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Turning round a dying church

An interview with John James of Crossway Church (FIEC) Northfield, Birmingham


Figure Image
John and Sarah James | photo: JEB

John James and his wife Sarah came to a church in steep decline on the outskirts of Birmingham seven years ago.

But now, under God, the church is thriving. So what happened?

en: The church revitalisation was the first project of 20/20. Tell us about 20/20.
20/20 is a bunch of churches which share the same burden – to reach lost people in Birmingham through church planting. We recognise that the city is growing.

We only exist for Birmingham believing we can do more together than we could on our own. The initial vision was to plant or revitalise 20 churches by 2020.

en: How did you get called to the church that is now Crossway?
It was originally called Hellier Chapel and we knew it well. My wife grew up in Birmingham and attended the church as a little girl. I had preached there a few times. We then trained at Oak Hill and we had a real heart for church planting and for Birmingham. It was a context that we loved, but we were open to absolutely anything at all. Recognising the possibility with this church was the catalyst really and we began a conversation.

en: What was the church like when you went there and what needed changing?
It had about 15 active members, though there was no formal membership. The one elder was in his 70s. The church was extremely welcoming, they loved the Lord Jesus, they loved the preaching of the Word, but had really lost connection with the community – a white working-class council estate. They were tired and struggling to know what to do.

So as we began to talk together it was clear there was a lot of change required. I came with a little core team of about eight and before coming we talked a lot with the church about the nature of the change that needed to take place.

On coming, the leadership structure changed. We reintroduced eldership. They had never had a pastor before. There was a change from frequent visiting preachers to much more in-house ministry, with consecutive expository Bible preaching, though some topical preaching. We introduced a formal membership. We changed something of the ‘culture’ on a Sunday morning to make it more accessible to non-Christians and also to Christians who might not have been from the original tradition of the chapel. We formally adopted a statement of faith and with that a church constitution.

That really put in place the mechanisms by which we could make decisions as a church as a whole, as we progressed.

en: After seven years the church is now up to 80 or 90 on a Sunday morning. Are there any memorable milestones which stand out along the way?
The first 18 months were quite difficult. It was a time of sacrifice for those who had been there a long time, saying goodbye to familiar things. But the second Christmas was a turning point. The church was packed. There was a sense that we had reconnected with the local community. This united us in a deeper way and the atmosphere of the church changed. It brought confidence – a sense that we were in the right place doing the right thing. It also indicated that the area had accepted us.

We then had a period of about two years in which we were running a number of Christianity Explored courses. During that period we baptised about 18 people, some from the fringes of the church and some from the local area. It was tremendously encouraging.

Then, about five years in, we made the decision to change the name of the church to Crossway. It was a recognition that we were together and we were something new.

Later we were able to appoint an assistant pastor and a part-time women’s worker. That meant we could address needs we had been struggling to address. It also meant sacrifice, because we did not know where the money was coming from. It is not a rich church, but members were obviously showing they were committed enough to the work to really give.

en: Some Christians would say that they would rather be involved in a church plant from scratch than get involved in revitalising a dying church. What would you say to them?
Firstly, I would say that we do need church plants. I’m not saying this is better. But it has some unique benefits. One is that you have a multi-generational church from the beginning. It is tremendous to have grandpas and grandmas around. It really helps with the pastoral needs we have because there are older experienced people there.

Another thing is that we were in the community and the church has a history. The church had been there for 75 years. So some of the people on the estate would have been to Sunday school at the chapel, for example – so there are ready-made connections. We were not starting in a vacuum. We have really seen bridges rebuilt.

The church has assets. It has a building. It has a fixed location in the heart of the community – a council estate of around 3,000 homes. If you start as a fledgling church plant in a local school you don’t necessarily have that in the same kind of way. The building is very useful for our youth work and kids work.

en: What would you say to a dying church that needs to consider revitalisation?
I think I would say that it is costly. Revitalisation is basically about welcoming change – necessary change, not arbitrary change. It is important to be willing to count the cost of that.

We knew that much had to change before we came, but as we went along we found there were many other things that needed to change which we hadn’t recognised before.

And among the church family that welcomed us in there was just a humility and readiness to accept different things and lose some familiar things – without of course losing the gospel – which is really to be honoured.

It is far more costly to be the church welcoming you in than to be the group coming in who get to set the agenda for change to some degree. But my message is that it’s worth it. It has been wonderful to see a gospel ministry begin again in this context. It was possible, under God, because a church was willing to allow the revitalisation process to take place instead of just letting the church run down. And for some of the older folks that has been very exciting. For them to see 30 kids on a Sunday morning and baptisms and the church grow again has been wonderful. God has used their willingness to allow change for his glory.

en: What can readers be praying about for Crossway and for 20/20?
Thank you. In terms of Crossway, pray that we will learn to really disciple new Christians from the estate who often have all kinds of problems in their lives. That’s an ongoing struggle for us. There are lots of social needs. We are also at capacity now with respect to our building. We as a church family need to be sure of the way forward on that. It might seem like a nice problem to have, but it is still a problem. And I won’t go into it, but we see a need for starting a work among Korean people in the area.

In terms of 20/20 Birmingham, as I said, the original vision was for 20 churches by the year 2020. In God’s goodness there are already 16 and another one is about to launch in the Autumn. So we are at the point where we are beginning to enlarge the vision and to see another 30 churches planted in Birmingham by 2030 – 50 altogether. And more than that we would like to see these new churches with planting and revitalisation of other churches in their DNA. Only God can do this so we need your prayers. We are trying to organise ourselves, skill up and work out how to do that and to do it well.

John James is the author of a short book on the subject of revitalisation. Renewal – Church Revitalisation Along the Way of the Cross, published by 10ofThose