Can we find fresh expressions in church history?

This section was written by Dr Philip Harrold, Associate Professor of History at Trinity School for Ministry, near Pittsburgh.

A long story full of challenges

Three crossesLet's imagine that Christians are part of a long story, that begins with God's great saving deeds revealed in the Scriptures, reaches a turning point in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and then continues over various times and places in the church as it is led by his Spirit.

What makes this ongoing story so important for us is that it tells us how other Christians have strived, much as we do, to live the gospel story. We actually pick up where they have left off, receiving and passing on the way of life we know in Jesus, translating it into our own time and place.

We get a certain feel for how to do this and what the possibilities are by continuing the conversation that began so long ago. To be aware of these amazing connections over time gives us perception and perspective as we move forward. This is who we are and what we do as the Spirit leads us - it is an ancient-future faith.

Let's also imagine that Christians in that long story have faced challenges not unlike our own, especially when it comes to living the way, truth and life of Christ according to Scripture and with the sort of improvisation needed to make his story truly life-changing. 

There have always been 'fresh expressions' of church because followers of Jesus have always faced changes in their missionary contexts, much as we do today.

Mission to Antioch

In the book of Acts we learn that the mission to Antioch presented the early church with an unprecedented opportunity to bring large numbers of non-Jewish people into the faith.

There have always been 'fresh expressions' of church because followers of Jesus have always faced changes in their missionary contexts, much as we do today

Much was at stake for the Jerusalem church, as we learn in Acts 11 and 15. Even though it was clear that the Holy Spirit was impartial to Jewish-Gentile distinctions, the more traditional Jewish members of the church insisted that the new believers keep the law of Moses according to Jewish custom. That meant, first and foremost, the practice of circumcision as a mandatory rite of passage - a very significant and cherished sign of covenantal identity to Jews but, alas, 'on the neck... a yoke' (Acts 15.10) for the Antiochene community.

Ultimately, the Jerusalem believers decided that Gentiles should not have to become Jews first. For it 'seemed good to the Holy Spirit' (Acts 15.28) that new believers would translate the gospel into their own way of life. Indeed, this was very good news because it was much more in keeping with what the prophets had said would happen (Acts 15.16-17).

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So at Antioch we see the five values for missionary churches. These have always been recognised in the history of the Christian faith as essential to the sort of 'fresh expressions' we look for today. A missionary church is:

Any new inculturation of the gospel that has been blessed by God will put these five values to work as it transposes the good news into a new key of life
  • focused on the Triune God - Father, Son and Spirit;
  • incarnational;
  • transformational;
  • disciple-making;
  • relational.

Any new inculturation of the gospel that has been blessed by God will put these values to work as it transposes the good news into a new key of life... and 'in such a way that convinces, converts and transforms those who respond...'. For a more detailed discussion of the five values of a missionary church, see Mission-shaped Church: Church planting and fresh expressions of church in a changing context, CHP, 2004, pp13-14, 81-83.

In the following pages, stay tuned to these five values as we look at a series of fresh expressions in the history of the missionary church. Be attentive to the way these values persist even as the transposition leads to a dazzling variety of new patterns of Christian life and modes of witness. The script stays the same, but the performance is different every time.

Fresh expressions in church history