On the second Sunday of January we remember that Jesmond Parish Church was founded in 1861 after the death and in memory of Richard Clayton, the great evangelical leader in Newcastle and former Master of St Thomas', Haymarket. The church authorities had refused to appoint as his successor a man who would be faithful to the Bible as Clayton was. So leading members of the congregation formed a committee and resolved to plant a church which "will form a central point for the maintenance and promulgation of sound scriptural and evangelical truth in a large and populous town."
There was, however, opposition. The new church was nicknamed "St Spite's". Sadly, there is opposition today to the work of JPC, as we still seek to maintain and promulgate "sound scriptural and evangelical truth".
The Foundation of JPC
I thank God for the vision of our founders for three reasons.
First, they sought a fundamental balance in wanting not only to maintain but also to promulgate the truth. In Paul's famous last charge to Timothy he makes it clear that the Christian, and certainly the Christian leader, has both to defend but also to evangelize and spread "the Word":
"Preach the Word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage - with great patience and careful instruction" (2 Timothy 4.2).
There is the need both to refute what is wrong but also to encourage and promote - or "preach" - what is right. Sadly, it is all too easy to lose that balance. If you never fight for or maintain "sound Scriptural and evangelical truth", you will soon find you have no gospel to proclaim or promulgate. If you only fight for the truth and never proclaim it, you can become "sound" but dead or "sound" but loveless. It was as Jesus was preaching, teaching and healing in the towns and villages of Galilee, that "when he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd" (Matthew 9.36). And as he was evangelizing he saw the need for faithful shepherds, not "false prophets [who] come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves" (Matthew 7.15). Maintaining and proclaiming must go together.
Secondly, the founders of JPC realized that truth is objective and definable. They wanted scriptural and evangelical truth. They wanted the truth of the Bible or the scriptures - "God's Word written". That is the truth to which the whole Church has to be subordinate. Nor may the Church "ordain any thing that is contrary to God's Word written, neither may it so expound one place of Scripture, that it be repugnant to another" (Article XX of the Thirty-nine Articles of the Church of England). "Evangelical" truth is this biblical truth that our earlier Anglican fore-fathers stood for at the Reformation, and is summarized in the Thirty-nine Articles. It is this truth the founders of JPC were following.
Thirdly, our founders had a "big vision". They had a vision for the whole city (then a "town" without a charter), which even in 1861 was a "large and populous" place. So our calling in 2004 is to have a vision for continuing to be a "central point" for the gospel on Tyneside.
What actually does this mean for us at the beginning of the 21st century? A number of us have been asking that question in some detail. There are, of course, some "non-negotiables" - such as this vision of our founders and some of the non-negotiables that come up in our C.L.A.S.S sessions (the Christian Life and Service Seminars). It seemed right, however, that at the start of the new century we should engage in a "Strategic Planning Process". In practice that has meant the senior pastoral staff asking some basic questions and trying to come up with some basic answers. Then that thinking has been and is being shared with others in the leadership of the church for their reaction and input. Finally, when there is sufficient coherence and consensus as to the right way forward, the various departments in the church will be asked to come up with their own "plans" in the light of the overall plan, probably next autumn.
Of course, all our planning must be provisional. "[We] ought to say, 'If it is the Lord's will, we will live and do this or that'" (James 4.15). And we need prayer: "to man belong the plans of the heart, but from the Lord comes the reply of the tongue" (Proverbs 16.1). It is easy to have good ideas; but to articulate those in a way that communicates and motivates is something God alone can enable. However, there is a promise: "commit to the Lord whatever you do, and your plans will succeed" (Proverbs 16.3). And God can overrule foolish plans: "in his heart a man plans his course, but the Lord determines his steps" (Proverbs 16.9). That comes out as the English proverb, "man proposes, God disposes".
On that basis, last September after the senior pastoral staff had made a beginning, they shared their thinking with many of the leaders in the church at Beamish Hall. What then are the basic questions that we, the senior pastoral staff, have set ourselves? There are nine:
1. What kind of church are we?
2. Why do we do what we do?
3. What are we supposed to be doing? What is our mission in life as a church?
4. What is going on in the wider world?
5. What kind of church would we like to be?
6. How will we get to where we want to be? Who will we reach? How will we reach them? Who will reach them? How much will it cost to reach them? Where will we reach them?
7. Where do we begin, when and with whom?
8. How will we handle pleasant and not so pleasant surprises that could affect the strategy?
9. How do we test what we are and will be doing?
At Beamish I shared our thinking on our values and mission (questions two and three). With regard to our mission we saw no reason to change what has been our mission statement for many years - "Godly Living, Church Growth and Changing Britain [or if you are an international member of JPC, changing your own country].
Godly Living relates to the first part of the Great Commandment. "Jesus replied, 'Love the Lord your God with all your heart ... soul ... and mind. This is the first and greatest commandment" (Matthew 22.37-38). Godly Living covers personal religion (prayer, bible reading, fellowship and witness (at home and abroad); accepting the importance of baptism and the Lord's supper; belonging through small groups; biblical finance; Christian reading; and care for the poor - at home and abroad.
Church Growth relates to the Great Commission. "Jesus said ... 'go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you'" (Matthew 28.19-20). Church Growth covers targeted evangelism; expository preaching; strategic youth work; strategic work with students - both UK students and international students; learning from and helping other churches; pastoral care; the welcome and incorporation of newcomers; the music ministry; overseas mission; C.L.A.S.S.; and the use of the public media.
Changing Britain relates to the second part of the Great Commandment. "And the second is like it: 'Love your neighbour as yourself.' All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments" (Matthew 22.39-40). Changing Britain covers influencing education; influencing the media; influencing politics; influencing the therapeutic services; influencing commerce; and re-evangelizing the nation.
Jonathan Pryke then reported at Beamish on our thinking about the future. We wondered where we might be (with all the biblical provisos) in twenty years time. When asked where we might be in 2003 in numerical terms, the most common projection from the 100 or so leaders present at Beamish was that we should plan for being 10,000 strong - with 5000 at the central church and 5000 in new church plants. Not until this figure had been reached was it announced that it was the figure the senior pastoral staff had also come up with.
The significance of this exercise relates to immediate planning. For to reach that target in 2023, in four years time (in 2008) we would need to have Sunday attendance around 1500. But as we are now not far off 1100 on a Sunday, 1500 in 2008 is not at all unlikely. In reality, that means more in all the groups across the age ranges and with all the challenges - hence the wisdom of planning. We planned for more at Carols by Candlelight before Christmas (2003). Through adding two services on the Sunday evenings we "proposed" or planned by increasing our capacity by 33 percent. God honoured that planning. He "disposed" by drawing 31 percent more to our services than in December 2002. Total attendance at Carols by Candlelight in 2003 was 5,100. Praise the Lord!