In 1996 we planted Crossroads in Canberra. It was among the earliest of the now FIEC churches. Its origins are found in Dickson Baptist Church and a growing university ministry at the ANU and UC. In the lead up, I had been working as an associate pastor at Dickson as well as working with the Australian Fellowship of Evangelical Students leading the campus ministries. Dean Ingham worked alongside me in the church and on the campus.
Throughout the previous year Dickson Baptist had engaged Les Scarborough from John Mark Ministries to review and make recommendations about various ministries in the church. He spent many months surveying and interviewing pastoral staff, deacons, leaders and congregation members on a range of issues. Through this process, six recommendations were made for the church leading into the future. One of these was to plant a new independent church, with a particular focus on university ministry, under my leadership. A Dickson Baptist congregational meeting voted about 96% in favour of starting the new church, and it was launched on February 11, 1996.
Allow me to reflect on a couple of matters associated with this plant.
Firstly, it was a plant that had grown out of some adverse circumstances at the Baptist church. Not everything was going well, and the regular influx of students over the previous few years had changed the culture of the place. Some members wanted their old church back. Others were keen to see the strong synergy between church and campus ministries continue to make an impact. I suspect that the strong vote to plant Crossroads was shaped by both these desires.
Secondly, it was a careful process. Les Scarborough was able to guide us every step of the way. He continued to mentor me in the years following the plant. We had detailed conversations with AFES (my employer) about what this church plant would mean for interdenominational ministry. It was agreed that AFES wasn’t planting this church, and that I would cease to be employed by AFES and move to full employment by, and funding from, Crossroads. This took place over a few years. We held prayer meetings, vision meetings, planning meetings, and asked many from outside the core team to give advice and feedback.
Thirdly, planting independent evangelical churches wasn’t really a ‘thing’ in those days. We didn’t set out to be independent of other denominations—just independent of Dickson Baptist. In fact, we explored options with Presbyterian and Anglican denominations and talked with other churches, before settling on the decision to incorporate separate from existing denominational structures.
Fourthly, we realised that being independent had the potential to suggest that we were anti-denominational, divisive, or even cultish. For this reason we worked hard to establish ourselves carefully as a mainstream evangelical church. We wrote letters, made calls, and had meetings with pastors around Canberra. We chose a name that was conservative, but that stood out from the pack, without sounding whacko. Crossroads Christian Church was chosen over other options. We hoped that this would shrink in people’s memories to one word – ‘Crossroads’ – and it has.
Sadly, Crossroads quickly developed a bad name in Baptist circles, as did AFES. Some were spreading the perspective that Crossroads was a church split and that AFES (ie, me) had divided and damaged a Baptist church. This happened despite the careful planning and congregational decisions by the Baptist church to plant Crossroads.
Fifthly, the risks associated with isolation and independent-mindedness, led us to engage a Board of Reference to increase our broader accountability. We invited men and women who weren’t part of Crossroads and who had a strong reputation for being mature Christian leaders to stand with us. We asked them to pray for our ministry, take an interest in what we were doing, consult with us if they saw problems, advise us on matters of doctrine, speak into any major changes the church might be considering. They had no governing authority, and weren’t required to meet as a group, but they stayed in touch with us. Let me say, this group was so helpful in our early days. We called on them as we established our constitution and shaped the directions of the church. We continued to draw on these people in the years to come as we faced some significant and difficult decisions as a church. We sought their input in times of staff tensions and we considered their advice with some major staff changes and appointments.
There is no doubt that risks are plenty among independent churches. Many of these risks can be avoided or overcome by pursuing fellowship with other churches. In 1996 we were pretty much just doing our own thing—going it alone, so to speak. Now, in 2018, independent churches are being planted with a view to being interdependent with others. While the churches are independently governed, many churches are choosing to join a fellowship with other independently governed churches. They recognise there is strength in numbers, pooled resources, and the wisdom of those who’ve gone before. They are making a choice to limit their absolute autonomy for the good of the gospel witness in our land. It’s been exciting to visit theological and Bible colleges and to invite students to consider joining a new movement of evangelical ministry in Australia through joining with the FIEC. We are independent churches, but in active fellowship with one another.
Along with the benefits of being a part of the fellowship, I am encouraging each of our independent churches to engage an external board of reference, or something equivalent. To have godly, experienced, mature, Christian leaders who will stand by us, help us to see our blind spots, offer support or advice in a crisis, pray and invest in our ministries, and more—is invaluable. I’d say that it’s basic common sense. And I’d worry about why a church might oppose such an idea. We need to be above reproach in our lives and ministries. Our decisions and processes should be open to scrutiny. And it’s so valuable to have others to speak into our circumstances because they are committed to our churches and the good of the gospel. In FIEC we are looking to encourage each of our churches into practical fellowship and to connect regularly with their external board of reference.
Our prayer is that we will keep growing churches for Jesus’ sake and that we will grow them in godliness and truth for the sake of all.