Terry Virgo is the founder of a large and growing stream of charismatic churches both in the UK and overseas. Newfrontiers is known for many things – not least church planting and running hugely popular events. It is also well known for its stance on women who are not allowed to teach men or become a church leader. Newfrontiers congregations continue to grow – with 230 churches in the UK and a dozen church plants scheduled for this year. Internationally they have affiliated churches in countries across the globe. Back home Newfrontiers events like Downs Bible Week and Stoneleigh have been hugely influential and more recently the Brighton Leader’s Conference continues to pull in significant numbers.
Terry Virgo and the Newfrontiers stream have also forged links with pastors and theologians from overseas such as John Piper, CJ Mahaney and Mark Driscoll. Driscoll, the pastor of Mars Hill Church, Seattle, has planted many churches in the US where he is very influential and draws big crowds to hear his outspoken views. As I enter his Hove office I am welcomed by a smile from Virgo’s weather-beaten face. He is warm, friendly and expresses his appreciation for my agreement to show him the edited interview before publication. What I didn’t expect was the extensive changes and edits he would later want, once I sent the transcript to him. I expected the expansive confidence of a man who has seen the network he has overseen grow consistently in the UK and into many countries of the world, but not his reserve and caution. But on reflection, maybe those are some of the qualities that have helped protect impressive growth from division and fragmentation.
Virgo and the Newfrontiers network he founded and nurtures is a dynamic blend of conservative and contemporary, classical and cutting edge, patriarchal and progressive. The mix of charismatic and reformed Calvinistic theology is perhaps what many find the most surprising and has led in recent years to them developing partnerships and sharing platforms with some reformed groups that would normally run a mile from anything that looked pentecostal or charismatic.
All of this makes Terry Virgo and Newfrontiers fascinating. I want to ask about his take on leadership and women preachers, but I decide to start with church planting. This is something every new church stream emphasised and planned 20 years ago but which did not enjoy widespread success, except it seems among Newfrontiers...
JB: During the 1980s and early 90s many Pentecostal and charismatic church streams developed church planting strategies with very mixed results. What was the percentage of Newfrontiers church plants that didn’t work out?
TV: Only a handful. Some have plateaued under 100-strong and have not made the breakthrough that we’d like to see happen, but we’ve only closed down a very tiny number.
What are the distinctives of the way you church plant?
Over the years we have used diverse methods. Firstly we grew in a way we’ve sometimes called ‘strawberry plant’. From the hub church we have planted outwards in the same way a strawberry reproduces and grows. As time went by we realised that the strawberry plant method can become non-strategic – leading you into little villages. So we began to look at centres [of population]. We developed what we sometimes call a ‘parachute drop’ – the first was in Canterbury. A pastor felt stirred to go there and about 25 people from several different churches moved there to work together with him, later becoming City Church, Canterbury.
What began in Sussex has spread across the globe. How did that come about?
It’s been a gradual growth over the years. From planting what we called house churches in Sussex which gradually grew in numbers (and have now nearly all become warehouse churches with several hundreds in each) I was invited into some established churches mostly in South London that were making transition because they were embracing charismatic life in their churches.
We began to draw the pastors together. Then we had a prophecy - a guy saw a herd of elephants charging towards jungle terrain and instead of stopping they just ran into it. The opening line of his prophecy was, ‘There are no well worn paths ahead of you but together you can make a way and many will follow.’
We realised God was speaking to us about becoming a group, which we hadn’t particularly considered before. The name Newfrontiers reflects that vision. The prophecy included the phrase ‘You can accomplish more together than you can apart.’ That phrase has shaped the way we’ve worked together.
We used to think of ourselves as a south coast movement. Then one day [in the 1980s] I had a vision of South East England with a bow superimposed from Kent through to Hampshire. The bow pointed outwards towards France but I felt God say to me, “You need to pull the bow back, if you just pull it from where you are now, to the south of London, it’s not going to shoot very far. If you pull it right back across the UK you can gain the resource, energy and strength for arrows to go to the ends of the earth.”
Overseas, we went to India first, with South Africa close behind. Last November we held a leaders conference in India where 400 leaders from over 30 churches came together. In South Africa churches are being planted throughout the nation. We have churches in Zimbabwe, Kenya, Ghana, Nigeria and so on. Now there are Newfrontiers churches in more than 50 nations.
You teach a view on the role of women and men that some would regard as sexist, others would call it conservative, you call it ‘complementarianism’. You teach that men and woman are equal in the sight of God but should pursue different roles in both marriage and in church. Can you unpack that teaching a little?
Those who teach ‘complementarianism’ argue that men and women are of identical worth and are to be honoured as such and that they fulfil different and complementary functions, whereas those who teach ‘egalitarianism’ argue that equality of worth can only be expressed by men and women having identical functions.
In My Fair Lady, Professor Higgins complains, “Why can’t a woman be more like a man?” but God has simply made us different. In this sense the church reflects something of the Trinity where each person is truly God and to be loved and worshipped as such, but each fulfils a different and complementary role. This is what is meant by ‘complementarianism’.
What does that mean for women preaching and teaching?
This would be one area where the Bible shows a difference of role. Paul says, “I do not allow a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man” (1 Timothy 2:12). Teaching implies authority, particularly teaching the doctrine, which is where the biblical constraint lies. Women, together with men, are encouraged to prophesy. Scripture says that when someone prophesies the others are to weigh what is said, so the authority lies with those who listen rather than with those who speak (1 Corinthians 14:29). Paul clearly limits authoritative doctrinal teaching to elders who care for the flock and are gifted and appointed to do so (Acts 20:28).
If leadership and teaching is solely male, how can that be regarded as equal and complementary, especially to a woman if she believes she has been given a teaching or church leadership ministry?
The Bible plainly teaches that churches are to be led lovingly and humbly by male eldership. Under male eldership there is great scope for women’s ministry. In fact a woman can do virtually anything else in church life. For instance, older women are specifically urged to teach the younger women (Titus 2:3-5).
You forbid women to teach doctrine but allow them to teach about evangelism for example. Some people would find this differentiation tenuous.
Paul says in Romans 6:17, ‘You became obedient from the heart to the form of teaching to which you were committed.’ Paul is making clear that becoming a Christian means being placed under the authority of Christian ‘teaching’. The ‘teaching’ had authority to give form to the New Testament churches and shape to the life of the believers.
Evangelism, on the other hand, is the proclamation of the Good News to the unsaved. It is the evangelistic call to step out of the dark into the light where people would subsequently be added to the church and come within the shepherding care of its pastors and teachers.
Over the years, Newfrontiers have been organised some hugely popular events, Downs Bible Weeks in the 80s, Stoneleigh in the 90s, and now the Annual Leadership Conference in Brighton. What aspirations have you got for the conference this year?
We regard ourselves as a Word and Spirit movement. We’re open to the Spirit and devoted to the Word. We trust that this year it will be very apparent that we give much space to the preaching of the Word and are open to the activity of the Holy Spirit among us.
Last year our guest speaker, Mark Driscoll, encouraged us to make room for younger men in our midst and we are going to respond to that as well. As a movement, Newfrontiers does not simply provide a platform for other speakers but we ourselves have a message and we will be declaring it strongly.
I’ve felt God say, “You’re not just hosting a conference, you have a vision. You don’t simply provide a platform, you have a voice,” so we will be handling it ourselves this year.
You’ve talked about Mark Driscoll’s visit last summer. In what ways was it significant?
Several things: Mark is aggressively committed to evangelism and he is experiencing phenomenal growth in Seattle, USA. He was very provocative indeed. He took a session on what he called ‘Movements are Messy’ and challenged us very helpfully. He commended us for our openness, he felt that some groups only devour their own books, their own writings. They don’t have guests to speak, adding, “You evidently do.” He commended us but he said, “You could be in danger of...” and then hit us with some things. For instance, “you’re reformed in theology and charismatic, you could be in danger of simply enjoying God charismatically, believing in a sovereign God and not getting on with evangelism.” One of the things he talked to us about was multiplying meetings. Several of our churches as a result have now doubled their meetings.
They may have been meeting at 10 in the morning but have changed to 9 and 11.15 or they’ve added an evening meeting. Having two alternative Sunday meetings is proving extraordinarily fruitful already. We are seeing a lot of growth.
The other thing he spoke about was multi-site, which he does in Seattle. He’ll have four meetings on a Sunday but he also has his video linked meetings. I think he has 20 meetings a weekend now in other sites across the city. Four where he’s physically present, the others are television linked. People are beginning to consider multisite now. These sorts of things, to be honest, we’d never even thought of. His use of modern means is quite phenomenal and he’s challenged us to think about it.
Mark also spoke about how you need to hand over leadership to someone else – likening it to you taking Newfrontiers down the aisle, like the father of a much loved daughter. That must have been a very emotional moment for you.
I found it extraordinarily emotional, mostly because although it was a very daring thing to do, not having mentioned that he was going to say such a thing…
It was a complete shock then?
Absolutely, he was extraordinarily honouring of me in a way that doesn’t often happen. Then he said, “Will you honour the founder more than you honour the future? You must get ready to move onward to the next generation, if you over-honour the founder, you’ll get stuck. You must honour the future and get ready for that.”
Someone in the meeting had made reference to having been at a wedding, it just came up incidentally, Mark had been in my home the previous day and we had some rather beautiful pictures of my daughter’s wedding in our hall so he had observed those pictures and put those two things together and used the analogy of my handing over. The analogy has got strengths and weaknesses. We’ve obviously talked a lot about it since.
As a leadership team we’ve talked about transition for maybe five or six years. But Mark put it right in the public arena because there were about 5,000 people there. I went to the platform immediately he’d stopped and embraced the word and thanked him and he was very well received. He got a standing ovation. He did it so brilliantly.
In fact I have not led the Newfrontiers team within the UK for several years and haven’t led the Brighton church [I still attend] for at least 15 years. The challenge which I face is the international Newfrontiers family, which I still lead. We don’t know how that’s going to work out. No one at the moment would have the international breadth of involvement that I’ve had.
We’ve talked about it for some years and I’ve asked our international leaders, “When I snuff it will you all go your separate ways?” Because there are some really very significant men in our ranks, some caring for scores of churches, such as in Kenya, South Africa and so on. Thus far, every time we’ve raised it and talked about it they’ve said, “No, we’re brothers together.”
We have prophetic promises over us which pull us into the future. We’ve obviously a history of affection and real love but I think that Newfrontiers people feel that we will accomplish more together. That’s pretty strong in our DNA. Mark Driscoll said, “In your next three to five years, this should be the thing that mostly preoccupies you.” He said publicly, “Pray for Terry as he works this out.”
2010 will be 70 years after your birth, what unfulfilled hopes and dreams do you still have?
In a word ‘revival’. We’ve not seen revival and I still pray for it. I believe revival will come. I feel God has blessed but we’ve not seen revival. That’s what I still long for.
Different people mean different things when they say ‘revival’. What’s your definition?
Some people in the UK have experienced a ‘renewing’, we were blessed by what happened at Toronto but I wouldn’t have called it ‘revival’ and it included a number of features which we could not embrace. Revival often begins with a prayer awakening in the church. The church begins to wake up to who she should be. It has to do with purity of life as well as a fresh visitation of God’s presence. Out from that comes a revival of evangelistic impact which ultimately affects the culture.
In John Wesley’s and George Whitfield’s day a whole army of preachers were raised up. They then worked out their devotional life in small groups, the Wesleyan cell system, which I’m sure was of God. Then in the next generation with Wilberforce and others it affected the political culture. Revival isn’t just a multiplication of meetings, it has to break out and affect the culture.
When the spiritual climate changed, it was possible for laws to be changed, reflecting the new moral mood. Right now the moral tide has gone out and the laws keep being changed to accommodate evil. You can’t legislate for an awakening but when an awakening comes the law can be changed to reflect a new appreciation of righteousness.
Terry Virgo was converted in the 1950s through the ministry of Billy Graham. Coming from a non-religious background he struggled to find his way into the evangelical church. He became deeply involved in a charismatic fellowship in the 1960s. After studying at London Bible College he married Wendy in 1968 and they set up home in Seaford, East Sussex where Virgo had been invited to lead a new Evangelical Free Church. He remained there for 11 years before moving to Brighton and Hove in 1979 where they still live.
More than 500 churches around the world are part of the Newfrontiers International grouping of churches. A popular Bible teacher, Virgo speaks at conferences internationally and hosts the annual Together on a Mission conference in the UK, which draws thousands of delegates from around the world. Virgo has written several books, including No Well-Worn Paths, which is his biography and the story of Newfrontiers. Terry and Wendy Virgo have five grown-up children.