Revitalised in Birmingham
What comes to mind when you think about Birmingham? John Stevens reports back from two revitalised churches in the city and a city-wide vision for church planting.
The last Sunday in September was one of the most encouraging days I have had since I became FIEC National Director. I was privileged to preach at two thriving churches in Birmingham which until recently had been declining or dying Brethren Assemblies. Grace Church Dell Road was a church plant by City Church Birmingham, my own former church, and Helier Chapel was a church revitalisation supported by both City Church and Grace Church.
Grace Church Dell Road
Grace Church Dell Road is the result of a church plant from City Church some six years ago. Dell Road Gospel Hall was a declining and dying Brethren assembly on the border between the Stirchley and Cotteridge areas of the city. The story began when one of the members of City Church moved into the area and went along to the Dell Road prayer meeting to offer support to their “local” church. As a result a relationship began to be established.
To cut a long story short, in the end we were able to plant a church from City which met in the Brethren Hall in the afternoon. It was a very costly step for City to take, as we sent about 30 people and funded two leaders for the new church. Eventually the two congregations merged to form a new church, Grace Church Dell Road, which is now affiliated to FIEC.
The church is led by Andy Weatherley, who was able to train part-time at Oak Hill College, and a team of elders. Today the church has a membership of 70+. They are a vibrant church with a good range of ages represented and a large number of families with young children. The hall is nearly full, and they are about to embark on a building project to improve the premises. They have made strenuous long-term efforts to build relationships with the local community that are beginning to bear fruit.
Most excitingly they are planning to support two church plants themselves into needy areas of Birmingham in the next couple of years. Two years ago they sent John Walley, one of their members, to train at Oak Hill. He has just returned to the church with the objective of planting a new church in the Longbridge area of the city. He is being supported in part by way of a grant from FIEC’s Training Fund. They are also hoping to send a team to plant a church into Attwood Green, an inner city area which has undergone recent redevelopment. Both these areas lack much in the way of faithful gospel witness.
Helier Chapel, Northfield
In the morning I was delighted to preach at Helier Chapel in Northfield, another residential area of the city. I first preached at this chapel over 17 years ago. The church had been sustained by some deeply committed and hard-working elders, and although it was not in imminent danger of closure the future did not look bright because the congregation was aging and slowly dwindling. They were excited by what they had seen happen at Dell Road, and so were prepared to make changes and partner with both City Church and Grace Church. The revitalisation was also encouraged and supported by Monyhull Church, another large FIEC Church in the city which had in turn supported us when we planted City Church in 1998!
John James, who had been sent by City to train at Oak Hill, returned to Birmingham to become Pastor at the chapel. Three couples from City Church and another from Grace Church went with him to help form a new nucleus for the church. New elders were appointed, a constitution adopted, a formal membership established and services changed.
The work of revitalisation is often long and slow, and it would be wrong to expect an overnight turnaround. However after three years of hard work the church is now growing rapidly. A number of people have come into the church from the local community, and there have been some wonderful conversions. Their greatest encouragement was that earlier this year they baptised seven people over two Sundays: two Portuguese, two Iranians and three Brits.
I was especially pleased that one of the reasons for my visit to preach was that the church is considering affiliation to FIEC. I am thrilled that the members voted later in the afternoon to take the step of affiliating. I look forward to receiving their application form in the near future.
The story of these two churches and their revitalisation to serve the gospel in their communities into another generation is encouraging and challenging. In both cases the leaders of declining churches were prepared to make dramatic changes for the sake of the gospel, and although these were difficult for some they have led to great blessing.
Sadly all too many churches that are declining lack the vision or humility to make the changes that are necessary if they are to escape the spiral of decline. The introduction of new gifted leaders, and of a new core of committed members, has enabled the churches to revive and grow. Such revitalisation is a long-term work that requires much patience, persistence and grace. It depends upon cultivating relationships of trust and respecting the dignity and faithfulness of those who have sustained declining works for many years.
These churches were also a result of the vision and dynamism of a “hub church” that has a vision for seeing the work of the gospel expand in its region. Both these projects were supported by City Church, often at considerable cost. They have only been possible because of the vision of City to reach and retain students and young graduates who come to Birmingham, envision them to serve the cause of Christ in the city for the long-term, and to send and train gifted men for full-time gospel ministry.
We took tentative steps in this direction while I was still one of the Pastors at City. However the vision has developed and expanded under the dynamic leadership of Neil Powell, and has culminated in the creation of 2020 Birmingham, a wider coalition of evangelical churches and organisations in the city which has the goal of planting or re-planting 20 new churches by the end of the decade.
It would be a great blessing if every major urban area of the country had an equivalent of 2020 Birmingham, with a vision to plant and revitalise churches in the many communities of gospel need. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of churches around the country that are like Dell Road or Helier Chapel. They have a great history of gospel faithfulness and yet have declined and are facing the prospect of closure within a generation.
I hope and pray that something of the vision of these churches will be replicated across the country in coming years.
This article is abridged from a post on John’s blog which you can read at john-stevens.com