Reaching People for Jesus in Unique Places

When the Rev. Jonathan Kollmann answered the call to serve, he knew his ministry would concentrate on revitalizing existing churches and starting new communities of faith.

He probably never imagined that some of the worship communities would originate at local breweries. 

But, after 20 years of working toward revitalizing different churches, Kollmann found himself struggling to repeat the success at one of his recent appointments.

"It was an older congregation," he said. "I was trying to do everything I could, but it was frustrating. They [the congregation] were not only dying because people weren't coming.

They were dying physically." 

That's when he started looking at other ways to do ministry.

New places for worship

One of the first places to offer an opportunity to bring Christ to others was a local brewery, Kollmann said. A group of parents, primarily mothers, would get together at the brewery, supporting one another. They might not want to walk in through a church door, but they did want Kollmann to join them at a potluck held at the brewery.

"I was blown away by the community and the fellowship," he said. "Eventually, I became their pastor. But they would never come to Sunday services." It was disappointing that the congregation he served did not find the ministry viable.

By then, he had participated in the eight-month training called "The Greenhouse," part of the Plant Ohio Initiative, and it was there he heard about Fresh Expressions.

A 2004 initiative of the Methodist Church of Great Britain, Fresh Expressions has birthed thousands of new communities in the United Kingdom and renewed scores of established churches. Over the last 15 years, the movement has spread to Australia, Canada, New Zealand, South Africa, Germany and the United States. 

The movement allows for the creation of new expressions of church, each unique to its environment - nursing homes, college dormitories, housing projects - or to the people gathered for shared interests - bikers, new parents, cowboys, artists, adventurers. Each introduces people to the love of Christ in ways they might never have experienced.

People know they are coming to a worship service, Kollmann said, "but it's very user-friendly. They're still going to experience the message from the Bible and the gospel, but in a way that's appealing and creative and judgment-free. They can interact with the story and see how God's story interacts with their own story."

It takes three types

For Fresh Expressions to succeed in the local church, three types of people are needed: pioneers, those who actually go out into the community to forge relationships that make people comfortable with spiritual and worship practices; supporters, those in a congregation who provide the logistical and ministry support needed for the pioneer and for the new worshipping communities; and permission-givers, leaders willing to say "Yes," to the unconventional worship opportunities.

At Anderson Hills United Methodist Church near Cincinnati, the Rev. Mark Rowland, senior pastor, and the congregation's leadership team said "Yes."

"Our mission is to make disciples for the transformation of the world," Rowland said. "Getting people into our front door on Sunday morning is one of the key tactics we use to begin the discipleship process."

That method worked for several years, he said, but recently, it had been a struggle to attract people to Sunday morning worship. "Every new strategy we tried did not bring the results we had hoped for," he said. "Most of our strategies were built around getting people inside our building instead of going out to our community."

So, when Kollmann, who had been appointed associate pastor for connections and new ministries development at Anderson Hills, presented his ideas to the church's leadership team, it seemed like a natural next step, Rowland said. The leadership team decided it was worth the risk to try something new.

Without the symbiotic relationships between the pioneer, the supporters and the permission-givers, nurturing successful Fresh Expressions of church would be almost impossible.

But when the three work together, amazing things can be achieved.

Today, the Fresh Expressions of church connected to Anderson Hills UMC are happening in places like breweries, American Legion posts and assisted-living facilities. One group meets for "dinner church."

One of the more successful Fresh Expressions is the Art Studio, owned by two women who are members of Anderson Hills UMC. They discerned God was calling them to use their studio for a Fresh Expressions worship painting experience. Kollmann has equipped one of the women to be a pioneer, Rowland said. She does the teaching and painting for thematic worship. The other woman is a supporter, marketing the worship, gathering supplies and arranging for refreshments.

Fresh Expressions, Rowland said, "has given the congregation a renewed passion for reaching out to the unchurched. It provides new places to serve and new venues where they can invite their unchurched friends and family that is not inside a church building.

"We are beginning to see people who come to Fresh Expressions events participate in the ministries of Anderson Hills," Rowland said.

"Revitalization of a dying church is one of the most difficult things for a pastor," he added. Funding Fresh Expressions, he believes, is a proven way to reach new people for Christ and revitalize churches. 

"Starting new [Fresh Expressions] should be the priority of every church in the conference," Rowland said. "If they can't start one, then they should provide financial support for those who are doing it."