Personal view: A pastor’s plea for outposts
I don’t know if it’s the same where you live, but here the council seems to have a particular fondness for removing trees. It’s heartbreaking to see a 200-300-year-old oak tree or mature chestnut cut down and obliterated in a day.
Sometimes a whole row of trees will disappear and rarely is anything planted in their place with half the same visual interest for years to come.
Now, no doubt in certain circumstances there are some good health and safety reasons for doing this. So what’s my point? It can’t be about a gospel imperative to maintain trees, can it?
Well, no! But there is something similar that can be just as heartbreaking. This is when good and useful church buildings are bulldozed for development, without the vision to keep the gospel witness alive in the heart of our communities.
I recently attended a pastors’ gathering in which we had been encouraged not to be frightened of growing the ‘larger church’ with all its connections and possibilities.
Now I don’t doubt that larger churches are needed in many of our urban centres. The big city church with its clout can do a lot of good for the kingdom of God. But the justification for the larger church was on the grounds that it had probably come about by conversion — one thousand people in the church meant that family members, neighbours and friends had been saved.
But I went away thinking, ‘If only that were true!’ It’s more likely that the larger churches are growing in our city centres because it’s far easier to travel a distance these days, than before, and because a lot of people are commuting in from outlying estates, towns and villages.
If we are experiencing huge rates of conversions in our cities, then I’ll keep quiet and rejoice in the revival, but I suspect quite a bit of apparent church growth in Britain today is merely through the movement of Christians from one church to another.
The trouble with some of the larger urban churches is that they often don’t have a vision for any other type of ministry than their own.
A work of 500 people is not the likely shape of a church in outlying small towns, villages or estates. It’s much more likely to be a smaller work, with a part-time minister and a band of faithful brothers and sisters in Christ.
They press on faithfully and prayerfully, seeing little fruit and even less encouragement, as their Christian neighbours drive past and go to ‘where it’s really happening’ half an hour away.
Is this a failure of vision on behalf of such churches, such Christians or their leaders?
A brother not far from us in another town became aware of a gospel hall being closed and decided he should try to save it. It has taken a good deal of effort and money to bring this building back into use. But, during those years, a new congregation has come about there through good gospel preaching and, at least, some heart-warming conversions.
Now the building is actually working for them. Having been leased out to a nursery during the week, the major costs are being met, enabling the congregation to put their offering towards the pastoral ministry.
It’s taken the best part of a decade, but the gospel witness in that place has at least been sustained, or at best multiplied, and the church has become a little hub of community activity once more.
It’s probably not an ideal model, but it is a gospel witness which would otherwise have ceased. Now I gather this brother is at it again with another gospel hall in another town. May God bless his vision and efforts!
It seems to me that the larger city centre churches can so easily lose sight of the need to plant or sustain churches in our outlying estates, towns and villages; and the Christians of those churches need to be challenged about this.
Do we want a situation where whole regions are devoid of good gospel churches, just because everyone is attracted to the big urban centre church? Surely not!
Yet in many areas it can be this way, leaving a spiritual wilderness where there’s no local Sunday school ministry around the corner, or old folks’ outreach conveying the gospel where they actually live.
When the apostle Paul went to city centres like Thessalonica and Ephesus, it was a strategic move with expansion in mind. Getting a church planted in those centres was in time going to reach the outer regions.
But these days the bigger church in the centre can seem to directly lead to a contraction of the Lord’s work in the wider region, as people are drawn in from further and further afield and our outlying churches lose their viability.
In the town where we minister, another former gospel hall has gone up for sale. In this instance the Pentecostal congregation there had outgrown the building. The sale is not because the building is old and decrepit, far from it, but the goal is to fund a bigger ministry in the town centre.
It’s a lovely building, that we’ve had the privilege of using a number of times in recent years for a wedding, baptisms and funerals.
When we learned that the building was for sale, it seemed way beyond us financially as a congregation to respond. Whilst we knew it would be perfect for us, we could not meet the cost of a mortgage and had to leave it with the Lord as a matter of prayer.
But when we later learned that it was going to be replaced by a block of flats, it was heartbreaking. The result would be the loss of the only Nonconformist church building in our part of town, lovingly built with great personal commitment less than 50 years ago.
When we learned this good building on our doorstep might be demolished, we were thankful to find out that planning permission was not yet secured.
As ET goes to press, we are making our case to the local planning department to retain the building. We will wait to hear if we receive a favourable response, and if a perfectly good building will be saved for the future.
We are looking to the Lord for this, since it would be such a strategic place for our church to continue reaching its local community from this ‘outpost’.
If it does go our way, then we will have a big mountain to climb to make a reasonable financial offer, but, still, ‘Lord, give us this mountain!’ (Joshua 14:12).
So yes, this is a pastor’s plea for these outposts or old landmarks left by our fathers! ‘Remove not the ancient landmark which thy fathers have set’ (Proverbs 22:28).
Sometimes a diseased tree needs to be chopped down for safety’s sake or to make room for a new one, and, no doubt, this can be true of a dying congregation or decaying building, at times.
But somewhere, in the midst of all the issues, Christians need to be stirred to leave the comforts of the big church ‘where all our needs are met’ and go back home to their local communities.
We need to get engaged in fulfilling the Great Commission in our own localities once more. We mustn’t be satisfied with just paying others to do it, but see it as our personal responsibility in our own neighbourhoods (1 Thessalonians 1:8).
Here are some useful questions to ask ourselves or our church leaderships if we attend a larger urban centre church.
Do I drive past a good local church, just because it looks small and I know it would take more of my time and commitment to be involved there?
Does our church just want to grow ever bigger, or does it have a vision for church planting in the local area? Does our church consider the places that our people come from and have a vision for equipping these people to go back and strengthen the gospel witness in those communities?
Please pray for us, that this building I have mentioned might be secured from development and remain to help a gospel witness in our community.
No doubt we need the larger church’s help in realising this dream. It’s way beyond our means, but not the Lord’s.