A blind spot
Many Christians expect to find a gospel church wherever they go in the world. This expectation may be based on an assumption that most, if not all, of the world has been evangelised. So it is a real inconvenience if we are on holiday and can’t find a church to attend on Sunday where the Bible is preached. The fact that in many parts of the UK and Europe churches do not exist underlines the importance of church planting.
We have a mission blind spot. We work hard in evangelising our local community and also play our part in supporting cross-cultural missionaries around the world, but we may give little serious thought to the spiritual needs of urban and rural communities in Wales.
Many communities in Wales have no Bible-based, gospel proclaiming, local church. It is not uncommon to have to travel twenty miles or more to find such a church. The churches that do exist are usually small, with just enough people and finance to keep the work going, but with little extra resources to reach out to communities nearby with no gospel church.
It would be a mistake to think that these small churches lack serious commitment to the work of the Kingdom. For example, there are twelve churches in North Wales in the Associating Evangelical Churches of Wales (AECW) with a total membership of 450 and they support twelve full-time pastors.
Some of our smaller churches are, however, very vulnerable. In recent years two small evangelical churches in Cardiff have closed. Other churches are struggling to keep going. In addition to church planting we need to be strengthening smaller churches by getting alongside them and helping them. If an evangelical church closes it may be many years before another gospel witness is established in that community.
It may be helpful to consider two important aspects of church planting or church strengthening ministry.
Where will the money come from?
It is generally assumed that we don’t have the financial resources to support men in pioneer ministry, but this is not the case. As churches we are actively engaged in the support of cross-cultural missionaries around the world. Churches and Christians working together can provide the financial support these missionaries need in order to fulfil their ministries. The same principles can be applied to supporting church planters in Wales.
Some years ago AECW churches were challenged to face up to the demands of church planting in Wales. If the 3,000 members of AECW churches in Wales each contributed £50 per year, or £1 per week, to such ministry this would provide an annual fund of £190,000, including gift aid. Over ten years this would amount to nearly £2 million. This would be sufficient to fully or partially support a succession of pioneer workers. As the new causes became self-supporting the level of subsidy would decrease, freeing resources for other workers to receive support. Sadly, we have not really faced up to this challenge.
There is, however, one encouraging example of how this might work. From the time The Bay Church in Cardiff began in 2003 it has been possible for Ian Parry to give himself full-time to the work. At the beginning there were only two families committed to the work and it was twelve months before the first members were received. Christians and churches in Wales, and beyond, caught the vision for this new work and sent one-off and regular gifts to provide support of the pastor and all other costs involved in a pioneer ministry. As The Bay Church has become established the level of outside support has decreased and the church has been able to support itself. In the past two years a lady church worker, Nicola Edkins, has joined the church, made possible by partnership with Grace Baptist Mission. This pattern could be repeated in other places.
Where will the men come from?
In my experience very few men feel called to pioneer ministry. Most men feel called to a settled pastorate. It may also be assumed that church planting ministry requires very different qualities from a settled pastoral ministry, but I am not convinced this is the case. The focus and the challenges may be different but the same qualities are required in both situations.
The ministry of the word, the proclamation of the gospel and the care and nurture of seekers and converts are priorities in pioneer ministry. Church planters should not be thought of as eccentric, extrovert oddballs! Men of faith and spiritual maturity with an all-round ministry are needed if Christians and converts are to be moulded into an effective local church.
It is so important that pastors and elders set an example and take initiatives to foster a vision and concern for church planting. In 1981, when we were in Deeside, the church caught a vision for planting a church in Bala, thirty-five miles away. I was freed from some of my preaching commitments in Deeside to enable me to go regularly to Bala. A small team of men was asked to undertake ministry both in Deeside and Bala. The Deeside church did not lose, but gained so much, from being committed to this new work and the emerging Bala church drew great encouragement from knowing that the Deeside church stood with them in prayer and fellowship.
The work in Bala also highlights the fact that the Lord uses women as well as men in evangelism and pioneer ministry. At the beginning there were no local men committed to the work, but there were three ladies. Over the first eleven months a monthly evangelistic meeting was held. More than 200 local people attended at least one meeting and each meeting was attended by at least twenty-five people. This was the result of the passionate prayer and evangelistic activity of these ladies.
It is also important for us to encourage men in our churches who are recognised as having preaching gifts and a heart for evangelism to come together with others in teams to engage in church planting and church strengthening ministry. This can be done initially while they continue in secular employment.
Some 2,000 years ago the leaders of the newly established church in Antioch were worshipping God and fasting. They responded to the leading of the Holy Spirit and freed Saul and Barnabas to pioneer ministry in, then, unknown places. Saul and Barnabas had nothing materially, but were sent on their way by the Holy Spirit. The consequences were amazing. Like them we need to be worshipping, serious and open to the leading and empowering of the Holy Spirit. If we are, who knows what God might do!
Peter Milsom is director of UFM and chairman of AECW.