New Expressions of the Church

New Expressions of the Church May 1, 2013

One of the world’s, and especially North America’s, finest chroniclers and evaluators of new and fresh expressions of the church is Fuller professor Ryan K. Bolger. His former book Emerging Churches sketched the emerging/emergent gatherings but his newest  book, The Gospel after Christendom: New Voices, New Cultures, New Expressions, collects stories from 28 different kinds of “missional” expressions of church around the world — Latin America, New Zealand, Australia, Scandinavia, French-speaking locations, German-speaking locations, not to ignore North America. The book, then, provides a kaleidoscope of “fresh” expressions.

Is this the future of the church? Is this Emergent 2.0? Is this “missional”? What can we learn from these new expressions?

What perhaps matters most to us is the big picture, and Bolger summarizes these fresh expressions in the following themes:

1. Getting started: these new forms of church emerge out of frustrations, getting burned, and a desire to rethink everything. Sometimes a few begin it but before too long some more gather round. There is “immense creativity.”

2. They are immersed in local culture at all levels: they are connected to the unchurched and to all locals. They shop and live local. There is no evangelism in the formal sense because they are creating an alternative story. They are engaged in neighborhoods. They create space for inclusion and few boundaries or borders. They remain committed to Christ and open to listen to other faith traditions. They belong before they believe.  They serve their local community as they can.

3. Deep formation. They are often networked small groups whether or not they have a main gathering. Small groups entail hospitality. Some are into new monasticism. They want to live out the Way of Jesus. Leaders often wisdom but the individuals want to take responsibility. Leadership is flat and egalitarian. It’s bottom up.

4. Participatory worship. They are suspicious of the powerful pastor. Leaders encourage the vision of others. They worship together into common activities and they participate in what the other is doing. There is very little teaching. Worship services are formational for those involved.

5. The postmodern spiritual seeker crafts his or her spirituality in bricolage fashion. Volunteer work in the city is a common form of spiritual service. They seek an integrated spirituality that brings together the fragmented bits of life. “Post-Christendom people want to experience acts of spirituality and justice, but not communal commitment” (359).

6. The diversity of the group is a prophetic sign, a foretaste of the kingdom of God. “In these communities, churches maintain the centrality of Christ, a trinitarian understanding of God, practices of prayer, baptism, the Eucharist, and Bible reading” (359). Worship connected to all of creation including the local community rhythms. They feature various kinds of spiritual traditions, from Taize to candles to Celtic… on and on.

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  • T

    Well, he’s definitely reading the mail of the church my wife and I and some friends are planting, with limited exceptions. Interesting that this is happening all over.

  • T.S.Gay

    Although not read yet, Bolger’s themes resonate. I think our family has ebbed and flowed with them. I read and enjoyed “Worship and Mission After Christendom” by Alan and Eleanor Kreider a couple of years ago. A personal interest in the new book by Rod Dreher….”The Little Way of Ruthie Lemming……” is strongly tied to localism. My choice of daily devotional is tied to participatory worship. Our youngest daughter is attending the Taize gathering on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation this month. We have been involved in organic church, while our children all are community church oriented. We were burned back in 1980’s by a pentecostal movement.

  • “Post-Christendom people want to experience acts of spirituality and justice, but not communal commitment” (359).

    Lot of themes resonate for me here but this statement also sums up a potential fatal weakness. Can any authentic Christian spirituality reject the discipline and accountability (and joys) of community? Will it not inevitably fragment into an eclectic comfortable individualism of the like-minded?

  • Jamie


    with your experience with churches….what’s your impression of the new expressions?

  • MattR

    Thanks Scot! Can’t wait to read this… sounds like it resonates with what some of us are doing in our local expressions of missional community/church planting.

    I also agree with Patrick Mitchel (#3). I have found this to be a reality on the ground, but it could also be the ‘fatal flaw’ of this type of expression… though many of us are working hard to counteract this in ways that might connect with Post-Christendom people.

    Scot, is Bolger just reporting here, or does he also give wisdom on the strengths and weaknesses?

  • Chris

    Much of what is described in this piece is indeed resonating with many, but I believe that one in particular is standing out more and more – participatory worship. I see a growing number of folks who are absolutely tired of the “come and see” model of church worship. They want to “come and participate.” They want to participate in Scripture readings, prayers, the serving of the Lord’s Supper (Eucharist), etc. Get the professionals off the “stage” and let’s invite the congregation back into the worship service. If the evangelical church ever hopes to recover a meaningful worship (liturgy) model then our leaders must start thinking more this way.

  • Evelyn

    Are you familiar with the book ‘Mission-Shaped Church’? ( It was there that the phrase ‘fresh expressions’ was coined… there’s a follow-up that deals more deeply with the theological questions behind fresh expressions, ‘Mission-Shaped Questions’ (multiple authors).

  • JD

    The main problem I have with the emergent model described in the article is the fact that “very little teaching” takes place. I am agnostic as to how teaching takes place, but we all need to be taught. It seems to me that a disciple’s heart would be a learner’s heart.

    They’re probably rebelling against some of the particular teachings they have heard or perhaps to the pastor-preaching-a-sermon method of teaching, but good solid teaching based on good solid exegesis seems to be pretty essential to a healthy Christian church.

    The only other major concern I have about the model described above was already well stated by Patrick Mitchel (#3). I say this as a man who has had some pretty difficult and abusive experiences with churches and who is currently looking for a new one. My checkered ecclesiastical past does not negate the need for Christian community.

    Otherwise, the Emergent model described above seems quite attractive and I am heartened by the possibility of a more authentic church experience becoming more widespread.

  • Chris

    JD – Take heart. There are many “Emergent” churches out there where good preaching is practiced. It will likely not be strictly expositional or delivered in an overly scholarly manner but in the experiences that I’ve had it’s effective nonetheless.