Friday, 6 March 2009

Local Church - part 1

I've been thinking a lot recently about local church. I am working on a vision that can help us move our church forward... it's just thoughts at the moment that I will post in several parts.

It seems across the nation, local church is in trouble. They are shrinking in many towns – giving way to larger out of town churches or big city churches. There is a bug move towards the mega church or city church model. Does this mean that local church is a thing of the past? I don’t believe so, but it does need a rethink.


To be clear from the start, I think mega churches are great things. I may not like them all, but we can’t deny that some of them are great. I love the teaching and the ideas of Mars Hill for example, both of them, and they are certainly mega Churches. Also, I am the work of bigger city churches is crucial to the work of Christ. I am not against huge city churches – they do a lot of good.


The work for example of Abundant Life in Bradford is hugely important and I believe River City and Newcastle Church are both on track to become vital to our area. I believe Paul Scanlon is right when he says that Church has to change or die – however I don’t believe that there is only one church model that is needed. Whilst I think that the City Church model and the work they do are great things, I also believe that Local Church is of an equal importance and cannot become the same thing.


For the cities I think that there needs to be a different model then there is for towns and villages. A local church cannot and should not try to emulate what the city church does as its community is different. This is not to say one is better – both are needed and both serve a different purpose.


River City, for example can reach Middlesbrough very effectively, but since it’s not based in Billingham then it cannot be an effective local church to those who live in Billingham, or have an impact on the community in Billingham. Because it’s not local, it’s not part of the town’s community. Bradford’s Abundant life can transform the city, but is not effective in nearby towns, Ilkley for example. Cities need big city churches. Smaller communities need smaller, healthy, local churches and attempting to transfer the city church model to small towns will not work.


To those who do not live in the city, then I think it’s important to be part of a local church. John Bevere struck a chord with me when he said that “you don’t get to choose your church” and I think there is a lot of truth to this. Whilst I don’t necessarily hold with David Pawson’s view that you go to the church closest to you (That would make me a catholic) I do believe that it’s important to be a part of a church community that lives and breathes in the community in which you live. For me to go to a city church, well it’s not local to me and moves me outside of my community.


The Oakwood centre for example, is a very large church and is based in Eaglescliffe – a small community. However most of the people in this church do not live in Eaglescliffe. They live outside and travel in. I’m not sure a small town should sustain a huge church, but instead we should be looking for other ways to grow that will help us serve and reach those around us. I’m not having a go at the Oakwood centre here, it’s a big church – it runs a city church model – but it’s not a local church.


Now clearly, local church across the nation appears to be shrinking and giving way to the larger church. The model in local church does not currently work and as a result it is dying. Does this mean it should either die or adopt the city church model? There needs to be a better answer.


The City church model does work very well in its environment, but I am convinced that there must be another way for local churches to operate. Whilst I enjoy the hyped meeting in city churches, although in some case they do tend to feel a bit like corporate events, I don’t think this should be a model adopted by every church. There must be another way for local churches.

Whilst big youth based churches are a great thing to have, they can leave older people feeling like they are not a part of it. Church is community and it must strive to be as multi generational as possible. Church is family and local church is a family church.


Church is not a meeting, or an organisation, or a business, or a club although at times it does look like all of these things. Church is the physical body of Christ on earth, living through his followers. Church is all about people, if it’s anything. And the main elements of Church are about how it relates to people and how its people relate to God.


A problem we have is that many local churches are small, weak and struggling to stay alive. This does not mean they are not valid. Shildon AOG, for example is a vital church to those who attend it. There are people there who have left larger churches as they wanted more substance to their teaching and they find that in Shildon. However as a town, Shildon will not support a huge church. So what happens?


I think we’ve learned a lot in New Life Billingham through our recent relationship with Redcar and Stockton and in here I see a model for growing local churches.


The problem small churches usually get is a lack of vision and they start to feel isolated and alone. When we started to look after Redcar, one of our main points was that they were to join us on a Sunday morning. I think that proved to be very successful – their vision of church has expanded as meeting with a lot of believers has raised their expectation levels. They have joined us on a morning now for some time and met themselves on a night and we have provided ministry. This to me seems and ideal model.


Soon, Redcar will have their new building and they have a congregation that is growing steadily. I think the time will soon come that they will not join us on a morning, but instead will have both meetings in their own building.


This is a great way to keep church local and growing. We currently are joined by Ragworth on a morning and they too have a separate meeting on a night. In time they too will hopefully be at a point where they can have two meetings in their own building too. This would be a healthy progression.

In looking to reaching out and growing, how big must a church be before it gets too big? I don’t think this is a simple question to answer, Billingham currently can get around 150 people some weeks and there’s certainly room for that to grow. However I don’t think a church of 1000+ in Billingham would be really sustainable or advisable. Wouldn’t it be better to have other churches as part of us that can grow – where it’s not easy to get lost and just become a church attendee?


We use the phrase in our fellowship, “1 church in three locations”. Why not build on this and extend this? This creates healthy sized churches that stay local.

This can be achieved by New Life running two different versions of church meetings, or congregations. Sites and Satellites. These can both have a number of features, every site and every satellite does not have to be the same.

Currently, we run with one main site and two satellites. New Life Billingham is our main site. Redcar and Stockton both operated as satellites. They join us on a Sunday morning, then on a night they meet separately. Stockton in its church building and Redcar currently in a hotel. They operate as Satellites, even though Redcar is a separate charity in it’s own right.


Since this has started Redcar has seen growth. They have become more established and are moving forward. Soon we hope they will have a new building in which to meet. At this point they will become very firmly established in Redcar. They will have a base that is centred in their community from which they can reach out.

I think that it will be at this time they should stop being a satellite and become a site. Not separate from us, but another established site. At this point they stop joining us on a Sunday morning.

It’s also at this point when they become a site that they look to establishing their own satellites. For example, Lotfus or Saltburn – places close to them – where they are joined in the morning then on the night they meet separately.

This seems a way to help struggling churches, for example the church in Loftus, and to establish new ones. I don’t know of a church in Saltburn.


At this point New Life Billingham will also look to establishing a new satellite, be it a plant or a small church. This approach would enable growth, development of the smaller churches and a good support base to plant new churches, or new sites. One church, many sites.

And these Satellites can all be different. Stockton currently meet in a church building. But why not start another somewhere else that meet in a house to begin with? They get the big celebration meeting on the morning them operate from house to house on the night.

Or why not a youth Satellite – Main church on the morning, youth church on the night? With a view to becoming a youth church site. This could lead to generational relevant sites, location relevant sites, cultural relevant sites. Where all these needs are met, but we are still one church.


If every satellite looks towards becoming a site, this is a healthy, manageable form of church growth. Also, the whole church could be brought together a few times a year for big celebrations that would have great outreach potential.

The big problem with doing something big in churches is that it’s hard to get them to work together, but this would in essence be one church, with a senior oversight overlooking the leadership of all the sites. They would therefore be a more powerful force in reaching out.


So what does this look like – how can we build a church model around this? Well that will be the next post...

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