17 April, 2024

A Bright Future Across the Pond: Restoration Churches in the U.K.

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by | 1 March, 2024 | 0 comments

By Martin Robinson and Mont Mitchell 

Some have claimed that Christian Churches and Churches of Christ are the first group of churches to grow up in America—as if they’re an entirely American creation. Well, there’s more to the story.  

Shared Understanding 

Churches with a broadly “Restorationist” ideal had arisen in various parts of Britain in the late 18th century. Though they varied in ideas and went by different names—Scotch Baptists, Haldane churches, Sandemanian churches—they shared a commitment to congregational autonomy, governance by elders and deacons, weekly Communion, and believers’ baptism. Some congregations could trace their origins to somewhere around the middle of the 18th century, meaning these churches significantly shaped the thinking of Alexander Campbell as he traveled from Northern Ireland and Scotland to join his father, Thomas, in the United States. 

These British pioneers of Restorationist thinking soon shaped the emergence of churches that called themselves Churches of Christ. The story of their emergence is complex but centered on three key factors: 

  • Individuals in these congregations were in personal contact with others who shared their views and aspirations. Such correspondence sometimes took place through face-to-face meetings, but more commonly through written letters.  
  • The writings of Alexander Campbell began circulating in Great Britain. 
  • One individual, James Wallis of Nottingham, began to publish a journal called Christian Messenger and Reformer in 1837. Much of the early content from it, and derivative publications, came from Alexander Campbell’s writings. 

 While these were not the only influences, they were the most important ones. 

Coming Together 

The various connections made through constant correspondence led to a suggestion that representatives from the various churches meet to discuss how they could work together. In part, they were influenced by news of a meeting in 1834 of representatives—or “messengers,” as they were called—from 13 congregations in Wellsburg, Virginia (now West Virginia).  

It was agreed to meet in Edinburgh’s South Bridge Hall on August 18, 1842. Messengers from 40 churches attended. Three additional churches sent updates (including statistics), and an additional 8 churches known to be sympathetic to the cause did not attend.  

At the close of the meeting, the goal was to raise funds to finance evangelists to spread word about the movement, and—by implication—plant new congregations. Churches of Christ in Great Britain and Ireland date their formal origins as a distinct movement from this very meeting. 

Within a few years, Alexander Campbell was invited to visit the United Kingdom to help consolidate and extend the new movement. Campbell arrived in Liverpool on May 29, 1847, to begin a speaking tour. One meeting in Nottingham drew 2,000 people, and other meetings were similarly successful. Campbell remained in Britain until October 1847. During his final month there, Campbell spoke at a second meeting of the churches in Chester at which he emphasized the point of the churches’ cooperative effort was to form a community of communities for the purpose of spreading the gospel. 

Growing Identity 

In these early attempts to begin a movement, it took some time to be clear about the exact beliefs of a disparate group of churches. The boundaries of the movement were not precise. But as the early generation of leaders passed the baton to the next, a clearer sense of identity emerged—along with a stronger growth strategy, featuring intentional church planting. Growth was rapid. By 1920, the churches numbered close to 200, with around 16,000 members.  

This growth led to confidence among the churches, and also a growing desire to know how they related to the rest of the Christian world. After World War I, the wider Christian community grew in its desire for all churches to work together for the sake of mission, which was music to the ears of the Churches of Christ who had long advocated unity for the sake of mission. 

Mission Drift and Decline 

Sadly, over time, the emphasis on “unity for the sake of mission” became only a concern forunity,” and the “mission” theme was significantly downplayed. That development was also mirrored by an increasingly “liberal” approach to theology, such that evangelism and mission were no longer the priorities. It seemed as if a social gospel had replaced a gospel of salvation. The result was a catastrophic decline in membership, accompanied by the closure of many churches. This mirrored what was happening in many mainstream denominations in the U.K. Membership across mainline Protestant churches was falling, and in many places, church buildings were being closed and sold to become warehouses, community centers, housing projects, restaurants, nightclubs, and even mosques and temples. 

By the late 1970s, Churches of Christ had shrunk from 200 churches with 16,000 members in 1920 to 75 churches with 3,500 members—and many of those 75 churches were on the brink of closure.  

National leadership of the Churches of Christ faced a crisis. They had been exploring union with the United Reformed Church (URC) for many years, and while the results of those negotiations were not very positive, leadership felt they had no choice but to put the proposal for union to the entire body. Most churches were in favor, but not a sufficient majority to allow the union to go ahead. The consequence was division over unity.  

The majority of churches (42) joined the United Reformed Church under the terms previously negotiated, while 9 churches remained independent, joined other denominations, or simply closed immediately. The remaining 24 congregations voted to continue as Churches of Christ. The combined membership of these churches was around 650, so the average size of the churches was 25 to 30, many of whom were older people. And almost all of them were without a minister to lead them. The prospects for growth did not look promising. 

A New Beginning 

As had happened in the origins of Churches of Christ, a meeting was called in September 1979 to consider how the continuing congregations might work together. By December 1979, a charity called the Fellowship of Churches of Christ (FCC) was registered. Contact was made with key leaders from the Christian Churches in the U.S., and a group of senior ministers from larger churches in America came together to form the British American Fellowship Committee (BAFC). The BAFC recruited fully supported missionaries to move overseas to strengthen the British churches. They also raised funds and recruited staff to begin Springdale College, a school for educating and training church leaders. The new college began its work in 1980.  

The key question at this time was this: Is it possible to bring renewal to a group of churches that has been in decline for almost half a century? The problems were immense. There were no assets available for the FCC from the previous organization. The majority of membership of most of the churches was either of retirement age or close to it. There were very few younger leaders, and there were no models available that might point to a successful strategy for renewal. 

In light of these problems, it was determined the future must center on both renewing existing congregations and planting new ones. This became the focus of Springdale College, and active recruitment of workers from overseas (primarily the U.S.) to support existing congregations began. 

In the early 1980s, British leaders across the denominations realized that Christianity in the United Kingdom was in severe decline and that no one had immediate answers to the problem. They could see that Christendom (i.e., the presence and impact of Christians and the church) in the U.K. was broken but still held out hope that it could somehow be fixed. 

Lessons Learned 

It was not until the 1990s that leaders began to realize Christendom could not be fixed—that indeed it had ended. The West was no longer the base for mission but was itself a mission field. Missionaries were now arriving in Europe from many other parts of the world. This changing perspective began to influence the strategy of FCC, and by the beginning of the 20th century, several lessons were becoming clear: 

  • FCC did not understand church planting. Efforts had focused mostly on replicating models that had already failed. 
  • The training systems in use at the college were not effective and needed to be reimagined. 
  • The nature of missional work in Europe had become far more difficult than first realized. 
  • Strategies to renew existing churches were unrealistic and had often failed. For some churches, renewal simply was not possible. These churches often had leaders who kept them alive but also prevented them from growing. 

By 2006, FCC had adopted a new church-planting strategy that took account of these lessons. For a time, FCC ceased to invest resources in older churches that could not be changed, and Springdale College completely changed its educational and training operations. A dispersed campus model was embraced, with a different curriculum and different teachers that flowed out of a partnership with Together in Mission, a church-planting mission organization. The new face of Springdale—eventually renamed ForMission College—produced hundreds of students from many denominations. Around half of the students were from other parts of the world but were living in the U.K. permanently, committed to regional work. New kinds of churches were emerging.  

Better Results 

These changes led to a dramatic change in the shape of FCC. Although, in theory, FCC had always been committed to becoming an intercultural group of churches, the reality on the ground was rather limited. After 2010, the shift toward an intercultural expression of FCC was noticeable. Today there are between 65 and 70 congregations which are either already part of FCC or are in the process of joining. Given that there were 24 churches in 1980, there has nearly been a tripling of FCC over the last 40 years. But the actual story is more significant than that. During that time, 14 congregations from the original 24 have closed; meaning that if nothing had been done, there would be just 10 congregations left in the U.K. In reality, more than 50 congregations have been added, which represents a quadrupling of the overall number.  

Next Steps for Kingdom Growth 

The impact of all this remains to be seen, but a new leadership team and focus brings forth a promising and hopeful future. As American churches begin to partner anew with FCC in this new ministry season, there is hope for continued, invigorating mission impact. Without a doubt, new innovative approaches to church ministry and church planting will be implemented to promote cross-cultural and multiethnic expressions of the Restoration Movement in the United Kingdom. Working together with a shared vision as the churches have done in the past, there is reason to believe God is with the movement in the U.K. and nothing will ultimately hinder his church from impacting society.  

Martin Robinson has been a national leader in the Fellowship of Churches of Christ since 1980 and has led FCC as their national moderator since 2002. He plans to retire this March.  

Mont Mitchell serves as lead pastor of Westbrook Christian Church (a multiethnic, multicongregational church) in Bolingbrook, Illinois. Mont is partnering with FCC as the new international director of Churches of Christ U.K. as well as being the directional leader of the congregations in the United States.  

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