Leading man – an interview with John Stevens, Director of FIEC

Leading a group of churches carries enormous responsibilities in the current spiritual climate. John Stevens, recently appointed Director of FIEC, spoke to EN in 2011 about his work.

EN: Please explain your new role at FIEC.

JS: On September 1 2010, I started in my new post as Director of the Fellowship of Independent Evangelical Churches (FIEC). According to my job description, I am responsible ‘for providing visionary leadership to and the smooth running of the Fellowship’ so that it can accomplish the goals and objectives determined by the new Trust Board after consultation with the churches.

I am expected to act as a figurehead for the FIEC in the eyes of the churches and the wider evangelical world, and to cultivate relationships with other evangelical groups. I am meant to visit and encourage as many churches in the Fellowship as possible, and develop a wider ministry of preaching and writing. I also have executive responsibility for the operations of the central FIEC organisation, including the FIEC office, and ensure that we have the staffing and infrastructure necessary to achieve our goals.

EN: What changes have you had to make and why?

JS: My new role is the culmination of a long restructuring process undertaken to ensure that the FIEC is ‘fit for purpose’.

The FIEC exists to serve and support its churches, and there was a danger that an overly bureaucratic and slow decision-making process was making it difficult to do this well. A revolving three-year Presidency and administrative General Secretary were not the best ways of implementing a long-term strategic vision for the Fellowship.

The new structure introduces a more streamlined Trust Board to oversee policy and governance, and an empowered Director to deliver the vision of the Fellowship. As I have only been in the job for a few months, I am only just beginning to get to grips with things.

Completing the team

The most important steps I have taken are the appointment of additional directors to help deliver our vision. I am delighted that Richard Underwood has become Director for Pastoral Care, with responsibility for organising the care of pastors and churches, and that Trevor Archer, who is currently Senior Pastor at Chessington, joined us in January as Director of Training, with particular responsibility for helping us to raise up men for missional leadership, and embedding a culture of training among us. I hope in the near future to be able to complete my team with the addition of a Director of Outreach. Many aspects of the infrastructure of the FIEC are in need of improvement, and we are working to replace the IT system, database (and especially the web site) and our communication with our churches. I am looking for significant improvement in these areas in the next year.

EN: What is your vision for the future of FIEC?

JS: The ultimate vision of the FIEC is nothing less than to see the nation won for Christ.

The FIEC is essentially a mission agency promoting local church ministry. We have always been a grouping of gospel churches, identified by our statement of faith and commitment to the authority of the Bible. The way we pursue our vision is by supporting our affiliated churches. Our core conviction is that God works through local congregations, and so our aim is to equip and encourage the churches.

FIEC was founded in 1922 to enable independent churches to reap some of the benefits enjoyed by churches in the denominations, and to facilitate co-operation between churches to ameliorate some of the weaknesses of independency. In my view, a pattern of autonomous and self-governing local churches in partnership with each other is closest to a truly biblical ecclesiology.

FIEC has always supported churches with practical and legal advice, and we want to continue to do this, and do it even better. Today churches are increasingly subject to legal regulation, and it is extremely helpful that individual churches do not have to find out the information about this for themselves, but can trust us to do the work for them. However, we want to provide much more than this practical support. The goal of the restructuring is that we will be able to provide ministry support and inspiration to our churches that will equip them to meet the challenges of proclaiming Christ boldly and effectively in our contemporary society. We also want to develop an effective local FIEC network that will provide support and encouragement between FIEC churches across the country.

Independent thinking

I am passionately committed to the role of independent churches. Historically, independent churches have played an immense role in evangelising the nation, especially in the cities and among the less well off. While many of us have benefited greatly from the ministry of conservative evangelical Anglicans, the increasing problems within the Anglican communion, its deviation from biblical norms and the small size of the conservative evangelical Anglican constituency compared to the scale of the gospel need in the nation, mean that there is a vital, if not central, place for faithful and contemporary independency.

One of the goals of FIEC is thus to promote the gospel by developing a confidence in independency and to invest in the future of independency. I would love there to be a thriving and faithful gospel church in every community in the country. To achieve this there will need to be very many more independent churches than there are at present.

EN: Tell us how you see evangelicalism currently in the UK.

JS: In many ways the picture is mixed. Many churches are small and struggling, and finding it hard to come to terms with life in a secular society that has rejected the gospel and is hostile to the Christian faith. On the other hand, where the Bible is taken seriously and the gospel proclaimed in a way that addresses contemporary people, we are seeing conversions and churches are growing. It has been tremendously encouraging to me to visit FIEC churches over the past year and meet many people who have become Christians in the last five years. It was also very encouraging at the recent FIEC Leaders Conference to meet a good number of younger men who are in ministry, and to know of others in training.

However, in practice, conservative evangelicalism has been most effective in student settings and among the educated middle classes, and we desperately need to reach out more widely. There are encouraging signs that a younger generation will extend the reach of the gospel into different communities through church planting.

Above all we need to grasp that we are living in a mission context, where the vast majority of people are unbelievers, and we need to shape our church life, training and ministry to meet this mission situation. This is really nothing less than a return to the biblical pattern for the church, which has often been lost in the comfort of Western Christendom. We need to embrace the fact that following Jesus is not the path to respectability in the eyes of the world, but the path of shame and rejection. We are called to carry our cross and not to be ashamed of the gospel. Our goal is to love and proclaim Christ, not to be liked or appreciated. In the past we have put far too much effort into fighting pointless and losing battles against the forces of secularism, when what we need to be doing is finding ways of proclaiming the unchanging gospel to people who seem utterly disconnected from it.

Evangelical unity
EN: What can be done to best foster evangelical unity?

JS: One of the great blessings of the last few years has been the growth of true gospel co-operation between Anglicans and Independents through the Gospel Partnerships. I have seen this first hand through my experience in the Midlands, and through the A Passion for Life mission.

A younger generation has moved on from the deep divisions that fractured evangelicalism after the 1960s. The lesson has been that true unity is best fostered relationally when we work together in gospel ministry, whether evangelism or training. Service alongside one another leads to understanding, trust and appreciation. I think that, in coming years, we will need to work hard to maintain and develop the fragile unity that has emerged, which will inevitably be tested by new challenges. We will need to learn to respect each other despite our differences, for example over ecclesiology, and make sure that we do not elevate secondary matters to the level of dividing issues.

However, we will also need to be on guard to ensure that our unity is truly founded on a common commitment to the gospel. Gospel people need to stand together with gospel people for the sake of the gospel, but not with those who reject the biblical gospel, whether they be liberal, Catholics or Anglo Catholics. The temptation for independents will always be to fail to stand with gospel people, whereas perhaps the danger for those in denominations is the danger of forming pragmatic alliances with those who are not truly gospel people. The emergence in coming years of something akin to The Gospel Coalition in the US might be a necessary and logical step if we are to build unity further. It seems to me that FIEC can play a pivotal role in promoting this kind of gospel partnership.