A fresh expression of church is one of over a thousand new churches or congregations that have developed within the partner denominations and organisations (the Church of England, Methodist Church, United Reformed Church, Church of Scotland, The Salvation Army, CMS, 24/7 Prayer, Ground Level Network, Congregational Federation, CWM Europe and ACPI) which make up the fresh expressions movement.
A fresh expression of church is a "form of church for our changing culture, established primarily for the benefit of people who are not yet members of any church [which] will come into being through principles of listening, service, incarnational mission and making disciples [and] will have the potential to become a mature expression of church shaped by the gospel and the enduring marks of the church and for its cultural context".
According to Graham Cray the movement involves the "planting of new congregations or churches which are different in ethos and style from the church which planted them; because they are designed to reach a different group of people than those already attending the original church." While 70% of the British population said they were Christian in the 2001 census less than 15% of the population say they attend church on a regular basis (TEARFund research 2007). In 2007 statistical returns from the Church of England revealed that several tens of thousands of people are involved in such groups attached to the Church of England,  and by 2010 Fresh Expressions, though only part of the life of 6% of churches, were "the equivalent of a whole diocese in terms of attendance".
Fresh expressions of church have been created for, among others, skateboard and BMX culture in Essex, cafe culture in Kidsgrove, artists and creatives in London, university students in Southampton, surfers in Cornwall, Asian people in Birmingham, people living in the city centre of Manchester and children in Portsmouth.
In September 2005 the Church of England and the Methodist Church recognised this movement by setting up an organisation, called Fresh Expressions, to monitor and encourage new expressions in the two churches. The partnership has since expanded to include a number of other church traditions and organisations in the UK. Fresh Expressions has a core team of 15 people and is led by an archbishop's missioner, the Rt Revd Graham Cray, former Bishop of Maidstone.
The development of the ecumenical Fresh Expressions initiative is based on the "Mission-shaped Church" report of the General Synod of the Church of England in 2004 (Church House Publishing ISBN 0-7151-4013-2). The Methodist side of the movement is recorded in "Changing Church for a Changing World" (Methodist Publishing House ISBN). The United Reformed Church, the Congregational Federation and Ground Level Network are also formal partners.
Fresh Expressions is differentiated from "fresh expressions". The capitalised version refers to the initiative. In lowercase it refers to a large number of new initiatives.
Cray says that two key biblical principles underlie fresh expressions:
- God grows churches, not just individual Christians (1 Corinthians 3:6-9; 12:13).
- Those starting churches must do so from within the cultures they are trying to reach (1 Corinthians 9:19-23) so that those who respond face only the challenge of Christian faith (1 Corinthians 1:18-25), and not that of having to adopt a foreign church culture. Such new Christians are thus able to remain within their own culture as change-agents.
According to Fresh Expressions such churches are:
- missional – serving people outside church;
- contextual – listening to people and entering their culture;
- educational – making discipleship a priority; and
- ecclesial – forming church.
Success for a fresh expression may not be measured by the normal three (or four) selfs, but by viability (for as long as it is appropriate); flow (of members from one Christian community to the next) and appropriate independence.
Dunnill says that a Fresh Expressions project can sometimes be more about form than substance. Fresh Expressions point out that merely improving efforts to attract people to an existing church "isn't a fresh expression ... The aim of a fresh expression is not to provide a stepping stone into existing church, but to form a new church in its own right".
- Church Army Research Unit; "Encounters on the Edge" Resubscription Letter, 2012
- J. Dunnill "The Mission-Shaped Church and the Formation of Disciples" St Marks Review (2006) No 200 p.34