Grace Church is 8 years old this week. Eight years ago a small group of people left Bessacarr Evangelical Church to start a new work, initially in Hatchell Wood, but for the last two years and a half years in the Hayfield part of Auckley. As is usual at times of anniversaries or birthdays we muse about where we are and where we dreamt we would be. Have our hopes and dreams been realised? If so why? If not, why not? Just as I think about those things one of the big questions that struck me was the question above.
In one sense Grace Church stopped being a plant when we launched in September 2007. Because we were a functioning church, with our own leadership, quickly we established our own ways of doing things more suited to the people we were trying to reach. That process has continued to happen, with our move to Hayfield we have tweaked things again as we seek to make Jesus known to what was and is primarily a disadvantaged community. A church plant in one sense ceases to be a plant the moment it begins functioning as a church, so on day one.
But as evangelicals we seem to have a curiously myopic slant on when a plant becomes a church. So often I hear it spoken of as being when a church becomes "independent". I'd love to know what that means and how those who advocate such an understanding, or even think it, square it with what the Bible says. As I read the letters to the churches in the New Testament I don't see "independent churches", I see interdependent churches. Churches where the wealthy support those in hard circumstances, where the rich give to enable gospel preaching among the poor, where churches blessed with those able to teach send and give away their BEST Bible teachers to other churches because they recognise they are building God's kingdom rather than their own kingdom.
I wonder if our preoccupation with independence means that we've lost some of that - interesting that we seem to value that as it has increasingly been valued in our society. Eight years in one of my convictions is that Grace Church has always felt 'fragile'. I've debated using that word because it seems negative, it feels like a badge of failure. Maybe there is a better word, but as yet I haven't found it. We've experienced times of growth and shrinkage. We've seen people come to faith and others drift away. We've faced, from my perspective far too many, pastoral crises. We've faced a financial crisis and by God's grace come through it. We've seemingly had too few leaders and then by God's grace seen new leaders emerge. We've had an assistant pastor and then with joy been able to send him on to pastor another church, with all the challenges that loss brings for us. But throughout the eight years whilst feeling in many senses established Grace Church has always felt fragile. Or maybe that is just my experience of it as the pastor, knowing what is going on, sometimes dealing with the fall out and maybe feeling the highs and lows more than others. Maybe it is just that I have found myself living on edge more, more aware of my responsibility and culpability, experiencing sleepless nights due to pastoral crisis, financial concerns, building issues, relational struggles, mistakes I have unintentionally made, and therefore more aware of my utter dependence on God.
What that has taught me eight years in is that no church should be an island and definitely no pastor can be. We as a church need others and we are grateful to God for the partnerships he has helped us foster, without them simply we wouldn't be here. As a pastor I am grateful for the partnerships I enjoy with both leaders within the congregation and a band of brothers without. I wonder if it's time to do away with that "independent" label when we think of churches whether they are plants or not, what would it look like if we developed co-dependent churches? What would the advantages be? How much more would we learn of the wonder of grace and our need of it as we partnered with others, sharing their sorrows and joys, being invested in the kingdom there rather than just seeing it and caring about it here?