An interview with FIEC National Director, John Stevens.
GD: Hello, John Stevens and welcome to Exiled Preacher. Please tell us a little about yourself.
Hi Guy and thanks for in inviting me to contribute to Exiled Preacher. I became a Christian 24 years ago while I was a law student at Cambridge University. I am married to Ursula and we have four children aged between 10 and 5, including twin girls. We have lived in Market Harborough for just over two years, and moved there when I took up my role as National Director of the FIEC. Before that I was one of the founding Pastors of City Evangelical Church Birmingham, which we planted in 1999, and also the Course Director of the Midlands Ministry Training Course. Birmingham is my home city and I have lived there for most of my life. Prior to becoming a Pastor I taught law in universities for 16 years, including serving 3 years as the Deputy Head of the Law Faculty at the University of Birmingham.
GD: This year marks the 90th anniversary of the FIEC. What is the distinctive role of the Fellowship in the UK Evangelical scene?
The vision of the FIEC exactly the same today as it was when we were founded in 1922, namely to serve the cause of the gospel in our nation by supporting independent churches. Whilst we work in partnership with other confessional evangelicals who share our core convictions, our distinctive contribution is our support for churches with an independent ecclesiology. We believe that this ecclesiology best reflects the biblical teaching on the nature of the church, provides the best opportunity for unencumbered and uncompromised gospel ministry and serves as the best defence against the institutional creep of liberalism and Catholicism, which undermine the gospel. The history of the 20th century, with the decline and deviation from biblical truth of most of the mainstream UK denominations, bears out this conviction. The FIEC is not a controlling denomination, as we have no control at all over the actions of the local churches that are affiliated to us, and they are free to leave at any time. We are united around core gospel doctrines and, within these boundaries, are a diverse family of churches. Our churches cover a wider social spectrum than conservative evangelical Anglicanism, and we are a truly national movement with churches throughout the UK.
GD: What does being FIEC National Director involve?
My main responsibility is to provide visionary leadership for our family of churches as a whole, which means that I make sure that our central activities are all serving the cause of the gospel by strengthening and supporting our churches. I oversee my team of Directors (Pastoral, Training, Mission, Practical Services, Administration) and represent FIEC at a national level. I spend a great deal of time travelling to preach at our churches (this week I have been in Bournemouth, Southampton, Liverpool, Worcester, Leeds and Bristol!) and meeting other Christian leaders from the wider evangelical constituency. However I do not want to be an administrator or a bureaucrat. I want to lead the FIEC out of my primary gift of preaching and teaching the Bible, and so spend as much time as I can studying, preparing, praying and writing. Guarding this time is hard. I also serve as one of the Pastors of Christchurch Market Harborough, which is a small local church that was planted just over 18 months ago, as I want to make sure that I keep my feet firmly on the ground of local church ministry, with all the joys, sorrows and frustrations this entails.
GD: What is your vision for the future of the FIEC?
The vision of the FIEC is not just my vision, but the vision developed in conjunction with the other Directors, Trust Board and in consultation with the churches. We long for FIEC to be an effective means of advancing the gospel in the UK by ensuring that there is a thriving gospel church in every community, and where this is necessary an independent church in every community. We see ourselves as a mission agency serving the UK. Many independent churches have a great vision and commitment to their local area, and a passionate support for world mission, but many lack a wider vision for their own country. This is perhaps because, in the past, they did not view the UK as a need mission field, but it now clearly is. FIEC seeks to fulfil this “missing middle”. We seek to fulfil this vision by supporting and sustaining the churches that are already part of the FIEC, identifying and training the gifted leaders that will be needed by our churches in the future, facilitating and co-ordinating church planting initiatives in strategic places and where there is no gospel work, and lifting the burden of complying with the ever demanding regulatory framework affecting churches.
It is worth remembering that the central FIEC is still relatively small scale. The total annual budget of the FIEC is still less than that of the single largest of our 509 churches. We hope to become the natural home for all gospel people who share a commitment to our conservative evangelical convictions and our ecclesiology. We hope that many existing independent churches will consider joining the FIEC because they share our gospel vision and want to help to shape and support a vibrant gospel movement. If the institutional pressure on the conservative evangelical Anglicans, who share so much in common with us, causes them to have to leave the Church of England then I would love them to see the FIEC as a natural and welcoming home. I pray that in 20 years’ time there will be thousands, if not millions, of people who have been born again through the faithful gospel witness of FIEC churches, and that there would be no community without a vibrant and growing gospel church. This is not a vision we can accomplish alone, but we can make a significant contribution to the reevangelisation of our nation.
GD: You run a blog called ‘Dissenting Opinion’. What made you enter the world of blogging?
I had long resisted starting a blog. There were several reasons for this. First I am something of a technophobe and wondered whether I would be able to cope! I didn’t really know how to start and what would be involved. This changed when I employed a Digital Strategist at the FIEC to help develop our communications, and he was able to set everything up for me and show me how to use it. Second I wondered whether had anything useful to say that merited staring a blog. The world of blogging seems to be fiercely competitive and I was not sure that I had a contribution to make. However I realised that blogs were now a major means of communicating vision and information, especially with a younger generation, so that blogging had to be a vital part of my role as FIEC Director. I have sought to use my blog to explain the vision and progress of FIEC, to profile the ministry of our churches around the country, to share some of my theological thinking and ideas, and to comment on current affairs and contemporary culture from a Christian perspective. Having started to blog I have enjoyed the opportunity it gives to share thoughts and ideas more widely. It is something of a release for all the ideas that don’t make it into week-by-week expository preaching!
My blog is not an official FIEC blog, and not everything I say is FIEC policy. There is great diversity of theological view within the FIEC over many issues, and my views are certainly not the required views of all FIEC pastors and churches. I hope to stimulate debate and dialogue and to have my own thinking clarified. I have been astonished by the response to my blog and the world-wide readership it has attracted. In the first nine months I have had some 160,000 page views, though I have no idea whether this is below or above average. It does mean that I have probably spoken to more people via my blog over a few months than I have over my entire preaching ministry in churches over the last 20 years!
GD: What are the strengths and weaknesses of blogging as a medium for discussion of theology and church life?
The great strength of blogs is that they give the opportunity for relatively immediate comment, for thinking aloud, and for engagement with others rather than mere statement of opinion. However the weakness of blogs is that they can be superficial, self-serving, and unnecessarily polemical. I have tended to ignore all advice and write longer blog pots rather than short snippets. This is partly just the way that I think, but also because I want to give developed and reasoned arguments supporting my ideas. I have tried to avoid entering into polemical slanging matches with others, and have sought to be as fair as I can be in any criticism of others I might make. I generally take quite a time to write a blog post, especially if it is on a controversial area, and will read it through multiple times until I am happy with both the content and the tone of what I am saying. I am very conscious that once something has been published it cannot be unpublished, and it is easy to speak unwisely and unthoughtfully. Blogs can have the dangerous effect of developing unhelpful personal followings, and exacerbate the problem of celebrity leaders. I always write my own blog posts and tweets and would be very uncomfortable with the idea of having anyone else writing for me. I think that is a matter of integrity. There is also a pressure in maintaining the momentum of a blog and producing regular good-quality posts, and sometimes I feel this pressure on top of everything else that I have to do.
GD: Which blogs do you most enjoy reading and why?
I read, or more often skim, a range of blogs which stimulate my thinking and give me an insight into what is happening across a broad spectrum of evangelicalism. On a regular basis I keep up with (in no particular order):
Justin Taylor (The Gospel Coalition)
and of course Exiled Preacher
There are a range of other blogs that I dip into from time to time. I follow a number of other leaders on Twitter and this enables me to dip into their blogs.
GD: What do you do to relax?
I am not sure that I am very good at relaxing! I love to read, so my ideal is to settle down with a good book. I love novels and thrillers with a plot that draws me in. I swim regularly and enjoy listening to a wide range of music. I enjoy watching good quality drama (we are currently working our way through the West Wing and have nearly finished series 5) and films.
GD: Which character from post-New Testament church history would you most like to meet and what would you say to him/her?
I look forward to meeting John Calvin and asking him why he retained such a strong element of sacramentalism in his understanding of the Lord’s Supper, and whether he was really convinced by his arguments in favour of infant baptism!
GD: The FIEC has a statement on Gospel Unity setting out the extents and limits of fellowship for member churches. Why is membership of the FIEC incompatible with belonging to Churches Together?
This is a very difficult issue for many because it seems harsh and judgemental to refuse to join together with others who claim the name of Christ, especially where some who belong to CT are evangelicals. However the very essence of CT is to regard people as brothers and sisters in Christ irrespective of whether or not they stand by the gospel fundamentals identified in the reformation and reflected in the FIEC Statement of Faith. CT was the successor body to the British Council of Churches, which sought structural unity between the denominations, but which did not include the Roman Catholic Church. CT includes and embraces the Roman Catholic church as legitimate brothers in Christ, as well as liberal protestants who reject the authority of the Scriptures, the cross as a propitiatory sacrifice for sins, justification by faith alone in Christ, the uniqueness of Christ as the only Saviour, and the biblical teaching which regards sexual relationships as only pleasing to God in the context of heterosexual marriage. As a family of churches we believe that it would undermine the gospel and imperil our witness to the unique saving truth of the Lord Jesus if we were to join together in mission and worship with those who deny gospel fundamentals. In our view formal membership of CT requires churches to agree with the fundamental ethos of CT, which is that doctrine is not important and that false teaching that leads people to eternal judgement need not be rejected and disciplined.
At the same time we want to enjoy, as far as is possible, good relationships with local churches. We do not practice secondary separation, so FIEC churches work together with other evangelical churches even if they belong to CT, but not under a CT auspice. We are prepared to join together other churches that would not stand with us doctrinally to engage in co-belligerence, social action and to defend our fundamental religious liberties, provided that to do so would not compromise the gospel.
GD: How do you see the relationship between the FIEC and Evangelical Anglicans?
The relationship between many FIEC churches and conservative evangelical Anglicans (which is different to Anglican evangelicals more widely) are better than they have been since 1966, because we have realised that we have so much in common. Many conservative evangelical Anglicans operate an essentially independent ecclesiology, and they regard the local church, rather than the denominational structure, as central. The emergence of the regional gospel partnerships in many areas of the country has enabled Anglicans and Free Churches to work together in training and mission. Many of the historic divisions between conservative evangelical Anglicans and the free church are, sadly, rooted in issues of class and culture rather than doctrine and ministry, resulting in misunderstanding and suspicion. Snobbery and inverted snobbery, and feelings of superiority and inferiority, are rife, damaging and inconsistent with the gospel.
Free church evangelicals need to understand that their Anglican brothers have remained in the Church of England out of a genuine conviction that they represent the historic confessional reformed faith of the church, and because they believe that they enjoy great gospel opportunities as a result. Whilst we may not agree with these convictions, we need to make sure that we respect the integrity with which they are held and do not assume that there is a lack of integrity motivated by purely pragmatic considerations. Whereas a previous generation of Anglican evangelicals saw an opportunity to win over the church as a whole, today they seem to be a beleaguered minority as a result of the introduction of women’s ordination, the prospect of women bishops and the issue of homosexuality. There are many “independent” Anglican churches that are being planted outside of official diocesan structures, and many of these are almost identical in practice to an FIEC church. The future of conservative evangelicals within the Church of England seems to me to be very uncertain, and it is vital that we support and encourage our brothers, and ensure that the FIEC would be welcoming home if there were to find it no longer possible, or beneficial for the gospel, to remain.
GD: Since the Cheltenham Bible Festival in 2007 the FIEC has not had a conference for its churches. Are there any plans to resurrect an annual FIEC event?
There has been a huge amount of feedback over the last few years lamenting the loss of the FIEC annual event. There is no prospect of resurrecting an event on the model of the old Caister or Pwhwlli conferences, both because it would be difficult to find a suitable venue during the Easter school holidays, and also because we would not wish to compete with New Word Alive, which is serving the purpose of providing a bible-centred holiday week at that time and did not exist when the FIEC conference was at its height. However we are looking into the possibility of a smaller scale event of some kind for the FIEC constituency, perhaps at the very end of the summer or during the autumn. I have established a feasibility study and we are investigating a number of possible venue options for 2015. Watch this space!
GD: The FIEC churches in our area (Wiltshire/Bath/Somerset) have been organised into small clusters of congregations within the wider group. This has facilitated deeper fellowship within the clusters and has made it simpler for churches to work together in mission. Do you think that clustering might be a way forward for other FIEC areas?
I think that this is absolutely essential if FIEC is to be meaningful for churches at a local level. I would love to see this happening all over the country. However it is not something that we can organise or drive centrally. We can only encourage and envision. Clusters only come together and work well if there are a number of local church leaders who have a vision for FIEC in the area, and who are prepared to give the time and energy to making them work. I am devoting a great deal of time this autumn to 24 or so 90th Anniversary celebrations around the country. I will be very pleased if one result of this is that local churches start to meet together more frequently for join services to encourage each other. In the past this was common on a Saturday, but with modern life that no longer works well. It requires churches to decide to hold a joint Sunday evening service, or to cancel their mid-week meetings in favour of something collective, if more than a handful of congregation members are to come.
GD: How might we ensure that pastors continue to develop in theological depth and spiritual passion?
This is a vitally important issue and one that requires a multifaceted answer. Nothing can take away from the responsibility of individual Pastors to make their spiritual growth and development a personal priority. They need to make sure that they take time for prayer, preparation, reading and on-going study. They need to exercise self-discipline in this regard and to learn to say “no” to good things in order to make sure that they have time for the essential. Churches have a key role to play in ensuring that they allow their pastors to have time for personal development and maintaining spiritual passion. The pastor cannot always be instantly available to all the needs of the congregation. Churches need to give their pastors time for refreshment, personal retreats, to attend helpful conferences, perhaps to undertake a part-time course of some kind. Churches might perhaps think of giving their pastors financial help to purchase books and attend conferences that will be of help. Then there is the vital role of fellowship and support between pastors, encouraging and spurring one another on. This may be through regular fraternals, preaching groups, or informal meetings. It is good if pastors can find one or two others to pray with regularly on a more personal basis. The FIEC cannot provide and organise this for every pastor, but we can try to ensure that every FIEC pastor has a “link-pastor” who will proactively care for them and encourage them, and our new National Support Team has been brought together by Richard Underwood (our Pastoral Director) to move this forwards. The FIEC Leaders Conference and the new Hub Conference for those training for ministry, also seek to develop a lasting network of relationships between our pastors, bringing them together as a “band of brothers” serving the Lord.
One of the encouragements of the FIEC at the moment is the number of men who are undertaking serious theological study in preparation for ministry. In previous generations there was a tradition of rejecting the need for formal theological training within FIEC, in part because of the lack of solid conservative evangelical seminaries in the UK, but this has changed over the last 20 years. The next generation of pastors, especially for larger and medium sized churches are likely to be better trained and have a deeper theological depth as they commence there ministry than was the case in the past. The danger is that this might result in pride, and failing to keep growing, or of a theological depth that it not accompanied by a spiritual passion for Christ, people and the lost.
GD: Name your top three songs or pieces of music.
I hate these kinds of questions because I have a broad and eclectic taste in music and my top choices will constantly change. My all-time favourite hymn is How firm a foundation (which was sung at our wedding). My current favourite modern hymn is By faith we see the hand of God. In classic music probably Elgar’s Cello Concerto. Popular music impossible to pick a single favourite song but I have sad liking for the 80s! Current favourite album is Leonard Cohen Old Ideas, but am looking forward to listening to Bob Dylan Tempest.
GD: What is the most helpful theological book that you have read in the last twelve months, and why?
The most helpful book I have read is Gilbert & DeYoung, What is the Mission of the Church? because it puts its finger on a key issue confronting evangelicals today, namely the extent to which social action and cultural transformation are the mission and purpose of the church. It seems to me that the social gospel is sneaking back into evangelicalism by the back door and that the seeds of the next liberalism are already being sown amongst the next generation of evangelicals because of a lack of clarity about the task of the church to call people to repentance and faith and to wait for the eschatological kingdom that will come only with the return of Jesus.
GD: What is the biggest problem facing Evangelicalism in the UK, and how might we best respond to it?
There are many big problems facing UK evangelicalism, including doctrinal drift and incipient liberalism, division and a lack of coherence in our response to the secular situation in which we find ourselves, a demographic time bomb facing the churches as congregations age (the next generation won’t be religious simply because they turn 60!), the difficulty of sustaining gospel witness in many rural areas of the country, the social segregation and cultural divide between the middle classes and the benefit dependent. However I suspect that the greatest problem is the lack of confidence in the gospel as the power of God for salvation, the discouragement of seeing relatively little fruit from faithful and prayerful ministry, and the danger of being ashamed of Christ in a culture which rejects and despises him and those who confess him as Lord.
GD: Well, thanks for dropping by for this conversation, John. Hopefully see you at our local FIEC 90 bash in Chippenham on 22nd November.