Heather is a United Methodist pastor at a large church in suburban Atlanta, Georgia. She also is the Lead Cultivator of Fresh Expressions for the North Georgia Conference of the UMC. Heather serves as a Fresh Expressions U.S trainer and mission strategist. She does teaching, training, and coaching for churches and pastors to help them think and vision about what might be possible by starting their own Fresh Expressions.
Heather was introduced to the Fresh Expressions movement in her previous context, in which she spent 7 years as an associate pastor. The suburb where she lived had seen a lot of change and had gone from more than 80% white to around 43% white and 43% Black. People in the church had left the public school system, with the closest school geographically having the highest rate of free or reduced lunch in the whole county. Food insecurity was a big issue in her area. Around this time she was introduced to Fresh Expressions and felt called to start a dinner church in her local school. She shared the possibility with the school principal, with whom the church had a 5 year partnership, who eventually welcomed the idea of using the space for a Saturday night dinner church to mitigate weekend hunger for the kids. The dinner church later moved to a food pantry in the same neighborhood. It started with 12 people and by the six month, they had about 80 in attendance. Within a year and a half there were 7 baptisms, and they were running out of room.
The congregation Heather currently serves is, by any measure, a mega-church. They have a 3,000 seat sanctuary, which Heather said they struggled to fill even before the pandemic. The challenge for Heather was, and still is, to shift their paradigm about what church might look like outside of their huge building. Her desire was to share with them Fresh Expressions, engage people’s curiosity about it, and dream together about what such initiatives might look like locally. Heather has been in this context for just over a year and already helped foster 4 Fresh Expressions out of this congregation.
One couple started a neighborhood gathering in their local park and called it “Wednesday Wind-Down.” It is a space to be present with their neighbors, to listen, lean in, support one another, and share their burdens. They have also kept the group very flexible and allowed their neighbors to take the lead, without church members projecting a specific model of how the group should function.
Another of their Fresh Expressions was started by a woman that Heather calls “The Bishop of Haynes Market.” She started prayer-walking a local shopping center and got to know all the business owners of the complex. She has the chance to be present with them and has invited other people into this ministry. Most of them have no opportunity to be part of a worshipping community.
Another couple who love a good craft beer have spent a lot of time at a particular craft brewery. The owners of this brewery are Christians and have had some very fruitful conversations about what it would look like to foster Christian community at the brewery.
The fourth Fresh Expression is a drive-thru dinner church. Being that dinner church was Heather’s own entry point into the Fresh Expressions movement, she knew that she wanted to bring that to her current context. However, with the pandemic she knew that was not going to be a safe option. She also knew that people were still hungry, lined up around food pantries, and that people are lonely and looking for some kind of connection. In cooperation with a local community charity that has a food pantry, they have launched a new community by the name of Sunday Supper.
One of Heather’s big learnings is that we need to ask a lot more questions and do a lot more listening to people. This is apparent, among other places, during the conversations about the Jesus story at dinner church. At dinner church they always share a Jesus story and then invite people into further conversation around their tables. She noted how Jesus asked a lot more questions than he gave answers. Asking questions and listening helps meet people where they are.
In her current congregation Heather is working to remind folks in the inherited church to articulate the difference that Jesus makes in everyday life. Jesus is not just an agent for change outside the church but also within the existing church as well. An important part of this work comes from the practice of listening. She said that she wants to be able to listen to the point where she can show someone where God is already working in their life and help that person recognize it for themselves. She recognized the difficulty people have with this task when people are, as she put it, “over-lifed.” When you’re struggling to get through to your next paycheck, put food on the table, or fighting an addiction, paying attention to where God is already working in your life is difficult.
For those looking to start their own Fresh Expression Heather asks them, “Where has God put you already? What are the spaces you already inhabit? What are the relationships you already have?” These questions can be difficult for many long-time church goers because many of their established circles revolve around the church and other members of the church. The main task is to help them see that there are already a number of spaces they inhabit where they could let their faith speak, so they don’t need to reinvent the wheel or themselves to engage in this kind of work.
When asked what she would recommend to other people looking to do this kind of ministry, Heather recommended a lot of prayer. We can pray and ask God to speak to us through conversations, the Spirit, and the Scriptures. Of course, with all that prayer comes listening and being attentive to where and how God responds. She also recommends seeking the wisdom of a few trusted individuals who can help you make sense of whatever vision God might be giving you.
Finally, in order to facilitate imagination outside of the church walls Heather sees that we must deconstruct some of our traditional ideas of what it means and looks like to be church. There will need to be a lot of relearning if we hope to be able to branch out successfully.
Holy God, you call us all to certain places. Give us ears to listen and hearts to be open. Help us take steps of faith outside the walls of our churches. Give us the humility to meet our neighbors where they are and show them your love through our lives and conversations. Give us the courage to follow you into a changing world. Amen.
About the Author
Timothy Bowman is an ELCA pastor currently serving in the Southeastern Minnesota Synod along with his wife, Allyson. Most recently serving as Associate Pastor at Christ the King Lutheran Church in Mankato, MN, he is now serving Grace Lutheran Church in Nerstrand, MN, and also serves as a board member of Crossroads Campus Ministry at Minnesota State Mankato. Tim has an MDiv (Luther Seminary) and a BA (Bethel University). As part of the Seeds Project Tim is partnering with Luther Seminary’s Faith+Lead platform as a Digital Journalist working to share the stories of identified Innovators on Faith+Lead.
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