An Interview with Chris Backert of Fresh Expressions U.S. – Part 1 of 2

Chris Backert

Through the challenges of these uncertain times, I find some encouraging signs that bring me hope. One of the greatest encouragements has been the fact that the Lord has raised up several groups who seem to be a step ahead of the rest of us and can help us navigate what the future of the church will look like in the United States. I know some of you have been introduced to Fresh Expressions in recent years, but many others have not. You can visit their website at https://freshexpressionsus.org to take a closer look at this movement of missionary disciples cultivating new kinds of church alongside existing congregations to more effectively engage our growing post-Christian society. Over the last several years, I’ve been blessed by my connection with Chris Backert, national director of Fresh Expressions U.S.

A little bit about Chris: Working with church leaders to develop new expressions of Christian community is the passion of Chris’s life. In addition to his role as National Director of Fresh Expressions US, he serves with the Baptist General Association of Virginia in the area of growth and venture development. He also serves as National Director for both Ecclesia, a US network of missional churches, as well as Missio Alliance. Previously, he served as pastor of New Life Christian Fellowship, a large university congregation in Blacksburg, Virginia and has been involved in the planting of three new congregations. Chris holds a D.Min. in Missional Church Leadership from Fuller Theological Seminary. He lives in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania with wife Rachel, daughter Elliana and son Jase.

Last week Chris was kind enough to spend some time answering a few questions about Fresh Expression and what God is doing through His church here in the U.S.

Christ’s Peace,

What is Fresh Expressions U.S. and how did it come about?
It started with the Church of England back in the early 2000’s. They had begun to observe that traditional approaches to church planting and church growth which often involved starting a worship service in a school or theater, were becoming less effective. Those models had been fruitful throughout the 1980’s and early 90’s, but began to see a sharp drop in the later 90’s. They commissioned a research project which resulted in two major findings:

  1. The UK was reaching the end of Christendom. In short, the percentage of the population who were able to be engaged through attractional approaches to church had aged out. What had worked to reach earlier generations was becoming less effective at connecting with emerging generations.
  2. They also discovered a growing number of smaller, more experimental ministry efforts that were effectively reaching and discipling new (and often, younger) people. They also observed that these efforts were mostly taking place outside the normal ministry structures of local churches.

Because of their findings, they made a strategic decision to take what was happening on the edge of the church and move it to the center. In other words, they created a mixed economy that made space for the inherited Sunday morning experience while utilizing these new “fresh expressions” that were missional and incarnational.

Why is there a need for Fresh Expressions today?
We know that there are less and less people who are likely to show up on Sunday morning to our normal expressions of church. Even before the pandemic that was true, although it varied from one geographical area to another here in the U.S. The pandemic has accelerated those trends, and some have estimated that as many 25% of church attenders won’t return post-COVID.

What do we do about all the people who are never going to come to our Sunday morning worship experience? How do we reach them and disciple them to Jesus when it’s so unlikely that they’ll be attracted to our weekly worship service?

Fresh Expressions really exists to help congregations trying to operate in this new reality. We know that more people are less likely to attend church as we know it. How do we reach them and do it in a way that doesn’t devalue the existing church? In other words, Fresh Expressions creates a kind of third way where we can continue to reach people who will come to church as we know it while also creating opportunities for those who won’t – in the same congregation. This creates a hybrid approach to church. We aren’t going to toss everything out the window, but we are going to create new opportunities to reach the people that are unlikely to be reached by our current efforts.

How can Fresh Expressions U.S. serve congregations and their leaders?
There are three main ways we try to serve congregations. The first is through helping congregations envision this new kind of hybrid approach by helping to equip them and working through the process of change. The second is similar, but usually happens through a collective level where we work with a denominational region or district. We’re doing the same kind of envisioning and equipping, it’s just with a group of churches to help them all bring about healthy change. Lastly, and this has been a more recent development considering the pandemic; we also offer individual coaching or congregational coaching that’s tailored more to a specific congregation and their unique needs and context. 

How can a church or leader take a step? Where do they start?
If you visit our website, https://freshexpressionsus.org, you’ll find a free download of the e-book How to Start a New Kind of Church by Luke Edwards. It gives a brief overview of the history of fresh expressions and a basic introduction to the purpose of fresh expressions. You’ll also find all our resources and information about learning opportunities at the website as well.

Another easy place to start is with our dinner church encounter. It’s a one-day training that walks you through the rich theological history of dinner church and moves to the practical questions of how to do it. Our hope is that every attender will have a very clear vision of What, Where, Why, When, and How they might help establish a dinner church in their community. Our Vision Day experience is another good place to start. It’s a one-day training to help you understand how to reach all kinds of people in all kinds of places. We’re doing a lot of these virtually right now and plan to resume in-person trainings later in the summer and fall. You can find this information at our website as well.

CGGC eNews—Vol. 15, No. 5

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