A fresh expression of church is one of over a thousand new Christian churches or congregations that have developed within one or more Christian denominations and organisations in the United Kingdom and abroad, including the Church of England, Methodist Church, United Reformed Church, Church of Scotland, The Salvation Army, Church Mission Society, 24/7 Prayer, Ground Level Network, Congregational Federation, Christian Witness Ministries Europe and Anglican Church Planting Initiatives.
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, British Asian people in Birmingham, and 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, including the Church of Scotland, the United Reformed Church, and the Baptist Union among others. The Fresh Expressions Organisation led by an archbishop's missioner, Phil Potter, having previously been led by the Rt Revd Graham Cray, the former Anglican Bishop of Maidstone, and the Rt Revd Steven Croft, current Bishop of Oxford.
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). An update to the Mission-shaped Church report, "Fresh Expressions in the Mission of the Church" was published in 2012 by a joint working party of the Church of England and the Methodist Church to deepen the underlying theology of the movement and to counter some of the critiques (Church House Publishing ISBN 978-0715142950).
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.
There is some debate as to how to measure success for a fresh expression. The three (or four) selfs offer a useful lens by which to measure governance, finance, and reproducibility, but say little about the underlying health of the mission or discipleship of the church. Michael Moynagh recommends the four 'f's of fruit (is the community deepening in their faith?), flow (are members who move on being helped into another form of Christian community?), family (is the church connected to denominational or group networks?), and freedom (does the church have appropriate levels of independence in decision making?). Andrew Dunlop prefers a more theological approach to success, taking account of the action of God in the life of the church community and in the lives of individuals.
Canon Dr. John Dunnill of St George's Cathedral, Perth 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
- Michael Moynagh, Church for Every Context, (London: SCM Press, 2012), pp. 406-8
- Andrew Dunlop, Out of Nothing: A Cross-Shaped Approach to Fresh Expressions, (London: SCM Press, 2018)
- J. Dunnill "The Mission-Shaped Church and the Formation of Disciples" St Marks Review (2006) No 200 p.34