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What Betsy Willis taught me about being a family of churches

Back in the 90s the expression ‘a family of churches’ was supposed to express something different. We weren’t a denomination like the fusty Baptists or the liberal Methodists. We weren’t a State or national church like the poor old CofE. But we also weren’t a ‘network’ like those business-obsessed Americans. No, we (and by we I mean Newfrontiers) were a family of churches.

Now even the FIEC in the UK call themselves a family of churches, so it can hardly be described as cutting edge anymore. When I grew up in an FIEC church the emphasis was on the Independent and if we were part of a family it was one that never talked or saw each other. But I don’t mind others using the term because being a part of a family of churches is, in my experience, a genuinely good thing. If that reality is now being more widely shared, rather than just a phrase being bandied about, then to my mind, that means more healthy churches.

So what does it actually look like to be a part of a family of churches? Today, Grace Church is a happy member of the Relational Mission (part of Newfrontiers) family of churches. And for evidence of what this means, I’m going to turn to Twitter. That might not be the first place you’d think of but bear with me.

The card says, “Dear Scandinavia, I hope you are ok. We are praying for you. Sending love from Lowestoft. From Betsy Willis.”

I’ve never met Betsy, but if I do, she’ll get a big high-five from me. But that’s the thing, I’ve never met Betsy. I haven’t even visited her church on a Sunday, let alone preached there. But Betsy, along with many others in her church, spent a chunk of last Friday night, praying for us here in Stockholm. Praying, caring & loving. She even took the time to write us a postcard to tell us that.

It wasn’t just random, we were privileged to be picked out for prayer on this particular evening as part of our Enough prayer initiative.

So churches in Kenya, the Middle East, Japan, the Americas prayed for us. They even prayed for us in Kent.
Prayer of the regular, persistent and fervent sort is one way we express what it means to be a family of churches. We have just been the beneficiaries but we’re privileged to pray for others in turn, whether we know them well or hardly at all.

Betsy hopes we are ok and she sends us her love. What does that look like for a church? Well, it looks like someone coming to see you, spend time with you; to listen, pray and laugh with you. It looks someone calling you and urging you to join in a shared mission. It’s a bit like Paul in Romans 15:24 who wants the church in Rome to help him on his way but only after he’s enjoyed their company.

You can be encouraged by a tweet or a facebook like or even an email but you can only be refreshed (Rom 15:32) by being with a friend who prays, cares and loves you.

Caring and loving each other as churches is a key to turning a phrase into reality. Consider what my friend Jakob says here:

He speaks of our friend Maurice who has invested in him (and me for that matter). Before it was an investment in a church or a project it was an investment in a friendship. It was not only asking how we were but coming over to find out.

So a good deal of time, effort and money is put into people travelling from one place to another to do just that. To listen to leaders ensuring they don’t feel alone in their battles or pioneering efforts; to strengthen teams so they function well and overcome obstacles; to bringing wisdom, values and input into church life so as far as we’re able we both mature and multiply.

A couple of years ago we had a period where we literally had no available musicians or worship leaders. For our church this was a considerable challenge, so every month a different church in the family sent over some worship leaders to help us and encourage us. By the end of that year, we were blessed with four gifted musicians and worship leaders.

Prayer and friendship open doors to a partnership. As friendships have grown and prayers have been prayed people begin to think about how they can share in the task others face. Two churches in the UK recently got in touch with me asking about our financial needs and offering to share the proceeds of upcoming gift days with us and a third has been a regular financial partner for some time now. When we launched an initiative to reach Somalis in Stockholm, the church family got behind it. All this is an incredible blessing and privilege.

I’m not a high-profile leader in our small family of churches. I’m not one of their platform speakers and because I live in Sweden I don’t always make the regular ‘network’ meetings – but I’ve worked to cultivate friendships; skype with people, and say yes to every offer of being in touch.

It’s also about being caught up in a common mission. A partnership should be a two-way street. We want to give as well as receive. So for us in Northern Europe, we’ve been provoked by thinking about the Hanseatic League. What lessons can we as churches take from building alliances with others that share our values and vision?

Prayer led to friendships which led to love and care which led to a shared mission which led to prayer which led to friendships. You get the picture.

We don’t have supervisors or bishops to report to, we don’t have denominations or bureaucracy to navigate to get the permission of some higher-up. We have a family cheering us on – praying, caring and loving and being drawn into a bigger vision and mission to take the gospel to all nations. I’m happy about that.

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