Whatever Happened To Fresh Expressions?

Whatever Happened To Fresh Expressions?

The Beginning – in the UK

Way back in 2008, I wrote an article for Good Idea called Is Fresh Expressions just the latest ‘Flavour of the Month’? At that time, everyone seemed to be talking about Fresh Expressions.

The Church of England report, Mission-Shaped Church, had been published in 2004 to much fanfare, the (then) Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, having put his considerable authority, not to mention a lot of money, into encouraging the movement.

In Canada, the Church Planting Working Group of the Diocese of Toronto mysteriously morphed into the Fresh Expressions Working Group and Wycliffe College appointed Nick Brotherwood as Team Leader for Fresh Expressions Canada. Nick travelled the country (literally), teaching and spreading the vision at conferences and synods for mission and fresh expressions of church. His was only a half-time position but he filled it 110 per cent. And, for a number of years, Wycliffe’s Institute of Evangelism and the Diocese of Toronto partnered to host an annual Vital Church Planting Conference to which a succession of the Fresh Expressions leaders from the UK came and spoke.

Flavour of the month?

So was it just “the flavour of the month”? Yes and no. There certainly wasn’t the flurry of new forms of church reaching out to the non-churched that some of us had hoped for. Yes, there were some brave experiments in mainline churches, some of which continue today. (I will talk about evangelical churches in a minute.) But the UK experience was never replicated here. Why not?

I remember suggesting to Wycliffe faculty that the movement had shown such vibrancy in the UK because of the robust form of evangelicalism pioneered by John Stott and other leaders after the Second World War. When I had finished pontificating, Alan Hayes, the Church History professor, said casually, “Um, Thomas Cranmer? John Wycliffe?” And, of course, he was right: the roots of an outward-looking, evangelistically minded church in the UK go back not seventy-five years, but hundreds of years. The soil had been well-prepared.

Renewal before mission

In Canada, well, not so much. Not much depth of soil on the Canadian Shield. Maybe this is why I have heard some church leaders saying recently, “You know, mission flows out of spiritual renewal and formation. Maybe we have been trying to produce the fruit without the root.”

This, I suspect, this may explain why the small group resource Christian Foundations, written by Judy Paulsen, Patrick Paulsen and Susan Bell, has sold close to 2,000 copies in the past year and a half. Churches are once again seeking to better ground people in the basics of the Christian faith. Similarly, the program, Revive, put together by Dr. Dawn Davis, out of her experience of leading her church in Toronto, is being increasingly used in Canada and the US. Renewal first, mission second. That has been a sobering lesson.

So has Fresh Expressions died in Canada?

Chances are, you haven’t heard anything about it for a few years. Here the plot thickens. There have been four developments that seem to me significant:

In Evangelical churches


If mainline churches have not embraced a fresh expressions methodology (“new forms of church to engage the non-churched”), evangelical churches have. Not that they learned it from Fresh Expressions. They just did it intuitively. My guess is that a mission-minded leader, observing a post-Christian world, knows perfectly well that traditional forms of church, usually of European origin, are not going to be effective in reaching secular Canadians. And often evangelicals are nimbler and more flexible than mainline churches in changing their approach according to the needs of the mission field.

Looking back, I realize that, at the Vital Church Planting conferences, while many of the plenary speakers were from the UK, often the workshop leaders were from evangelical denominations. Why? Because they already understood what the conference was trying to achieve, and we’re happy to help.

In time, as we sought to add “Canadian content” to the line-up of plenary speakers, it was to the evangelical churches that we turned. Pernell Goodyear (Salvation Army and Baptist), Beth Fellinger (Pentecostal and Christian Reformed) and Joe Manafo (Free Methodist), stand out in my mind.

In other words, Fresh Expressions is flourishing, but not usually under that name. One organisation I appreciate and stay in touch with is New Leaf, an interdenominational ministry which serves and encourages church planters. They tell me that in the past year they have trained a hundred church planters, most of them employing a “Fresh Expressions methodology.”

Messy Church

Perhaps the most popular “brand” of fresh expressions of church, Messy Church, which came into Canada under the umbrella of Fresh Expressions, is thriving across the country, in a wide range of denominations. Indeed, Messy Church has now become an independent entity, which is a good thing. Messy Church Canada now boasts 275 known Messy Churches across Canada (you will realise the implication of the word “known”!), thanks in large part to the amazing energy and vision of Sue and Andy Kalbfleisch.

At Wycliffe College

Following the lead of many seminaries in the UK, in recent years Wycliffe College has modified its MDiv program. Instead of a generic one-size-fits-all form of ministry training, which is still what most seminaries offer, the MDiv now is designed to train specifically for the twin emphases of Fresh Expressions: helping existing churches make the turn to missional (the Missional Leadership track) and beginning new Christian communities (the Pioneering Ministry track).

Is there still an organization?

So what of Fresh Expressions, the Canadian organization, with capital letters, initiated by Anglicans? To some extent, it has done what missionaries are always supposed to do—worked itself out of a job. It has decreased and the things it sought to nurture have increased. That is as it should be. But as it happens there is more to report.

The Missional Leadership Cohort

Under the leadership of (now) Bishop Susan Bell, between 2017 and 2019, the focus shifted. Instead of seeking to help young church planters in mainline churches do their thing, which other churches were doing quite independently, a team came together with a different purpose: to help pastors in mid-career, leading traditional mainline churches, to reorient their churches to mission for a post-Christian world.

What does this look like? A Missional Leadership Cohort of 20 to 25 pastors meets for three weekends between October and April to learn the principles of mission (often not in the curriculum when they were at seminary). Then, in between, they meet in local clusters to discuss how to put into practice locally what they were learning centrally. There is support, prayer, and mutual accountability. The first Cohort of this kind was centred in Montreal between 2017 and 2018; the second in the Niagara region from 2018 to 2019. Already there is substantial interest in the third Cohort, starting in October.

And I find it heart-warming that the people in these Cohorts are, among other things, intentionally seeking to learn from the experience of their brothers and sisters in evangelical churches who are, I have to say, happy to share whatever they know, with delightful humility and great wisdom. The synergy is a joy to behold. Mission is too important to be the exclusive property of one tradition.

So what happened to “the flavour of the month”?

Back in 2008, I argued that the missional impulse behind Fresh Expressions is a timeless one. When Christians are grasped by the Gospel, and seek to incarnate it in a particular culture, a fresh expression of church will result. Lesslie Newbigin foresaw this as long ago as 1977:

There may be elements in the local reality which are so alien to the present membership of the local church—by reason of language, race, culture, occupation or other factors—that the existing church is incapable of functioning as sign, instrument and first-fruit of God’s purpose. . . . It is not enough in this situation for the Church to say “Come—all are welcome” . . . . The existing congregation must be willing also to go—to go outside the walls of the Church in order to become part of that other reality—in language, culture, style of life. Only so does there appear in the midst of that reality the sign and first-fruit of God’s all-embracing purpose.[1]

In that sense, fresh expressions of church are here to stay. Indeed, they have always been with us and will be as long as the mission of God continues! In that, I seem to have been right.

Secondly, in the 2008 article, I suggested that the name and organization of Fresh Expressions might not last. Steve Croft, the first Team Leader of Fresh Expressions in the UK, had told me he thought it might last ten years. By that time, the practices that Fresh Expressions taught and embodied would be so much part of the DNA of the church that it could close down with its mission accomplished. That made sense to me. Too many institutions, inside and outside the church, keep going far beyond their “best-before” date. In that, I was partly right, partly wrong.

Rearranging the jigsaw pieces

What I did not foresee was how the jigsaw pieces could be rearranged, with evangelical churches pioneering the nurturing of fresh expressions of church, without necessarily using that name. I did not foresee the success of Messy Church as an outreach in its own right. And I did not foresee the shift in training that might happen at seminary level—though I am delighted by all of these.

Finally, I didn’t foresee that Fresh Expressions the organization would reinvent itself to concentrate on the second half of the missional burden, helping existing churches make the turn to missional—in some ways the more demanding half. Both, of course, are expressions of the same impulse: to incarnate the Gospel in places and cultures where it is not known. Both are good, and both are needed.

Oh well, I guess I can live with being partly right. God will always surprise us.

[1] Lesslie Newbigin, “What is ‘a local church truly united’?” The Ecumenical Review, Volume 29, Issue 2, April 1977, 123.

John Bowen was Professor of Evangelism and Director of the Institute of Evangelism at Wycliffe College from 1997 till 2013, and then Director of Wycliffe Serves! until 2016. Now retired, he is happily engaged in preaching, teaching, mentoring and writing. John is married to Deborah, an English professor. They have two adult children and four grandchildren.