Peter Roennfeldt is a church planter and pastor, having served as a public evangelist, seminary teacher and “pastor to pastors” over the course of his career. Peter says, “It’s been a lot of fun supporting and equipping church planters and pastors in about 50 countries, cultivating church planting movements, supporting insider faith movements within Islam and Judaism, and facilitating church planting.” He and his wife Judy have been directly involved in planting 28 Adventist churches while supporting the planting of hundreds others around the world. It is believed that at least 800 Adventist churches have been planted with their support. Peter is also regularly invited to meet with and train church planters for mission organizations and at evangelical seminaries. He currently lives in Melbourne, Australia, where he is employed by the Victoria Conference of Seventh-day Adventists.
Question: What is your position at the Victoria Conference, and how do you spend most of your time?
Answer: For the last four years I have been an Associate Ministerial Secretary, supporting pastoral families and providing resources for church planting and evangelism. I also “pastor” three church plants and two house churches by facilitating teams to lead, develop and multiply the ministries of these churches. I spend most of my time cultivating the vision of multiplying new expressions of church— environments in which unchurched people can experience God and community. In my spare time I coach international ministry teams via Skype, provide resources and pass on inspiring stories, facilitate ministry equipping opportunities, and regularly consult with church planting teams and various missional agencies.
Question: In your work, what dominant trends have you observed in the developed world in terms of interest in religion and spirituality?
Answer: It was not long ago that we spoke of western/northern societies as secular. Today we speak of them as spiritual, understanding that spirituality has been redefined. Many describe themselves as spiritual but not religious. Of course, they mean that spirituality represents the values of life determined by relationships, and not necessarily biblical faith.
Other significant trends include the movement of people across the globe and the changing demographics of the western/northern world, with Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam now being among the fastest growing religions in these societies.
Lastly, we observe that church attendees are aging, with the church and its message having little impact on young adults, singles, full-time working couples, professionals, and blue-collar-workers.
Question: Why do you think traditional church is losing its relevancy for so many today?
Answer: It would be presumptuous of me to think I had the answers. Nor do I want to say “traditional church” is not relevant to some. But the fact is, people are “voting with the feet” and leaving. Why? First, church is often not answering the questions of life today (even though the gospel in fully relevant). Second, the church often functions as an institution of modernity.
There are other challenges as well. Christians now read their Bibles differently. We read whole chapters, books and stories instead of isolated verses. Together with this, we have access to research into what church was like in the early years. We find that it was not institutionalized or denominational, but house-hold based: a participatory and open fellowship, a community of conversation defined by the crucified and risen Christ. Through reading the Bible and history many have concluded that there should be no clergy/laity divide. And today, many are growing weary of the politics, structures, controls, micromanagement, hierarchies and exhaustion of church systems. They are seeking faith “on the path of life,” a faith that makes a difference. In fact, perhaps for the first time in Christian church history, people are now leaving churches to grow spiritually. Just as 500 years ago the Bible was taken back by the people, today the church is being taken back by the people, but they are seeking biblical and pre-modernist frames!
Question: If traditional church isn’t going to work for forthcoming generations, what are our options as a denomination?
Answer: As Adventists we have prided ourselves on being a “movement.” While this term has not been applicable to Adventism in a western/northern context for a very long time, it points to the possibilities of change and relevance. I think we live in a time of great opportunity. For if we could deconstruct our modernist frames and release people of all ages to explore biblical concepts of church, and if we could relate our message to the life-questions of the twenty-first century, then we could find forms of church that are highly relevant.
As a denomination we cannot structure "fresh expressions" of church, but we can ask that they function by two or three principles. For example, we can encourage them to agree on a basic statement of faith, to support a tithe that fosters a global vision, and to recognize a contact or contact team with whom church administrators can relate. These simple points today constitute the essence of our structures for local churches within conferences.
Question: What do you mean when you talk about planting “fresh expressions” of church? You have a lot of real life examples from your work. Can you share a few?
Answer: In my mind there are three essential elements of fresh expressions, all stemming from a “we’ll come to you” mentality. We are no longer living in an era where the church is at the center of society. Few people are wondering what we believe and desiring to come to us, so we must be in their lives and communities. Church is not what we do on Saturday morning, but rather life itself. In fact, we may not even gather on Saturday morning, but perhaps on Friday evening, Saturday afternoon, or Saturday evening. It may even be that an “Adventist fresh expression” could gather for worship on Tuesday evening, and that Sabbath (kept holy and special) is dedicated to God for family and community in other ways.
The basic elements of “fresh expressions” are: 1) All of life is spiritual, so God’s kingdom is in our lives. 2) All are ministers in all of life, the presence of God to people. 3) Faith is lived in the life of our communities: in work, service, participation, etc. Worship times are simple, participatory, experiential and relational— with the Word, the Spirit, and food (always)! There are no clergy privileges, for all believers are kleros (they know Jesus and are ministers of the gospel), and all are laos (fools for Jesus, identifying with his cruciform nature). People conclude that God is like how we treat each other and others— women and children, the disenfranchised and disadvantaged, youth and singles, people of other religions and no religion, etc. Our forms, priorities, expectations and structures are our message and declare our mission! “Adventist fresh expressions” choose to identify themselves blatantly with the status reversal of God in Jesus as expressed in Philippians 2:1-11.
There are so many examples I could give, and those I mention will protest that they should not be presented as an example.
• In Steigen (in north Norway), Jan-Erik and Gunhild Hansen were disturbed. Their established church was aging. Traditional evangelistic methods (seminars and public meetings) touched few. Starting from “what has God placed in our hands?” they organized a horse-riding club, then a mechanics and photography club for teenagers. They exhausted themselves conducting a camp for the young people of their community. While attending a “church planters’ x-change” meeting, they were encouraged to see that they were planting a new church. Although this was difficult for them to accept, they returned home to invite parents and community people to join their project on the basis of their kingdom values. Community leaders provided support and funding. Now ten to twelve years later, with multiple clubs, Bible discussions, and life-sharing opportunities, parents and teens are accepting Jesus Christ.
• Revive (in Melbourne, Australia) didn’t start out of an established church. It started with young adults who were disconnected from church and, in some cases, God. By personal invitation they were encouraged to attend a spiritual retreat— to sit, explore the book of Acts, pray conversationally and engage in unplugged worship. No follow-up program was planned or put into place. But over the next 5-6 months the Spirit of God touch the lives of little clusters as they met, talked, prayed, and read their Bibles. Today Revive engages many in a weekly “Vive Café” for community families, which is supported by multiple community stores, offices and restaurants. It provides food for the disadvantaged, facilitates small groups, Monday prayer meetings and mid-week church services. It supports justice issues, missions in Thailand and Uganda, and community houses for at-risk youth and indigenous people. Worship at 4:00 pm on Saturdays reflects radical devotion to and enthusiastic worship of God, with many coming to Jesus and being baptized. This “Adventist fresh expression” now engages with hundreds each week, and not just during worship services!
• LIFE (Living in Faith Everyday) Home Church gathers for worship on Saturday evenings (6.00-8.30 pm) in Joe and Cynthia Stigora’s Pennsylvania home. Earlier this year I caught up with them again in a downtown Philadelphia hotel. When I first met them they were leading a church plant one hour from their home, but conference leaders encouraged them to plant closer to where they lived in an unreached population. They organize an annual conference in a motel conference center, but other than that everything happens in their home. Follow-up discussions from their convention event, ALPHA programs, community meals, social events such as swim parties, etc., all attract local friends and families. This is an “Adventist fresh expression” of church!
Question: Would you align fresh expressions with the emergent church movement? Why or why not? How did you arrive at the term “Fresh Expressions”?
Answer: While emergent church discussions are relevant, and the terms emergent and emerging have been used, in Australia the idea of missional has taken a higher profile, and in Europe it’s “new expressions” or fresh expressions. The term "fresh expressions" was not coined by me, although "Adventist fresh expressions" may have been! Our use of Global Mission was borrowed, and the LifeDevelopment.info program of the GC Center for Post-modern and Secular Society comes directly from Rick Warren’s Purpose Driven Church. Likewise, I have adapted “fresh expressions” as a term first used by Anglicans in England. While Michael Moynagh rightly argues that the term emerging connects with the past or inherited church and also looks to the future, it has been damaged by the perception that proponents have been against everything related to established church. For many, the term missional is foreign— not even recognized by spell-checks! The term "Adventist Fresh Expressions" has a sense of connection, yet at the same time it suggests newness, movement, relevance, justice and a future!
Question: You’ve talked about a group experimenting with informal conversational prayer in England. Is the experiential aspect of faith typical for “Fresh Expressions”? Why or how?
Answer: “Fresh expressions” are experimenting with putting prayer, faith, witness and church onto the path of life. They cannot just sit by and talk about injustice; something must be done. Worship is experiential— with participation, informality, fellowship and contemporary expressions. Agape meals, anointings, interviews, dialogue, prayer rooms and stations, Bible reading, prayer journaling, community meals, engagement with social issues, fellowship with the disadvantaged and downtrodden, small groups, etc., are regular features of life in an “Adventist fresh expression.”
Yes, conversational prayer is part of life for these “fresh expressions.” We pray everywhere and anywhere: in cafes, on the street, and in busy thorough-fares. Conversational prayer is talking with God and each other at the same time, listening and interacting with what each is saying to God (usually with our eyes open), using everyday language and tones of voice. This means that people may be seated at a table beside you in a cafe, but they just see you talking. If they hear you, and sometimes they do, they are attracted by the fact that your talking with God is not carried out in a special religious language. Conversational prayer is the easiest way to involve people who have never prayed, and a great way for believers to fellowship with God and each other. (For more on conversational prayer, check out www.newchurchlife.com.)
Question: How widely spread in Christianity and in Adventism is this new model for church planting? How fast is it spreading? Where do you see signs of its presence in Adventism?
Answer: My interaction with hundreds of leaders from many missional organizations confirms to me that “fresh expressions” are widely spread within Christianity. I am frequently invited to speak with Christians who are initiating new things for God, and the variety of their expressions of church and witness is staggering. I am amazed by their passion for God and their total commitment to sharing the gospel and preparing people for the coming of Jesus. Recently I took a week-long holiday with over 200 Christian leaders who gathered to explore and share insights into planting new and biblical expressions of church. Although I only met one or two among these highly committed Christians who had ever known an Adventist before, I did find four who were themselves Sabbath keepers!
I sometimes speak of spontaneous and strategic church planting. “Adventist fresh expressions” tend to be more spontaneous. Unfortunately there are times when they are suppressed, perhaps because they are misunderstood by our highly structured and controlling organizations. In places where they have been affirmed, “fresh expressions” have become a very healthy part of the movement that is Adventism. Everything indicates that they are multiplying, and across all age groups. As one denominational leader said to me recently, “They just happen, and we don’t always know about them!”
Question: What role do you see pastors and church administrators as having in this movement? Are you hopeful about the future of the Adventist church?
Answer: Many today, including young adults who are disconnected from Adventism, see little relevance in denominationalism. The role for pastors and administrators, I suggest, is not to fight but to run with this trend and to help fresh expressions discover an identity under the umbrella of Adventism. Our message is holistic, but so often I hear Adventism defined by what we are not— “we are not Baptists, we are not Catholics, we are not Pentecostals,” etc. Who wants to identify with people who “aren’t” anything? What young people will give their lives to a structure that is neither organic nor a movement— that has no vision and no participation in shaping the next generation of church?
You ask about whether I am hopeful about the future of Adventism. I have been planting churches and equipping pastors and laypeople in hundreds of churches for 39 years. Sometimes I am hopeful, for I see the enthusiasm and spiritual vitality of those who are planting the next generation of Adventist churches.
But I also witness the death of vision and spiritual connection and the loss of confidence in Adventism that happens when church hierarchies seek to micromanage, control and ensure that new ministries reflect past established patterns. We need to identify the “constants” we wish to affirm, and then release every kind of Adventist fresh expression that the Holy Spirit inspires us to initiate.
Question: What books, blogs, or conferences would you recommend to those interested in learning more about fresh expressions of church?
Answer: There are a growing number of books being published on simple and organic church. I recommend Robert Banks’ Going to Church in the First Century (Jacksonville, Seedsowers Christian Books Publishing, 1980); Neil Cole’s Organic Church— Growing Faith Where Life Happens (San Francisco, Jossey-Boss, 2005); Ray S. Anderson’s An Emergent Theology for Emerging Churches (Downer Grove, InterVarsity Press, 2006); and Roger W. Gehring’s House Church and Mission: The Importance of Household Structures in Early Christianity (Peabody, Hendrickson Publishers, 2004).
There are a number of fresh expressions sites on the internet that give background to the use of the term and its origins within Anglicanism. Within Adventism, Milton Adams provides resources on simple church at www.SimpleChurchInfo.com, and I blog at www.newchurchlife.com. During May 2-8 2010, Monte Sahlin and I will team up to lead an Adventist Fresh Expressions conference joint-hosted by the Ohio and Pennsylvania Conferences in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Contact Monte Sahlin at the Ohio Conference for more details.
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/2044