Over the summer, I and three other college students rolled up our sleeves help tell the story of how Fresh Expressions of church are taking root across the United States. We talked with leaders from Albany to Anaheim and learned some very important things: while no two fresh expressions of church are alike, they are all engaging people outside the walls of the churches that most of us know and love, they are helping people learn to see themselves the way that God sees them, and they’re loving others the way that God loves.
Through researching, reading, interviewing church leaders, and engaging with the people in their immediate and extended community, we shared a journey of discovering the role of church in today’s world and in our own lives. I explored the concept of missional church and the intersection of social action and new forms of church. At the same time, we lived in intentional community with one another, sharing living space, cooking meals together, and spending time with the Lord each day as a spiritual family. Gannon Sims, the Virginia Regional Coordinator for Fresh Expressions, led the experience along with his wife, Carey, and the staff at the Center for Faith and Leadership—the BGAV-affiliated collegiate and young adult ministry at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg.
A highlight of the internship was “family dinner,” a time every Monday and Thursday, to share a meal and talk. We laughed and joked with each other and dug deeper into some of the issues that we deal with in our social lives, our schools, and our work. We shared how we were doing with our Up, In, and Out: our time with God, our time with ourselves and in community, and our time reaching out to others.
One night the conversation organically turned into a time for several people to share testimonies of how they came to follow Jesus. Another night, we discussed how to engage with college administrators as we try to live missionally on our campuses. Since we all come from different types of Christian backgrounds and family experiences, the multiplicity of perspectives always made these conversations eye-opening.
In addition to learning how to live in community with each other, juggling communal finances, sharing each other’s emotional burdens, and seeking the Lord together, we learned a lot about the wider Church through our research of fresh expressions. For Connor Janney, an intern from Fredericksburg, a highlight of the summer was his interview with Ryan Althaus, founder of a new form of church for runners called “Sweaty Sheep.” Connor found Ryan’s story inspiring. He said, “This man is doing what he’s doing because of God. It’s not because he’s a legend…his fresh expressions of church were successful because of Christ and the simple truths and the power of the gospel.”
Emily Daly, an intern from Richmond, enjoyed talking with people who have developed fresh expressions. She said, “They’re very interesting to talk to. I feel like I’ve learned a lot from them about following God outside traditional practices.” An example of this is the way Emily is learning to see God’s creative power through many genres of music, not just hymns or praise music.
The interns have been inspired and encouraged by the stories we’ve heard from the fresh expressions leaders we’ve spoken with, and we hope that others who read those stories will also see the power of the gospel to catalyze transformation in any context.
One of my highlights from the summer was presenting at Gayton Church in Henrico about redefining church for a modern, missional context.
Stacy Deyerle, a staff member at Gayton who is spearheading a new outreach in the fall called The Dinner Table, asked for someone to come share with her leadership team about fresh expressions of church. This gave me an opportunity to synthesize what I’ve learned through my reading and interviews in a way that would be beneficial to launching a ministry at my home church. The stories I’ve read and heard about successful new forms of church taught me that it’s necessary to distill the idea of “church” down to its essential components.
In order to have the flexibility to share the gospel effectively in any context, we have to give ourselves permission to frame it differently without compromising its truth. It was fun to share what I’ve learned and engage in discussion about it with the members of Gayton. I got to hear the various ways some of them had already started wrestling with the definition of church before the conversation even started, and I could see the paradigm shift in some of their minds as we examined scripture together and listened to each other’s reflections on Jesus’s intention for church. It was exciting to witness the enthusiasm of Gayton members of all ages as we discussed the possibility for innovation in the church.
The four of us have learned a lot from this internship, but the learning won’t end when the summer ends. Perhaps the best part of the experience is the new challenges and questions that we can already see on the horizon. We’ve grown accustomed to the rhythm of life in community with each other, but the rhythm will change as we engage with new communities in future seasons of life. We look forward to applying the same lessons of honesty, vulnerability, and attentiveness to each other and to God even when we live with different people. We’ll also continue to seek the ways God will use the stories we’ve written to shape us and the people who read them. Connor said, “I’ll be disappointed if all these stories do is encourage someone already doing this. I would like my stories to be provoking enough that it stirs someone out of their seat and into action.” And who knows? Maybe that someone will be one of us. When Gannon asked each of us what we would do if we were to start a fresh expression of church, none of us had to think about it for long. God has used this summer to cultivate the love in our hearts for certain people in our communities, and we’ll keep praying for God to guide us in translating that love into action.
Kaya Prasad is a junior at Grinnell College in Grinnell, Iowa, where she is majoring in Global and Community Development. She is a member of Gayton Church in Henrico.