The Impossible Dream
In March, leaders from 20 churches gathered together in Gateshead for a Mission Forum hosted by FIEC. Andy Hunter was there and reports back on the purpose of the day.
“In order to accommodate just 1% of the North East’s population we need 130 churches with at least 200 people in each.”
That was the challenge and stark reality facing church leaders from 20 churches – the largest of which has just over 100 members at the FIEC North East Mission Forum. For many present, including a number of very small, struggling churches, this might have seemed the very definition of an ‘impossible dream’.
The North East of England has a population of 2.6 million people and has seen church attendance drop by 36% over a 30 year period. Many churches have an age profile that is twice the age of the surrounding population and the number of people identifying as ‘non-religious’ is steadily growing. Even the most generous estimates still mean more than 2.5 million people are outside of Christ.
It’s not all doom and gloom of course. People are still coming to faith, some churches are seeing growth, and a number of a new churches have been planted, especially among ethnic minority groups in the region.
Nevertheless the challenges are huge – making the need for gospel churches to support, encourage and partner with one another all the more necessary and important. Hence the vision behind this gathering of leaders at Tyneside Central Church.
The day began with the recognition that, humanly speaking, the options for new initiatives were very limited. Not even all the needs raised by churches present could be met, never mind across the entire region.
However, it might be possible to do something and make a difference by working together where possible. That, of course, would require humility, flexibility and generosity – for some to give way, others to give away, and perhaps for one or two – to get out of the way.
FIEC’s Church Revitalisation Coordinator Phil Walter shared his experiences of helping struggling churches to make needed changes. He noted this was often hard to do and there were no quick-fix easy answers - but where there was a heart to put the gospel first there had been some great examples of renewed growth and transformation taking place.
Hugo Charteris, Pastor of Christchurch Heaton, is one of many church leaders who, while not born in the area, has committed himself to trying to reach it for Christ. He has been in Newcastle for 15 years, raised his family there and fully expects to be buried there!
Hugo’s heart and vision for the area was expressed in ‘5 little things’ that could make a big gospel difference:
- Keeping your local church healthy;
- Being ambitious for the region through prayer and partnerships;
- Praying for the formation of ‘hub’ churches who could resource wider gospel initiatives in the region;
- Sharing experiences and expertise; and
- Seeking the creation of a regional training centre.
A significant part of the day was given over to discussion groups where local situations, encouragements and needs could be shared. Common themes emerged including the difficulties of doing outreach with small numbers, the social challenges in many areas, and the lack of good readily-available training.
Positively there was a widespread desire to try and do more working together. In particular to make such gatherings a more regular occurrence in order to share needs, pray and strengthen relationships. Dave Lovelock, former pastor at Welbeck Road EC, closed the day with apt pastoral thoughts from Psalm 22 on the subject: ‘When you’re up against it’.
This Forum was just a tiny step in tackling a colossal challenge – but by small steps significant advances can be made! 20 small churches needing to become 130 large churches just to reach 1% of the population may be ‘an impossible dream’ – fortunately God is the God of the impossible.
- That struggling churches will be revitalised;
- That new Church Plants will be established in unreached areas;
- That existing churches will have strengthened relationships;
- For local church leaders not to become weary in well doing;
- That a good regional training centre can be established.