Mixed ecology blends inherited and emerging forms of church
Each week, people around the world tune in to the “All Places Together” podcast. A soothing acoustic melody precedes Pastor Colleen Montgomery’s dulcet welcome:
“Here, we believe that our lives are connected to one another and rooted in God’s inclusive and expansive love for diverse creation. … Wherever you are, whoever you are, take a deep breath.” Then, she takes a long, lingering inhale before 30 to 50 minutes of spiritual nourishment and reflection.
“It facilitates an online community with those who share a similar heart, not the same ZIP code,” Montgomery said in an interview with Story magazine. She releases episodes each Sunday online and through streaming services. “It’s a huge opportunity to reach people who are not seeking traditional church but have a spark of faith they want to explore.”
On the podcast, Montgomery talks with experts, shares stories, and reflects on Scripture. Episodes focus on addiction recovery, coming out, God in the five senses, Hebrew poetry, and other relevant and probing themes. Listeners weigh in and connect on social media to discuss the podcast, share their journeys, vent about parenting, and more.
They have done so since May 2021, after Montgomery left to her second pastoral call to create a faith-filled, digital gathering space. Isolation brought on by COVID-19 “shifted my faith in a profound way,” Montgomery said. She realized her experience of the divine was not narrowly place-based. Montgomery began to wonder about others like her, as well as those who associate church buildings with harm rather than grace.
“One of the most central stories of Christian faith and living is that of death and resurrection. Letting go of ‘the way we’ve always done things’ is hard, but the death of worship services, ministries, or even entire congregations is part of the life of faith,” said Montgomery, who also serves as director of digital ministries for the ELCA’s Virginia Synod. “It doesn’t mean that something has gone wrong but that it is time for people and resources to rest and then for something new to grow. God is always with us as we dream, worship, and innovate. God is always doing a new thing.”
Fresh Expressions of church
Montgomery is among the growing number of clergy and lay leaders drawn to explore new missional paths. Luther Seminary has walked alongside these faith-filled pioneers to realize faithful innovation—empowering and connecting many of them online through the Faith+Lead platform, as well as through in-person and hybrid experiences. The seminary’s efforts also include the Seeds Project, which offers a fellowship that has supported Montgomery and other leaders in developing innovative ways of spreading God’s work.
Leading the seminary’s reimagining of church is Vice President of Innovation Dwight Zscheile ’08 Ph.D. and a team of missional visionaries. They are focused on the idea of the mixed ecology, or a blending of inherited forms of Christian community with emerging ways of reaching the faithful. It’s not about replacing Sunday worship; it’s about blending traditions with innovative expressions of faith developed to reach the 60% of Americans absent from pews (many of whom say they believe in God, according to a 2020 Gallup Poll).
“Diverse ecosystems thrive when different kinds of organisms share life and energy together in a particular place,” said Zscheile, also a professor of congregational mission and leadership at Luther Seminary. “Rather than assume a one-size-fits-all approach for what Christian community should look like, we emphasize a variety of different forms that meet people where they are.”
Instead of waiting for families to walk through church doors, faithful innovators build Christian communities where people do life—at gatherings of young families, often called “messy church,” or through discussions of faith during yoga class, bike rides, and craft nights. These cafe or dinner churches, hiking churches, and more are relatively simple in practice and far more culturally accessible than traditional models, Zscheile said.
Since the winter of 2019, Zscheile and Luther Seminary’s Dean of Academic Affairs Terri Elton ’98 M.A., ’07 Ph.D. have traveled twice to London and Oxford, England, to study a mixed ecology approach called “Fresh Expressions.” The Church of England coined the term to describe new forms of church that emerge within contemporary culture to primarily engage those who don’t attend church. Fresh Expressions accounts for 15% of the
Church of England’s congregations, engaging a total of about 50,000 people.
Fresh Expressions has since become a multidenominational movement that stresses collaboration over competition. It reminds Christian leaders that Jesus was out in the world, often at the edges of society and outside established religious systems.
“Inherited congregations can initiate and support Fresh Expressions to bring new learning and vitality to established forms of church,” Zscheile said. “It’s much easier to embrace a full hospice ward in a hospital when the maternity ward is packed and thriving. While starting new expressions of church is inherently risky, it is far riskier to bet on transformation of an inherited church designed for a different era.”
Mixed ecology in practice
In February, Zscheile and his colleagues launched a Fresh Expressions Learning Community to train Minnesota clergy and lay leaders in the mixed ecology. This ecumenical gathering of about 36 people from across the state met again in March and will engage in monthly online check-ins until November, when they will gather in person to share outcomes of their Fresh Expressions experiments.
Author and pastor Michael Beck co-leads these sessions with Blair Pogue ’13 D.Min., who serves as canon for vitality and innovation in the Episcopal Church in Minnesota. Beck, serving as director of the Fresh Expressions House of Study and director of re-missioning for Fresh Expressions U.S., is a renowned leader in the movement. He guides a network of Fresh Expressions groups that gather in tattoo parlors, dog parks, salons, running tracks, burrito joints, and Zoom rooms to connect with God.
Beck told the Minnesota learning community that Fresh Expressions of church thrive within domains of meaning, purpose, and belonging—“in the places and spaces we do life.” He urged participants to be curious and flexible in reaching those who feel neglected, forgotten, and excluded from religion. Just as the body of Christ is broken and given away, Beck said, Christian communities should center on self-donation, not self-preservation.
“Inherited church and Fresh Expressions need each other,” he added. “Traditional church is the trunk of the tree, and dog park church, ‘Burritos and Bibles,’ and yoga church are the branches that reach out and connect with people.”
Beck then shared his introduction to this approach: “My first appointment after seminary was a rural congregation in a town with no stoplights, no Walmarts, and no Dollar Generals. We had about 12 folks in worship, and the population of the town was only 47, so we weren’t exactly going to become a megachurch,” he recalled.
“So, we started connecting with folks in Diane’s Diner in the next town. The staff there are who Luke would call ‘persons of peace’—welcomers and people who knew the community. We started developing relationships. Barbecue church started with 12 people, and within a few months, our gathering grew to 30 to 40 people.”
The gatherings at Diane’s were spirit-led and instinctual, he said, and those conversations and relationships informed worship services and programs back at the church building. Beck said he came to learn of other missional experiments and terms like “mixed ecology” and “Fresh Expressions” to describe the work.
Planting the seeds of innovation
Beck explained more of his work and background as a “drug dealer turned pastor” on episode three, season four of Faith+Lead’s Pivot Podcast, which Elton has co-hosted since its inception in May 2020. This year, Elton welcomed Zscheile and Dee Stokes—director of the Seeds Project— to co-host the fourth season, which is focused on the mixed ecology.
“We provide lessons and stories from church leaders who are igniting imagination, creating collaborations, launching experiments, and dreaming of new possibilities for God’s church,” Elton said. “The season focuses on two questions: How might we use the uncertainty and disruption of this time to reimagine church, ministry, and leadership? And how might the Christian faith be a resource for making spiritual sense of current realities and leaning into the future that is emerging?”
In episode seven, the podcast features JD Larson, a church planter and entrepreneur, who serves as co-pastor of North City Church in Minneapolis. In 2022, Larson was a member of Luther Seminary’s second cohort of Seeds Fellows, who embarked on a yearlong experience of shared learning, mutual support, and coaching, all funded through the fellowship. In that time, Larson learned how to deepen and enrich North City’s growing dinner church.
On the podcast, Larson explains how he and his wife and co-pastor, ChristianAnn, developed a thriving mixed ecology within North City. The foundation of the church is a meal-based worship gathering at 5 p.m. on Sundays in Webber Park during warm months and in a community center during colder months.
Everyone is welcome to this community meal that satisfies people who are hungry for food, for community, or both,” Larson said. “You walk over, and there’s music and small talk, and then you sit with friends or friendly strangers. An MC gets up and welcomes people to the meal and offers a prayer, then we enjoy good food, a really good generous meal. After about 25 minutes, the kids head off to intentional discussion and activities, and
then the adults engage in a question like, ‘What has brought you joy this week?’ and then someone gets up and connects a gospel story to everyday life for about 10 to 12 minutes, followed by more discussion.”
To offer deeper connections, the church also coordinates MicroChurch, or monthly gatherings of about eight to 15 people in their homes. It’s like Bible study with a meal and child care. The church also offers a podcast, resources for connecting with God, and a livestream of dinner church online.
Maintaining church values
Episode 10 of the Pivot Podcast features Seeds Fellow Rosario “Roz” Picardo, whose church plant, Mosaic Church, adopted a declining congregation in Beavercreek, Ohio. By partnering together, Mosaic and St. Andrew United Methodist Church grew into a thriving multigenerational and multiethnic ministry.
Through the process, Picardo and the congregations embraced the adaptability and creative risk of Fresh Expressions while also elevating the values of inherited church: tradition, experience, systems, and ways of being rooted in a community.
“The transformation for both Mosaic and St. Andrew has been remarkable,” he said. “St. Andrew has helped Mosaic become multigenerational, and St. Andrew now has children in the nursery, younger people, and has become multiethnic. It has been truly awe-inspiring to see a church gain growth since the pandemic. However, this would not be possible if the saints of St. Andrew were unwilling to take the courageous risk of reaching more people with unconventional methods.”
Change does not need to be negative, even if it feels that way at first, Picardo reiterated.
“Congregations’ dreams are within their reach with prayer and action,” he said. “Sometimes it does not mean drastic change like adoption (of another congregation), but a brave willingness to take steps to be uncomfortable to reach those around them.”
Lou Weber IV seconds that sentiment. The executive pastor of First Church Melbourne, Florida, said churches often overcomplicate outreach. Fresh Expressions, he said, is an attempt to get to the “real bones” of living out faith. Weber said he is drawn to Fresh Expressions because it welcomes anyone to operate in their own context while still being tethered to the historic church.
“In many circles, Fresh Expressions of church and the traditional church can feel at odds with one another. The truth is, they need one another and are both at their best when in concert,” said Weber, also a graduate of the Seeds Fellowship. “One of the great voices in Fresh Expressions, Michael Moynagh (of the Church of England), puts it this way: ‘People will be loved into faith by starting not in a church, but in their own world.’ As a person who grew up outside the church but was warmly welcomed later in life, that has been true for my faith, and my hope is it will continue to be true for many more through Fresh Expressions.”
Weber appreciates Luther Seminary’s work to create space for clergy and lay leaders to explore innovation. He enrolled in the Seeds Fellowship to “take a step back and look beyond” his own experience. It connected him with others leading the gospel across denominations and across the country. He often reflects on his colleagues and the wisdom, space, and freedom that the Seeds Project provided them to experiment with reimagining ministry.
Montgomery agrees: “Our Seeds cohort invested in each other and deeply listened to each other. We were all in on affirming each other’s work and asking challenging questions to help each other grow.
“Being with these incredible leaders allowed me to experience a deeper expression of God’s diversity than ever before,” she said. “Our stories were all so different, we were each a different mosaic of intersecting identities and expressions of God’s love, yet our common faith allowed us to dream and hope together.”
It’s those imaginings that fuel all these leaders to invite everyone into faith.