It's nothing new. Membership in many United Methodist churches is aging and declining.
It's not that congregations aren't trying to find ways to attract new disciples. But for many people, especially young adults and young families, church doesn't seem relevant or welcoming enough to be worth giving up the scant free time available in today's world.
"In West Ohio Conference, there is a genuine desire to see new people transformed by the love of Christ," said Brad Aycock, director of New Church Development. "Many of our churches across the conference want to do something to reach our communities, but they are stuck."
Fresh Expressions, he said, offers a different way of outreach. Instead of expecting people to come to a brick-and-mortar building, those trained in the Fresh Expressions movement bring opportunities for worship and spiritual growth to wherever people already gather because of common interests, concerns or experiences.
Introduced to the conference by Bishop Gregory Palmer, Fresh Expressions originated in the British Methodist Church and The Church of England.
"While the Gospel of Jesus Christ is unchanging, the church must be ever vigilant and nimble about ways, means and settings to commend the life-changing Gospel to people where and how they live their lives," said Palmer. He noted the conference's credible track record of innovation to invite people to love and serve Jesus and live in Christian community.
"Our numbers within the denomination and in West Ohio tell us that the way we do church has to change," said the Rev. Ann Marie Carley, a deacon and executive pastor at Trinity United Methodist Church in Chillicothe. She recommended modeling John Wesley's method of meeting people where they are, especially as the conference tries to reach younger people.
"Not every church can start a new campus," Aycock said. "Fresh Expressions is a good option because it gives every church an opportunity to try something new and creative."
The movement has found fertile ground in West Ohio, Aycock said, citing remarks made by Chris Backert, national director of Fresh Expressions U.S., who said West Ohio is leading the way in the United States in terms of introducing new places for worship through the initiative. Currently over 25 churches in the conference have opened 40-plus Fresh Expressions outreach opportunities.
Because Fresh Expressions is lay driven, Carley said, "the risk is significantly lower than a normal church start."
West Ohio Conference finds the movement promising and is supporting it by awarding grants to churches that have formed and sent teams to training, sharing their learnings with the community. Not every Fresh Expression outreach will work, Carley said, adding that seven "Kingdom Experiments" have already run their cycle.
Another 12 are thriving.
That doesn't mean the unsustainable experiences were failures. "Just as our own faith is constantly evolving, we have to constantly look at the way we are reaching people," she said. Referencing a quote by Albert Einstein, she said, "Doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results is the definition of insanity."
Beginning in January, congregations will have a chance to send a team to learn about the practices, tools and steps needed to form meaningful expressions of church. The first of two training sessions will be held Friday, Jan. 10, at 9:30am at the WOC Conference Center in Worthington. A second session is scheduled for Saturday, Aug. 8, at 3 pm. Between those sessions, teams are offered mentoring and resources as they explore launching Fresh Expressions in their communities. For more information, click here.
For more information about Fresh Expressions and upcoming events, contact Brad Aycock by email at bradaycock [at] wocumc.org or by calling 573-421-1824.
Visit freshexpressionsus.org and read Carley's articles about her experiences with Fresh Expressions here.