How do you grow a church when converts can’t stay?

There is a traditional church growth model that is brilliant in its simplicity. You plant a church into an area and send your people out on mission. As they take the gospel out, local people respond to Jesus Christ and come into the church. As these local people join the church, they are discipled within the church and go out to reach others. All the while, the church leaders are training those coming in who grow up to maturity and become church leaders who, in turn, train up the next generation of converts. This model sees growth by local conversion, training within the church and new generations of disciples raised up for a sustainable, long-term gospel witness.

The above model works brilliantly in some areas, but it typically only works where there is an existing steady community of people or an incoming population likely to settle and remain in the area. It also only works well when converts are not ostracised, or endangered, as a result of their conversion.

In Oldham, this model for church growth simply does not work. In our area of Glodwick, our primary (but not exclusive) mission field is to Pakistani and Bangladeshi Muslims. With all the will in the world, we are not going to get local Muslim people converting to Christianity being able to settle and remain in the locality. It would not be safe for many of them to do so. Whatever fruit we may see from our work amongst such groups, though we will see growth for the kingdom, it will not generally lead to growth in the membership of our local church.

Another group to whom we have a significant mission is asylum seekers, particularly those from Iran. Again, however, though we do have some Iranian believers in membership we are conscious that they are not a steady and settled group. Those who are still awaiting asylum may be moved at any moment to another area. Those who have had their asylum granted must find housing that may not available for them locally. They are also in need of work which is not easy to come by in Oldham. Very often, though we see fruit among such people and some do come into church membership, long-term they are not a group that are likely to settle and remain in the area.

The question is how do you build a church when your converts, of necessity, cannot remain with you? A related question is how do you effectively church plant (which we would love to do when we are able) when those won for the kingdom cannot stay to be discipled locally and then sent to lead churches in nearby needy areas?

Given the number of Iranians within our congregation, we could theoretically find a Farsi-speaking minister and plant an Iranian church locally. As I point out here, this isn’t a great gospel strategy. It might look good on our CV (see, we planted a church!) but it will almost certainly be a church that can only reach Farsi-speakers. This means, at best, it will be a church that draws people from a wide geographical area based purely on language. It also means we are undercutting the gospel imperative to mirror the truth of the gospel in the makeup of our churches. We are institutionalising churches by ethnicity and language which the gospel actively encourages us not to do (cf. Gal 3:28; Col 3:11). Doing this segregates God’s people for purely pragmatic language reasons and ends up creating neither local church – being as they draw those of like language from a distance – nor church that mirrors the unity into which the gospel calls us.

We used to have a Congolese church meeting in our building later on a Sunday afternoon. This was precisely what we found occurring with them. They would draw a number of French-speaking Congolese people from a wide geographical area who had absolutely zero connection to the local community nor had any great desire to reach them. Coupled to this, given that they laid out their stall as a French-speaking Congolese church, they inevitably only reached French-speaking, black African people (largely only Congolese people). They couldn’t credibly have a mission to anybody else because it would be weird at best, and impossible at worst, for any ethnically and linguistically different person to engage.

It is for this reason we have chosen to actively translate as much of our service as we can into Farsi. This means the Farsi-speaking contingent are able to engage with the same sermon and service together as one church with everybody else. We do not have a church within a church nor one church with separate meetings. We are consciously one in Christ Jesus. We have one or two other smaller groups who speak other languages. We seek to include them as best we are able to encourage the church to reflect the unity of the gospel.

The problem we have, however, is that we cannot rely upon converts coming into the church, staying and ultimately leading because the vast majority of those who come to know the Lord through our church are in no position to stay local when they do. This means the church functions in a similar way to a mission post. The difficulty is that for a mission post to function, there needs to be a steady stream on people willing to commit to the mission from outside (if converts can’t remain and commit to mission from inside).

In some areas, this is less of a problem than others (though, no doubt, still a problem). In sought-after areas, or areas of high employment, or areas with a university, there will be a steady stream of outsiders coming into the area. A number students will likely stay in the area they studied, those moving in for work will often look for a church and those churches in affluent areas don’t have too much difficulty enticing people to settle down. In areas like Oldham, there is no university feeding us students, no major employers bringing workers into the town and being labelled ‘most deprived town in England’ makes settling down a hard sell. It is difficult for us to grow by conversion, given the problems associated with converts remaining local, yet no obvious way for us recruit believers from outside to help in the ripe mission God has granted us.

For us, it is only going to be by a move of God’s Spirit and a recapturing of the missionary-heart that drives us out of our comfort zones to serve people and place that are not like us that will permit the work to continue in places like Oldham. The answer to both of our questions is quite simple:

Q: how do you build a church when your converts, of necessity, cannot remain with you?
A: other churches must send workers to build the kingdom.

Q: how do you effectively church plant when those won for the kingdom cannot stay to be discipled locally?
A: other churches must send workers to support the existing mission of the church with a view to some of them being sent locally to plant churches.

Whilst the answer is profoundly simple, it is highly unlikely to happen. Churches are too guarded with their resources to send out so many unless it redounds to their good PR. People are unwilling to move to places like Oldham when they can serve in valuable work in areas that require considerably less sacrifice.

Oldham is a borough of some 220,000 people with very little gospel witness. The areas of the borough with sound churches are not well resourced. There are areas of the borough with no gospel witness at all. We would love to plant in these areas and we have a vision that we will plant when we are able. We may seek to do this in concert with others. But unless the existing gospel-centred churches are properly resourced with finances and workers, the current gospel work will fade away and the areas with no gospel witness will be that much less likely to get any.

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