Fresh Expressions: Putting the 'Go' Back in United Methodist Mission
By Michael Beck
And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age. – Matthew 28:18-20
The Risen Jesus, with all authority invested in him, leaves his followers a final mandate… “go make disciples.” This is the climax of Matthew’s Gospel. If the story ends with Resurrection and ascension, we have no mission, no church, and no healed world. If we are left only with an empty tomb, we are left with a historical event that is inaccessible to us now.
The charge of the church is to be a community that embodies the way, truth, and life of Jesus. It is not a book or a set of propositions, but a community. The community itself is an expression of the Trinitarian life of God. People are invited into the life of God through baptism and learning the way of Jesus through a relationship with his glorious and risen self.
Even with its many splinter groups, The United Methodist Church, at the time of this writing, is still the third largest mainline denomination in the United States and one of the largest Protestant denominations in the world. Methodism began as an evangelical movement alongside the Anglican Church in eighteenth-century England. One of its core ideas was reaching people who were not connected to any church and discipling these ordinary believers to become leaders.
The Methodist movement was primarily driven by laity, who preached, taught, worked against injustice, and led small groups. The small groups, society, class, and band meetings were disciple-making and multiplying engines for the movement. (To go deeper with these ideas, see A Field Guide to Methodist Fresh Expressions.)
The mission statement of The United Methodist Church is to “make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” Implicit in the statement is a twofold assumption: discipleship and social transformation. We could think of it as a formula: if we “make disciples,” people who think, act, and love as Jesus did, we will get a better, more compassionate, more just society; making disciples = a transformed world. More people living in union with Jesus will make families, communities, and civilization as a whole, better.
The current form of the mission statement was revised at the 2008 General Conference in Fort Worth, Texas. It is drawn from the Great Commission: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:18-20).
At first glance, the United Methodist mission statement seems to line up quite nicely with the commission of Christ. But did you notice an important word is omitted? Yep, you caught it, “go.” More specifically, the Greek that which has already begun or to continue on the journey.” So, Jesus says, “Go out” or “As you go along the journey… make disciples.”
Omitting that single word from the mission statement creates a collapsed and incapacitated version of the mission. It warps and even misrepresents what Jesus actually said. With no “go,” we assume that discipleship involves “you come to us” and on our terms, at a time that we have decided, in a language we speak, and we will make you into a disciple. All the directional arrows are pointing inward. So, discipleship becomes programmatic, taking place in church buildings. How do we “make disciples” in this paradigm? Worship services, Bible studies, Sunday school, and serving on committees, apparently. If we complete the right discipleship curriculum, we get a shingle we can hang on a wall, “I’m a graduate-level disciple of Jesus.”
With no “go,” we assume that discipleship involves “you come to us” and on our terms, at a time that we have decided, in a language we speak, and we will make you into a disciple.
But does this really work? Has this approach really formed people to live, love, think, and act as Jesus did? Has it made people less racist or homophobic? Has it made them more generous? Has it made people less addicted, less isolated, less depressed, and less divorced? Has it really changed how people live and interact with others during the rest of the week? And if forming people in Jesus will “transform the world,” have we succeeded? Is society less politically divided, or has there been a decrease in poverty? Has our approach minimized gun violence and mass shootings? Has it curtailed the largest overdose epidemic in the history of the nation?
Many statisticians and sociologists would say the surface-level answer to these questions is overwhelmingly “no.” People who attend church regularly are not as a whole any less racist, homophobic, stingy, addicted, or divorced than people who don’t. Some of the most racist and mean people I’ve ever known in my life were sitting in my pews every Sunday. Many churches could completely disappear, and it would make no noticeable difference to the social fabric of the community. For people not currently connected to the church, the church has already disappeared for them.
Okay, enough with the bummer report. For most of us Christians, none of what I’ve said here is necessarily breaking news. It’s also a one-sided assessment; no body of human beings across history has done more to heal the world than the church of Jesus Christ, and Methodists have played a tremendous role.
I love to stretch the imaginations of Methodists with a playful question, “So, our mission statement is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world, right? So how do we ‘make disciples’?” Almost every time, there is a long pregnant pause. Crickets. Uncomfortable silence. The people in the room suspect they should know the answer. But they don’t. After a while, we bumble around and figure something out, but you would think if making disciples is the core purpose of an organization, the crystal clear why of our existence, we would have a clear process for how.
Can we put the “go” back in the Great Commission? Can we be the kind of church where the Holy Spirit can make disciples who transform the world again? Indeed, we can, we will, we are—right now.
Enter the Fresh Expressions movement. All over the world, tens of thousands of everyday Christians, mostly laypersons, are forming new Christian communities with people currently neglected or harmed by the church. These communities ordain people in the waters of their baptisms and form them to plant contextual churches in every nook and cranny of life. This is not a pipedream; it’s been happening, slowly building momentum since the Mission-Shaped Church report was released in 2004. On the twentieth anniversary of this work, we are seeing kingdom fruit and a reorganization of ecclesiology centered on the compassion of Jesus.
This motivation for Fresh Expressions flows from the life and ministry of Jesus himself, “When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (Matthew 9:36, italics mine). The Greek word for compassion, splanchnizomai, means to “be moved as to one’s bowels”; hence, to be moved with compassion. The bowels were thought to be the seat of love and mercy. So, Jesus has a gut-wrenching love that inspires him to act.
The why is simple… there are millions of people who are not connected to any church and never will be in its current form. They are not going to walk into Sunday morning worship no matter how we do it. These are people that we know and love, friends, colleagues, coworkers, family, children, and grandchildren, who will never know the precious gift of communal life in Jesus if we don’t go embody it with them.
The key to fulfilling this purpose is discipleship. Fresh Expressions gives focus to our discipleship. For many, being a Christian can feel like playing soccer with no goalposts or basketball without a hoop. We run around for a while; it’s exciting and new, then we start to feel a growing sense that there must be more. We merge back into the crowd and get discipled by the world or our echo chamber news network. If the high points of our Christian life are going through a membership class, reading studies, and serving on committees, there are better things we can do.
Emerging generations have rejected this version of the Christian faith. We want to make a difference in people’s lives. We want to see our friends and loved ones well. We want to see communities healed. The “spiritual but not religious” new Protestant movement is a push against secularism that has edged God out of the picture (what Charles Taylor called the “imminent frame”), but it’s also a push against the mainline iteration of the church that seems more concerned with institutional preservation than living as Jesus did.
Fresh Expressions releases discipleship from the “as you go along the journey make disciples” variety. It’s bridging the gap between the church as a service you attend and a community that you belong to. It spreads discipleship out into every arena of life, every day of the week, in every place where we can gather, at any time. It sees all space as sacred space and all people as beloved of God.
It equips everyday disciples, new and old, for discipleship multiplication. It’s a compassionate way of being the church with people who will never come to church. The people involved in these communities find healing and grow as disciples of Jesus, offering that healing to others.
This is why Fresh Expressions UM exists. It is a distinctly Wesleyan Spirit-led movement of new Christian communities that serve the present age. Why do we need a unique Methodist expression of this movement? Because frankly, Fresh Expressions is the most Methodist thing in the world, since, well… Methodism! The movement is a recapitulation of the early Wesleyan revival that swept across the globe. As I wrote back in 2018, the Fresh Expressions movement is allowing Methodists to become vile again. It is enabling us to return to our roots as a renewal movement and awaken us from apostolic amnesia, to put the “go” back in the United Methodist mission.
If your heart aches for the people in your life who have no connection with a church—friends, coworkers, family, who have never experienced the precious gift that is communal life in Jesus— we invite you to join this grassroots revolution of a Methodism that “serves the present age.”
Learn more about all the free resources we offer here.
 Cray, Graham. Mission-Shaped Church: Church Planting and Fresh Expressions in a Changing Context. (New York: Seabury Books, 2010).
 Beck, Michael, “Make Methodism Vile Again”(October 26, 2018), https://freshexpressions.com/2018/10/25/make-methodism-vile-again.
Michael Beck is the Director of Fresh Expressions United Methodist (FXUM) with Path 1 at Discipleship Ministries.