Church-plants are breathing life into many unreached parts of Britain. But what happens when these plants conflict with existing ministry?
Reports of church-planting have multiplied, with concerted efforts among organisations and large churches to revitalise gospel ministry across the UK.
Acts 29, Co:Mission, the Fellowship of Independent Evangelical Churches (FIEC) and others are busy helping church-planters. Last year, London Seminary launched ‘Plant’, a course aimed at those preparing to plant and grow healthy churches.
Earlier this year, Robert Strivens, seminary principal, wrote, ‘I’ve taken a call from a pastor looking for an evangelist or church planter to help in his church. I receive at least one such call or email a week. My response is always the same: we’ll do all we can to help, but we don’t have enough men. The demand for new pastors and preachers far outstrips the supply’.
He called this a ‘good sign’, as ‘churches are aware of their responsibility to evangelise their communities, and want to recruit the workers to do so’.
Currently 26 church plants have been recognised by the FIEC. Its latest survey shows 8 out of its 565 FIEC churches plan to plant within the next year, while 37 plan to plant within the next five years.
Traditionally, it has been the role of larger churches to set up or revitalise small congregations. One such church is Bearwood Chapel, which is seeking to reach the Black Country, Sandwell and West Birmingham area for Christ.
On the Faithroots website, a statement from the Bearwood leaders said: ‘Bearwood Chapel could happily settle back into our own comfort zone and seek to maintain a reasonably sized congregation. However, when we look at this harvest field we see a need that challenges us and stretches us. The work of sharing the gospel is something we cannot do on our own’.
However, what happens when a church is planted in the same location as an existing evangelical ministry? For example, a US-backed pastor is buying a disused church on London Road, Croydon, to set up an evangelical church.
This is on the same road as an established, Bible-based and active FIEC church. It is also just a few bus stops away from Redeemer Church, a relatively new evangelical church.
Another pastor has spoken of a plant one block away from his congregation (again, supported by a US organisation). The sponsors of the new church claim it is reaching a ‘different demographic — young, professional’. But since when have churches been mandated to cater to exclusive demographics?
The church of the apostolic era comprised young, old, professional, homeless, educated, uneducated, slaves, freemen and masters. And what happens when that ‘young, professional’ demographic becomes middle-aged? Will another plant come in working the same mission field and draw away existing attendees?
Organisations coming in from outside often have little in-depth, local knowledge of existing gospel work and, as a result, existing ministries are diminished.
According to Ali McLaughlin, pastor at Grace Edinburgh, it is important for churches themselves to kindle the passion for planting, to recognise where there is a need locally, and be prepared to send their own members into this ministry.
He told Evangelical Times, ‘In lauding the benefits of cooperation in church-planting, it should be remembered the Jerusalem elders appointed and sent Peter, John, Stephen and Philip; the Antioch elders appointed and sent Paul and Barnabas; while Lystra elders appointed and sent Timothy.
‘The church-planters then reported back to their sending churches. While gifted workers were the instruments of planting, local churches were the driving force from the beginning. This local church vision has lost momentum. We must recover it’. Phil Topham, FIEC spokesman, said, ‘FIEC centrally doesn’t plant churches. Rather, we encourage churches to plant, and offer help to new gospel work’.
Andy Paterson, FIEC mission director, says: ‘Best estimates suggest only 3 per cent of the population are born-again Christians. That means 97 per cent are without Christ’. Dr Strivens adds: ‘There remains a tremendous need in the UK for pastors, preachers, evangelists and church-planters’.
New churches can grow faster, mobilise more workers, effect greater social change, reach untouched people groups and promote greater service and discipleship. But many agree such plants should be the focus for existing churches.
This requires these churches to recognise the need and, where necessary, seek support, asking God for guidance and help in sending workers into the harvest.