Jesus’ famous words from Matthew 16: 18, ‘I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it’, provide a challenge for us in Europe today. When we drive around our cities, towns and country villages, we find them littered with empty and disused church buildings that were once filled with hundreds of worshippers, but now, alas, the last bell has rung, the final prayer has been prayed, and the remaining faithful have turned the lights out!
The media are happy to publish stories of the death of church and perpetuate the theory that modern civilisation, with all its sophistication and knowledge, has relegated belief in God to the preserve of the impoverished of mind from previous generations, who lacked the intellectual rigour of the 21st century. It could cause one to wonder if Jesus has stopped building his Church, at least in Europe. Yet, if one scratches beneath the surface of our beloved nation, one will see here and there another story is starting to emerge. One of churches starting to flourish where once there was decline—of lives being changed by the glorious gospel again, and hope beginning to ripple out into communities where previously only darkness, depression and despair held sway.
‘Son of man, can these bones live?’ the prophet was asked by the Lord in EzekielThe answer soon became clear as the breath of the Sovereign Lord moved across those bones and they came to life again! (37: 9) The same question is being asked about stagnated churches; can they come to life and flourish again? The answer is ‘Yes!’, but only if the Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is allowed to breathe new life into them. New chapters of life in our churches are happening where the spirit of our forefathers, George Muller, Henry Craik, and Robert Chapman have been embraced to combine the traditional gospel necessities of being Spirit-led, prayer-filled, bible based, with innovation and audacious risk-taking faith, as they engage with the current generation of non-religious people, using 21st century communication tools to lead some to Christ.
In God’s grace, I have been privileged to be part of a team who have been involved in stirring a church in Cinderford, Gloucestershire, that had previously, not just stagnated, but had died. Now 14 years on from the relaunch of Forest Community Church, we have had to purchase the property next door to our building to fit everyone in, and have recently sent some of our members to nearby Ross-on-Wye to help stir a stagnated church in that town.
Therefore, what are the steps we see as necessary to create an environment where the Holy Spirit can breathe on the bones of a stagnated church and bring about a glorious new exciting chapter? Here are a few pointers that we feel are important.
TAKE A REALISTIC LOOK AT YOUR SITUATION.
Remember, facts are your friends, so ask questions like these.
KEY QUESTIONS FOR ANY LOCAL CHURCH
- Have our Sunday morning numbers been rising, or at least being maintained, over the last five years?
- Is our church demographic representative of the community around us in regard to age, social class, ethnicity and culture?
- Have we seen any new people join us in the last six months?
- Have we seen any conversions in the last year?
- Have we had any baptisms in the last year?
If the answer to any of those questions is ‘no’, you have a problem. It may be that you would benefit from having a Partnership coordinator coming alongside you to do a church health-check to help you take a realistic look at yourselves and give some advice on solving the problems you see. Sometimes, we are too close to the action, and too personally invested, to be able to see the wood from the trees to be able to evaluate our own church situation wisely. An experienced outsider will not have the blinkers you may have. Certainly, I can say personally that we at Cinderford have benefited enormously from this kind of health check in the past. Another advantage for an eldership to have a person coming in from outside is that it can help to take some of the personality and politics out of the situation. The bottom line is that being faithful to God in our responsibility of leadership means that we must from time to time take a realistic look at our church, be honest, and ask the tough questions that in reality everyone else is asking and thinking. Then act on what you find. One of the things I always try to do is to is to seek out someone else who is a few steps further along the road that I am on and invite them to speak into our situation from their experience. However, if when you have reviewed all these questions, and the answer to all or most of them is ‘no’, you have a more serious problem! Clearly your church has stagnated and got stuck.
In my role for Counties Planting Network we are finding many churches in this situation are coming to us to enable a fresh new chapter to begin. Unfortunately, this kind of decline has not happened overnight and there is no quick panacea or silver bullet to fix the situation. Much prayerful planning is needed, but there is hope, if there is a willingness to see the situation reversed.
The old gospel hall in Ross was like that. A beautiful church building that has been in existence since 1859, situated in the middle of a supermarket car park with a footfall of thousands each day. Most churches would give their right arm for that kind of visible strategic positioning. Yet despite its rich history and privileges, it was becoming obvious to most that, if it carried on with the current trajectory, it would be closed within five years, unless the Lord intervened miraculously.
When faced with this scenario last summer, after months of prayerful conversation with the remaining two elders and church members, they invited Martin Erwin and myself to lead them into a new chapter. We started a process there that we believe is reproduceable across our nation for churches in similar situations. Here are the steps we are embarking on and introducing to other churches who have asked us for help.
- HONOUR THE PAST
We give thanks to God for the church and its rich history. For the lives changed, for the sacrificial leaders who have served, and many people who have contributed to the life and witness of the church so faithfully over the years.
- APPOINT TRANSITIONAL ELDERS
The current elders and leaders graciously step aside. Usually, they are only too willing to do this. Most would have done it before if they could have found trusted people to hand over to. We have sought out transitional elders. At Ross, because of our personal connections, we have taken on this role, as it needs to be men who are known and trusted by the church to lead them through this time of transition. When I first started at Cinderford, the elderly gentleman who led me to the Lord as a child phoned me up to encourage me. During the conversation, he expressed his concern that we may be “pouring new wine into old wine skins.” However, he was reassured when I was able to tell him that, while the existing ladies from the old gospel hall were all coming with us on the journey, it was under new leadership and with a new vision. Looking back, I can see how right he was to express his concern. By having new leadership, it enables the new wine to flow and not burst the wineskins (Mt. 9: 17).
- FIND RESOURCE CHURCHES
When a church comes to Counties to ask for help, we ask the question, who could be your resource church? It does not need to be a mega church, just a healthy church of reasonable size which has a heart for serving in the kingdom of God and a desire to share in the great commission. For Ross, it was possible for us in Cinderford to be that church. By sending those people whom God was calling from Cinderford to Ross, by giving transitional leadership and ongoing mentoring to the new leaders, we are able to provide a lifeline to a church that humanly speaking would never survive. It could be that in some cases there are several resource churches that are able to come to the aid of a church in need of this kind of help. Usually when we speak to a church that is requesting help, we find that there is already a church giving a degree of help to maintain the status quo. It could be that this church is then recognised as the resource church and able to be a key player in bringing about a transformation that would perhaps not otherwise have been possible, as they enable the stagnated church to move from decline and maintenance to health and growth.
- FULFIL THE ROLE OF TRANSITIONAL ELDERS
These need to be experienced and trusted elders/leaders who are full of faith and the Spirit. Their role is to provide spiritual and practical leadership during the transition with a view to preparing the new church to launch in a year or so. This means taking some of the difficult decisions around “sacred cows” which have been put off by previous leaders in the pursuit of a quiet life. At Ross, for example, it was to move a clock that was behind the pulpit. Little did we know at the time that it had been the subject of six elders-meetings in the 1970s and still had not been moved!
Modernising the building, décor, lighting and entrance are all key areas that the transitional elders need to address with sensitivity and boldness. Changing the culture where a style from previous generations still exists (probably one of the key reasons a church stagnates). At Ross, there had been no change in the building for 47 years. The place had a musty smell when you walked in, and it looked and sounded as if you had stepped back to the 1940s. The transitional elders have to find a way of making the place look and smell like it belongs to the 21st century.
Then, most important, they have to assist in attracting a new team. People with a heart for the lost, the church and serving the Lord. This includes finding a lead planter who will become the team leader to work either part-time or full-time in the church.
We have found it is amazing how all these people start coming out of the woodwork, once one starts to pray into it and move forward in faith. When we started the process at Ross we had no idea who would be our new team. Yet once things started to change, and the transitional elders were in place, the Lord brought people to our attention, including a young lead planting-couple, who can combine with some of the existing church to become the new replanting team for which we praise God.
- EQUIP THE TEAM THROUGH M4 TRAINING AND ONGOING SUPPORT
Counties has teamed up with M4 Europe, who have planted or replanted over 400 churches in 14 countries over the last 10 years. They have very kindly released to us their training tools which they have honed over the years, so that we can serve the church better in the UK. It is a wonderful gift, and they are tools that I wish I had had access to 14 years ago, as they would have saved me a lot of time, stress and heartache. M4 provides a clear framework for the lead planter and team to move more smoothly and intentionally along over the first few years of the life of the church replant or plant. It recognises the need for assessment of the lead planter and their spouse, initial training through four learning communities for the team, and monthly coaching sessions for the lead planter. Teams will also be given access to the online learning platform which M4 has, which provides an abundance of seven-minute videos with teaching on a host of specific leadership/church planting areas for their ongoing development.
In conclusion, be encouraged God is still building his Church in 21st century Britain. This is so, even those churches that seem to have stagnated, if we use the tools that God has put at our disposal and seek his face in prayer.
Tm Cracknell – Pastor at Forest Community Church and Church Planting Officer with Counties