ecumenical movement, Fresh Expressions has found momentum in particular denominations, most notably the United Methodist Church. Leaders include the Rev. Michael Beck, co-pastor of Wildwood United Methodist Church in Wildwood, Fla. and author of several books about Fresh Expressions. His congregation is connected with 15 Fresh Expressions, including a digital community that meets only online. It launched during the pandemic and already has 850 members.

“So many of them begin as affinity groups — a community of people who gather around some common practice, space, or hobby,” Beck said by email. “They evolve over time through a process of listening, loving, building community, discipleship, church taking shape, then repeat. They become a form of church that bears the marks of the historical church: one, holy, catholic, and apostolic. Anyone can lead them. In fact, every single follower of Jesus is called to do this.”

Formats vary widely. In addition to coordinating YogaSoul, Girod works at a Fresh Expression called The Table, which launched in Casper a few years ago as a new church plant of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). Participants find a smorgasbord of spirituality, from reiki to braiding sweetgrass. A Bible study meets weekly for anyone who is interested, but it’s not required to be part of the community.

At The Table, “we come together in a circular format through contemplation, meditating through Scripture, eating, and sharing food together,” Girod said. “Those non-traditional ways of meeting and being together are a lot more accessible to the wider, modern world” than traditional liturgy is.

In Lake Wales, Fla., reflecting on a Bible passage is always part of the experience — but only after a time of food, fellowship, and male bonding. Hosted by Church of the Good Shepherd, this Fresh Expression invites men even during the pandemic to come in, spread out, wear masks and eat individually wrapped breakfast sandwiches. The group includes men who were once part of churches but stopped attending.

“The headliner of it isn’t necessarily Bible study,” Motis said. “It’s Christian men gathering together, supporting one another, and literally trying to give community to those who have no community. In my opinion, that would the heart of it.”

Fresh Expressions US offers online events for exploring the prospects, including a Future Church Summit and training through its Resilient Church Academy. Though the purpose isn’t to revive long-established churches, that effect sometimes occurs.

“When traditional congregations plant Fresh Expressions, it awakens them to their missional purpose, releases a spirit of creativity and evangelism, and provides a way to connect with the larger community,” said Beck, who describes the phenomenon in his book, Deep Roots, Wild Branches. “They are not intended to revive inherited churches, but they often do.”