John Buckeridge met Gerald Coates to discuss the state of the movement of New Churches he founded. He found a man still preaching, prophesying, and pioneering creative ways to communicate gospel truth.
Gerald Coates became well known during the 1970s and 1980s as a speaker, writer and as leader of Pioneer a network of charismatic, evangelical churches. Part of what has been described as House churches and more commonly the “New Church” movement, Pioneer churches expressed a free style of worship and open style of church structure gathered around the leadership of Gerald Coates and the church he had planted in Cobham, Surrey. Although never as large as some other New Church networks it has had a disproportionate influence on British Christianity through the input of it’s leaders at national events like Spring Harvest and as one of the founding members of organisations such as the international March for Jesus.
JB: A lot has happened during your ministry journey so far, including some incredible highs. More recently the Pioneer network of churches has gone through significant structural change. A widely held perception is that several churches and individuals have left Pioneer or that it has closed down altogether! Is that true?
GC: No, we made a rod for our own backs when we moved to Leatherhead, Surrey, to a theatre, as a church called Pioneer People. Inevitably it got shortened to ‘Pioneer’. Pioneer is a network of churches, training programmes and ministries. Delirious, Jeff Lucas, Dr Patrick Dixon and the worship leader Noel Richards, came out of that incubator. Then about four years ago, Pioneer People ceased to exist as an entity in Leatherhead - it mutated into all sorts of small groups of different people. One of which is a church in The Theatre called ‘Engage’, another expression of church in The Theatre is called called ‘Open Heaven’, there is also a mission group on an estate in Leatherhead called ‘Liquid Connection’. At that stage of mutation a number of people did choose to leave and go elsewhere.
When any church is undergoing large amounts of change people review things. I was at the airport just the other day and somebody said to me, “Whatever happened to Pioneer?” So I replied, “Unless something has happened in the last hour and a half when I left the office, we are all still functioning.” People get the local church mixed up with the national movement of Pioneer. So yes, there is this perception that something has happened to Pioneer, but there are about 75 to 80 churches in Pioneer and in any movement there will be churches that won’t make it and there will be churches that feel they want to belong to other networks. Looses are always sad but these have been few. We have to ask all the time, are we keeping this a success? Is it just getting bigger and bigger, or are these churches healthy? So Pioneer is a network of churches, Pioneer training programmes such as DNA, Pioneer ministries such as Dave Bilbrough, John and Christine Noble - these are continuing to flourish. There are some new church planting initiatives - but these have slowed down. Many churches planted out and planted out again, some people saw all their friends leave to church plant, which, for the people going and starting afresh was fantastic, but for the people left it was difficult. So church planting slowed down.As well as heading up a network of churches under the Pioneer banner, you have also headed up a local church that had the name Pioneer People that originally outgrew its base in Cobham. Now you have acquired a theatre in Leatherhead. How is that developing?
Since the mid-eighties I had travelled through the network of the Pioneer churches and the training programmes, speaking outside of the network, doing some media work for the BBC and ITVits not thick and fast, but its gone on now for about 20 years. Then suddenly, out of the blue, I got a whole string of prophecies which resulted in Martin Smith, the lead singer of Deliriousphoning me to say, “It’s time to leave these fields to others and to work in your own back garden.”
It took me 18 months to clear my diary and work through my priorities to the Pioneer network of churches and ministries and focus back on this theatre. The trustees and colleagues of mine had acquired the theatre a long time ago. We refurbished it - a huge sum of money went into that. We have given the theatre back to the town, which has completely revitalised a lot of it - now you’ve got hundreds of people coming into the theatre each day. It’s also a cinema, it’s used for social action events, church events, and once a month we fill the auditorium and bring in singers and speakers from the area. It’s been a lot of work. There are a lot of challenges with a new beginning. One of the most unique challenges we are facing is that people are moving house to come and join us, something that happened when the Fellowship started all those years ago in Cobham, this is happening all over again.
We have this group, half of whom are in their twenties, who really do want to see Leatherhead cracked. No charismatic, evangelical church has ever flourished in Leatherhead. Wesley preached his last sermon here and thought it was a terrible place. So it’s quite a challenge. Hillsong rent the theatre on Saturday nights so they have brought a lot of people - we’re really working on winning Leatherhead over for the gospel.
Hopefully you’ve got many more years of ministry on this earth left, but when you are gone how would you like people to remember you? And more importantly, what do you think is going to be the fruit of that ministry?
I was challenged about legacy recently - I am 63 this year, my parents died of heart attacks when they were 53 and I have a heart condition. My younger brother died a few days ago. People would often ask, “How are you?” I would say, “I think I’m OK.” But when you hear these stories of young people dying of heart attacks, you realise you have to watch yourself. I’ve never been afraid to die. I’ve been married for over 40 years and have three great sons. Yet I regret some of the time I lost with them. Not withstanding the pain of church leadership, I look at the influence of Pioneer network of churches-which is far out of proportion to our size. A lot of that has to do with March for Jesus - we’ve had millions of people out on the streets praying for revival all around the world. So I look back to my marriage, the church, the network, the opportunities in the prophetic in Buckingham Palace and Downing Street and in the security forces… and with many key leaders… So if I go tomorrow I’ll think, “I didn’t deserve any of that”. The downside of that is that you aren’t actually planning for this time in 10 years - I’ve got a family, a church, a network, I fill up my diary, life is busy and rewarding.
As I have reflected about ‘legacy’ and talked with my advisors, they said, “Well it’s obvious that what you are known for, is being prophetic.” It came to me what we need is a school of prophecy. So in September I am starting a school of prophecy in Exeter, Glasgow, Sheffield and Surrey. It will run over four weekends, and with course work in between. There will be books to read and practical help in looking at how the denomination church and how the New Church operates prophetically. We will look at the history of prophecy and at modern day prophecy and how you speak to people who don’t understand our language.
Helping people to speak God’s word in a non-religious way. I have lots of stories, modern day stories, and I want to help people hear from God. For more details visit: www.insightprophecy.com
What would you say is the current state of prophecy in the UK?
I don’t think that the level of prophecy we have in the church at large, is very impressive. We often end up having to maintain growth and suddenly these gifts are not needed. When you consider the charismatic movement - there aren’t many national prophets who are speaking to the right people. In the Old Testament a prophet often had access to the king. Last year there was a prophecy about a major flood - but people were asking, “Where is the flood going to be?” If you believe you have something, the first thing you must ask is, “Who can I give this to?” In my case, I had a prophetic word and went to see someone high up and talked to him about what I saw. He quietly fed that through and things have been averted. Many of these stories will never be heard, but I want to encourage you that there is still prophecy, it is not dormant.
During the 80s there were a lot of predictions about in terms of the UK being on the edge of revival. But in terms of ‘revival’ in the classic sense of the word, that has not happened. Do you feel disappointed?
Well, I think you used the important phrase, ‘classic revival’ which suggests going to a place where there are conversions and healings. I wonder, and only time will tell, whether we are seeing revival of a different order, which is not located around one place. When we think of Wesley we tend to think of one building and crowds of people gathered in one place. Yet when you read Wesley’s journals he went to place after place where only 30, 40 or 50 people turned up and no one got saved. It’s in his journals. So the idea that wherever Wesley went, revival broke out, is not true. He had eggs thrown at him, he was verbally abused, and sometimes he had to move on.
We may not have classic revival going on, but we’ve got something else going on. Two million people have gone on the Alpha course; thousands have attended the evangelist J John’s ‘ten series’ on the Ten Commandments. We’ve got the Anglican ‘Fresh expressions of church’ movement - and this is probably more to do with mission than church -these are in pubs, cinemas, supermarkets… We’ve got huge growth in some of the megachurches such as Hillsong where they are seeing about 75 people each week giving their lives to Christ. In Leatherhead we see about a dozen each week. And while we hear a lot about churches closing, some churches need to close - the sooner the better. Some are an embarrassment; they’ve forgotten the gospel. Also, we have never had so many Christians getting involved in politics as we have now. So there is action in the charismatic, Pentecostal and evangelical churches and also in the conservative evangelical churches.
You can watch the news and get very depressed - with missing children and wars and terrible disease and hunger - we do suffer in this life, but God has not abandoned us and that is the hope that we have.The rest of this interview can be found in the August 2007 issue of Christianity. WATCH Gerald Coates answer additional questions in discussion with John Buckeridge on Premier.TV