Bible Society's Paul Williams offers encouragement to those who...
New Frontiers International (NFI) is a major New Church stream, perhaps best known as the organisers of the Stoneleigh Bible Weeks. John Buckeridge met Dave Holden, the Team Leader of the European Team of NFI, to find out more about their church planting philosophy and why they closed down Stoneleigh - their highly popular Bible Week.
JB: Many churches have been talking about and setting ambitious plans to plant churches within the past 20 years, but recently most new church streams have gone quiet on this. However, it appears that church planting is a significant factor in NFI ’s future strategy for growth.
DH: That’s absolutely right. We have had long discussions and concluded that the main purpose for NFI was to do mission. For us that mission would be summed up in church planting. It is sadly true that certain charismatic church streams have gone quiet on this. I would like to encourage them to go back again and really look at church planting again because I think it ’s one of the most effective ways of evangelising the UK.
We’ve seen a measure of success in church planting and I think one of the reasons is that we have encouraged our people to be mobile. I couldn’t begin to guess how many in my own church in southeast London, for example, are now not with us but are now involved in church plant situations all over the UK. This is a kind of loss for us, but a gain for other people. We’ve got about 60 church plants right now going on. Some of them would be smaller in size, some of them would number 50 or 60 people but they’re still at that church planting stage. I passionately believe this is the future of New Church life in the UK, not to sit back and talk about our past successes, but to realise that really we’ve hardly begun in terms of what God’s called us to do in the future.
JB: You talk of some church streams that have backed away from church planting. I suggest this is born out of disappointments that way some church plants haven’t taken off. Many church plants seem to attract people from other churches that come and join, but beyond the first year of transfer growth, if on year two and three they don’t really kick into conversion growth, they plateau and die. Why hasn’t that been the case in some of the NFI churches?
DH: right from the word go, we’ve made it quite open that we’re going for non-churched people. The very reason why we’ve gone to say Leeds, Bradford or parts of London, Birmingham or Manchester, is truly to reach the local people that are there.
I’m quite nervous about the transfer thing because you can suddenly say we’ve planted the church in this city but actually no one in that city has become a Christian – it ’s just been a gathering of Christians together which is a concern. So bedded into the DNA of NFI churches we have sought to really go to a city and say to the other local pastors, look we want to come to your town but our passion is to reach unchurched people. I do think that as well the quality of the people in the church plant is crucial. It’s not just frustrated people moving to another place to have a bit more space, it’s got to be people who actually are good at witnessing to their friends. Sometimes people say you must have 40 people to begin a proper church plant, we used to think that many years ago, but we’ve changed. If you put a small cell group of people of even a dozen who are evangelistically motivated then you can almost guarantee that group is going to grow.
Church planting is not glamorous, it’s extremely demanding, it’s at the coal-face of Christianity. Those involved shouldn’t be surprised if the first few weeks are a honeymoon period but then it’s a cold December morning, where the caretaker has forgotten to put the heating on in the building you hire to meet in, and the pianist has gone to visit granny for the weekend. It’s tough but you hang on in there and you believe, pray, have faith and work hard – and I think eventually you’ll start to come out the other end and see growth.
JB: You talk about planting with just 12.In terms of a congregational style meeting that would feel tiny.How can something that small take off?
DH: We’re emphasising smaller units because I think 40 people make huge demands on those people in terms of energy, particularly if you go too public too quickly. A small group of people can be much more relationally based. You can run Alpha courses in homes, you can invite your non-Christian friends in the street along to that particular group. Without a large congregational presence to start with you can multiply those groups: they become two, become four, become eight, and before you know where you are you’ve got a lot of people, hopefully lots of new converts, very committed to what you’re doing together.
JB: Are there key moments in the life of that church plant that are major hurdles to overcome?
DH: Yes. You need a certain number of peo-ple before you can become autonomous. You need certain giftings to be around. Leadership is a very big issue. People need to know you are committed - you’re not just visiting this thing but you really are committed to it as a local church. For us in NFI we work with these small groups a lot, we don’t just leave them – it’s not sink or swim –we’re actually involved so together in relationship we’ll talk about when it is time, for instance, to start hiring a building. Money is a big issue. Can this group of people finance themselves? However, we will have failures, and sometimes these are difficult to understand. I’ve known people who’ve gone out to plant a church with a bit of razzmatazz, lots of faith and hope and it’s floundered and come to nothing. They’ve had to come back again. But if you’re not prepared to make some mistakes and have failures, if your expectation is perfection – you will be very disappointed very quickly.
JB: But failure hurts. I’m thinking of those people that have made the decision to sell their home and to move to a new area to help plant a new church. It must be very hard if that then doesn’t succeed, having left their roots.
DH: Yes it is extremely difficult and people have their own individual experiences of that. Pastoral help is really necessary at that particular time. I know of situations that you’ve just described. Sometimes we’ve been able to put those folk in touch with other people and other church situations – maybe nothing to do with us or maybe another New Frontiers church nearby, and that’s worked out really well for them. My hope is that even in those places where that seed was originally sown, though it’s been drawn away and there’s been disappointment, maybe – who knows –one day it will just produce fruit. We’ve had situations where people have drawn back into larger situations but now, years later, a church plant has been re-launched.
JB: How would you describe some of the distinctives of an NFI church?
DH: Our churches have a mixture of Word and Spirit, in other words there’s a good healthy balance between allowing the Holy Spirit to have freedom to move not only in the meetings, but in the structures, and also a real adherence to God’s word being central. We believe that Word and Spirit together are what brings a healthy church. I’d like to think NFI churches would be outward looking, something we haven’t always been, but we’ve worked very hard at that in the last five years or so. Another distinctive would be an emphasis on the grace of God, which has been something that we’ve been known for in our preaching in the past. We’re quite a relaxed and informal company of people, but we also have a very strong sense of togetherness and we do a number of events in the year that gives us that sense of togetherness, but hopefully not in an exclusive way because we want to be very much part of the wider body of Christ.
JB: Are NFI churches distributed through the UK?
DH: Originally we were mostly in the southeast of England, because that’s where we began. The first churches were in Sussex and London. Over the years we’ve found doors opening and opportunities for expanding, particularly through church planting. Currently around 155 churches are affiliated to NFI in the UK. This autumn we’re planting a church in Portsmouth and one in Edinburgh. We are not evenly spread, but we are now involved in almost every part of the UK.
JB: Stoneleigh Bible Weeks have been another key aspect of NFI’s work. This year’s – attracted around 40,000. But it is the last one that you’re planning to run.
DH: The Bible Week is finishing. Those two weeks in the summer which many Christians all over the country and indeed all over the world have enjoyed – that is coming to an end, but the ingredients of those Bible weeks, the ‘what it’s all about’ is not. It’s more like a transition. It’s just going to be in a different format, so rather than all being together for two weeks in this field actually it’s now going to the nation and to the nations. In fact you could almost say that Stoneleigh Bible Week is opening rather than closing.
JB: What does that mean? How will Stoneleigh continue in Portsmouth or Edinburgh or in those other places you mentioned?
DH: The honest answer is we're not absolutely certain. What we do know is that the Bible Week has run its course. Our passion is to reach the unchurched people of this nation. Actually Stoneleigh Bible Week is a gathering of a lot of Christians. There are unchurched people there and people become Christians every year which is exciting, but if you had a passion to reach unchurched Britain I don't think you'd come up with gethering a whole load of Christians in a field in the middle of England.