New Phase for Transatlantic Partnership
Organisers of an initiative that helps independent evangelical churches to grow with support from American partners are preparing to step-up their work. Rachel Dalby has been finding out more.
From the Autumn, Churches in Partnership, run by FIEC and the Mississippi Baptist Convention (MBC), will have a new co-ordinator and will seek to connect more churches than ever before.
Since its informal beginnings around 30 years ago, the Partnership has helped to strengthen dozens of churches by linking them with supporter churches in Mississippi, USA.
Once linked, a pair of churches arranges for a small team of Americans to visit Britain to provide hands-on support. Traditionally, much of this help has taken the form of Americans working with British partner churches to run mission weeks.
In November, the initiative will be relaunched with the aim of increasing the number of partnerships and promoting more flexible relationships including longer visits. There will also be an emphasis on ministry staff placements lasting a year or more.
Mike Stringer, a member of FIEC’s Church Revitalisation Team who has co-ordinated the British side of the initiative from the beginning, is excited.
He said: “It’s remarkable to think that this has grown from a meeting I had with a visiting American pastor, Wyatt Gwin, over 30 years ago. Since the partnership was formalised in 2012, we’ve seen more than 70 American teams visiting over 40 British churches!”
Now, with around 2,000 churches belonging to the MBC, and the creeping secularisation of Britain making it harder for some FIEC churches to grow, the two organisations want to step-up their collaboration.
Mike said: “FIEC’s Church Revitalisation Team sees very clearly that there are a number of FIEC churches that, with help from our American friends now, could avoid needing more in-depth revitalisation later.
“So, we want to encourage the involvement of smaller and medium-sized British churches that are currently doing okay but know they have potential for growth.”
He added that the connections were hugely beneficial to the Americans and their sending churches. Through their visits, the Americans experienced issues that they, themselves, may face in their own future ministries.
Mike, the former pastor of Oadby Evangelical Free Church in Leicestershire, is now preparing to hand over co-ordination of the British side of the project to Mark Howson. Mark is due to leave his role as pastor of Suffolk’s Mickfield Evangelical Church in July.
While at Mickfield, Mark has spent several years helping nearby Great Blakenham Baptist Church to revitalise. He said: “This has contributed to my understanding of the issues faced by smaller and medium-sized evangelical churches.
“Sometimes, for a variety of reasons, churches run out of steam. They want to grow stronger but they struggle to know what to do. With some support and new ideas, these churches can be helped back to full health.”
Mark said it was difficult to make a real and lasting difference in churches once they were down to a handful of members. “We want to be partnering with churches long before they get to that stage,” he added.
“Our American brothers bring fresh eyes, new energy and a direct approach that can really help British churches. By nature, the Mississippi Baptists speak frankly about their faith, and this can be useful in starting conversations,” he said.
Mark will co-ordinate the work with the support of his wife, Rachael, and they are currently looking at how to encourage the forging of more long-term church relationships.
He said: “Interestingly, it was Wyatt Gwin – who worked with Mike Stringer in the Partnership’s early days – who helped to pioneer longer-term relationships. Wyatt became the pastor of Twynholm Baptist Church, Hammersmith, and was a blessing to that community.”
In preparation for his new role, Mark has recently spent time in Mississippi with his future MBC counterpart, Mike Ray, and other American ministers. He has also been talking with Webb Armstrong, who, in 2016 and 17, visited Mark’s church with a group of MBC Christians to run mission activities including a church weekend.
Mark said: “I’ve seen first-hand the value of these partnerships, so I’m keen for as many FIEC churches as possible to get involved.”
In preparing to hand over the Partnership baton to Mark, current co-ordinator Mike said: “It has been a great joy to help British pastors and churches to form very valuable connections which have led to wonderful encouragements and opportunities to grow their ministries.
“I’ve been blessed by many people in the MBC, and have had the privilege of preaching in many of their churches (and often enjoyed eating barbecued ribs to die for!). Now it’s Mark’s turn to lead the next phase, and I know he’ll do an amazing job.”