Whatever happened to the local church? A response to John Benton

I hope I can cheer John Benton up a little here. In his latest Evangelicals Now column he asks what has happened to the local church. The answer is that is is alive and kicking. That’s because Jesus is Lord of his church.

To be fair, we’ve seen our share of the big city centre “resource churches.” Where I think the “resource” bit means that they are set up to take resources away from other churches in the city. Then we have the question about how we get our church planting movements to really burst through the boundaries of the more university and graduate areas. However things are happening on that score and I want to be clear that I don’t decry those churches. Those bits of our cities need Gospel witnesses and those churches are local churches, just in areas dominated by student populations reflecting an explosion in Higher Education since any pastor over 40 was at University.

Here are some encouragements from one local perspective. For ten years I had the privilege of pastoring a local church in the community within an inner city type context. It was multi-cultural with a wide variety of ethnic backgrounds attending, all ages from 0-99 and cutting across class boundaries with junior doctors, consultants chefs, care workers, lorry drivers, factory workers, asylum seekers and the long term unemployed rubbing shoulders (quite literature at times in a packed small building pre COVID-19).   

Alongside that I was involved with 2020 Birmingham and it has been great to see examples of churches working together for the good of the city to plant new churches.  As I said, the challenge has been to plant churches away from the student/graduate zone but in 10 years, we saw churches like Oikos planted in Erdington by Jez Dearing and the revitalisation of Hellier Chapel (now Crossway Church) in Northfield. 

From Bearwood Chapel we were able to plant a new multi-cultural church using Spanish as its main language. Nueva Vida Con Cristo is very much a local church with a significant Spanish speaking community living in close distance to their pre lockdown meeting place.  We also were delighted to be able to encourage Tom Martin and Dave Baldwin to move into the area to replant West Smethwick Congregational Church as another example of a local church reaching a diverse multi-cultural area. For the past 5 years I hosted an urban planting hub. All of those involved were planting local churches reaching a neighbourhood.

COVID has not ended that. A church may have an online presence but you still need that local presence and connection too for things to make sense.  You can chat on zoom but when someone neds some support you still need to be able to get to their front door.  I know of one multi-site church that transitioned during lockdown into 3 local churches with a concern for their communities.

I would also argue that we should not be legalistic about the local church being the one that all its members can walk to. Many can but not all will be able to. Sometimes someone joins a church because a colleague witnessed to them at work. Sometimes in our highly mobile society, the only bit of certainty and solidity for a family constantly being moved around the city from short term rent to short term rent is their church family.

This is not to say that things are perfect or we are there yet. We have got a long way to go if we are to see the Gospel penetrating our less reached inner cities and council estates. We need Gospel work too in the less fashionable areas not just the suburbs plus a few high profile churches in hard places but in the “ordinary” bits of our cities which are neither wealthy nor likely to pull the heart strings.

 Yet let’s not lose sight of what is going on that is good and sink into despair. Christ is Lord of his church and he is building it.  There are lots of positive examples of local, faithful witness and pastors like John who were faithful godly examples to younger pastors have played their part in encouraging us in that. I hope in return we can encourage him.

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