Church adopts Fresh Expressions to ‘bear fruit that will last’

May 14, 2024 |

“I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last…” from John 15:16

Fresh Expressions describes itself as a “Wesleyan, Spirit-led movement to cultivate communities of love and grace for people neglected by the church.” Indeed, at Middletown (NJ) United Methodist Church (MUMC) it is a new, emerging outreach mission that is bearing fruit where it belongs: outside the church and in the community.

For Gail Maples, a lifelong United Methodist and Middletown UMC member for five years, that new outward expression of her faith is an exciting departure from conventional notions of church outreach where the goal is to eventually add to worship attendance and membership. But it’s made possible by the encouragement of her pastor and a close-knit cadre of accountability partners her church calls “pioneers.”

“I am so passionate about my Holy Spirit-led journey with our Fresh Expressions team,” she said. “This surprised me. I have always embraced both traditional and contemporary worship on a Sunday morning, most often in a church building.

“But through prayer, discussion, training, and the support of my church family, I have been made aware of the beauty of this outreach, to potentially connect with those outside who would not otherwise be open to hearing the Good News of Jesus Christ, especially in the context of a church building.”

Indeed, that is the ingenious purpose of Fresh Expressions groups across the U.S. and beyond that gather in non-church venues like brew pubs, coffee shops, campgrounds and online.

EPA and GNJ members who attend the hourlong “Fresh Expressions of Church” workshop at each of their Annual Conferences in May will learn some basics about this new movement from Michael Beck, who leads Fresh Expressions initiatives for United Methodist Discipleship Ministries and the Florida Conference. He also teaches it at United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio.

Reaching ‘those who are not yet part of any church’

“Inherited congregations, with long histories, are experimenting with cultivating ‘fresh expressions’ of church…for our changing culture, established primarily for the benefit of those who are not yet part of any church,” reads the workshop description.(Add links:  and

Gail Maples

Maples reached out to several single women in her 50-plus residential community to meet regularly for tea, pastries and conversation on her patio. She knew they didn’t seem to get out much or have many visitors. None of the neighbors were regular churches attenders, but they found other interests to share while becoming friends.

After several meetups, she told the group about a women’s retreat she had attended at Middletown church and how attendees prayed for people in their lives. She cautiously asked her new friends if they had anything they wanted her to pray for. Several mentioned other people they were praying for, and Maples said she would do likewise. She then spoke about her church’s women’s prayer group and informal Sunday worship service but did not press them to attend.

Soon she plans to offer brief devotional moments before their meetings begin—maybe using the Upper Room devotional guide—for those who want to come early. But their meetings will remain unreligious for now. She calls these “baby steps” toward inviting her group to share a fledgling faith journey together. “I won’t say it’s scary but just a different approach for me.”

Will her Fresh Expression journey “be simple or go fast? No, but will it be worthwhile,” she said. “Is it something God has planned for me, for the people in our group and who knows how many others? Absolutely.”

Another new ministry just began that uses recreational frisbee golf to reach young adults. And the Rev. Derrick Doherty, Middletown’s pastor, is helping two young adult members discern if God is calling them to start a Fresh Expression focused on online gamers.

“We have set a God-size goal of launching and sustaining at least three fresh expressions by 2026,” Doherty said. He meets monthly with the five pioneers to provide “consulting, coaching and cheerleading” as they plan, pray and proactively encourage one another.

‘Go into the community, engage with people and stay with them there’

Mitch Marcello, a Fresh Expressions trainer, met with about 30 church members in October and November 2023 to explain the initiative and help them envision and begin to plan their efforts.

“We learned that the majority of our ministries and missions eventually invite people to come and engage with MUMC at the church building,” Doherty said. “But studies show that only about 40 percent of the community will engage with anything that a local church is currently doing. That means when a local church continues with the status quo, 60 percent of the community will not engage with them. For Middletown that was just unacceptable.

“We knew we had to do something else. We knew we had to go out into the community, engage with people there and stay with them there.”

Indeed, that is the challenge Fresh Expressions offers as a variable to conventional church outreach: the staying. “We’re seeking new ways to reach new people for Christ, right where the people are,” Doherty explained. “It is not about filling pews, statistical reports or offering counts.  It is about making disciples of Jesus Christ.”

Middletown recognized a need to prayerfully release some key leaders from their primary responsibilities to become pioneers, a radical commitment that relied on confirmation by the Holy Spirit, Doherty said.

Dianne Thompson, the church’s lay leader, became a pioneer, seeing the effort as “a different way for us to think about reaching outside the building to bring Jesus to people and people to Jesus.” She launched a second Fresh Expression ministry in late March at a senior complex, offering Bible study and fellowship to inactive residents who lack frequent visitors.

Getting management’s approval for any type of religious activity was a challenge, but a friend who lives at one senior facility told her that residents there were asking for a Bible study.  After many attempts, Thompson was able to get the management’s approval.

Twenty people attended the first informal, now-weekly gathering, which overflowed from the small library into the outer hallway. “When was the last time anyone held a Bible study in a church building and the room wasn’t large enough?” Doherty asked incredulously. “Fresh Expressions is becoming for us a new, refreshing manifestation of doing church.”

Such promising progress would probably please Methodism’s outgoing founder John Wesley, whose own courageous evangelism beyond the church is the inspiration for this movement. And it is no doubt encouraging to the Fresh Expressions pioneers and the church that not only stands behind them but also sends them forth to bear new fruit.

The book Fresh Expressions United Methodist:  A Distinctly Wesleyan Spirit-Led Movement of New Christian Communities that Serve the Present Age ($15) is available from UM Discipleship Ministries. To learn more read the UM News story “Fresh Expressions movement offers hope.” Also, “Recap of Futuring Forward: The Reawakening of the People Called Methodist,” and visit  

To learn more about Middletown UMC’s Fresh Expressions ministry contact the Rev. Derrick Doherty at


MAIN PHOTO: From left: Middletown UMC Fresh Expressions pioneers: Joe Spinelli, Gail Maples, Dianne Thompson,
Barbara Meyer, Rev. Derrick Doherty.