Growing a Church in a London Suburb

John Benton, the Pastors’ Academy Director of Pastoral Support, interviews Justin Rhoades of Welling Evangelical Free Church in South East London

Soon after I began work with the Pastors’ Academy in 2017, a couple of American guys asked to meet up with me. They were Tarl Reeves and Justin Rhoades. They took on a church that had crashed. When I first visited them it was a very bleak situation with few people in attendance. Now, nearly six years later the church has grown quite remarkably. These are often seen as difficult days for the gospel. So how did that happen? I quizzed Pastor Justin.  

How did you and Tarl get together in the first place?
Of all the guys that I met with—both American and British—to work alongside in London, Tarl and I were the most like-minded.

How did you come to London and what brought you to Welling?
Getting to London was a series of open doors, and many wise spiritual men guided me along the way. Wes McNabb from The Slade Church was the one who put Welling on our radar, and then you, John, were the one who vouched for us and helped to get us the credibility to join Welling.  

What was the state of the Welling church when you took it on? How much has it grown numerically?
They were closed, meeting in a house, with no children. Five and half years later, we have four kids/teens classes; we’ve had 53 baptisms, outreaches with over 160 in attendance, family fun nights, and the first teen camp this last summer where ten were saved. 

What did you see as immediately needed addressing / changing in the church?
Tarl’s five things were:

  1. Evangelism;
  2. Discipleship;
  3. Children’s ministry;
  4. Sunday morning (format, preaching, hospitality, clean building, modern technology where needed);
  5. Changing reputation (website, leafletting, outside building appearance).

Did you have a clear evangelistic strategy? What was it?
We thought in terms of a funnel. Sunday mornings bring in visitors and we try to funnel them into closer interaction with us through small groups and sitting down one-to-one. We tried to meet with everyone who came to our church or who would sit down with us. We had to evangelise our church into existence. Teams came from America, then there were a few key people whom we trained to do it. Now an event brings 40+ of our people to evangelise. 

How did you work at the church being welcoming, especially to folk from different cultures?
We started praying for one first-time guest each week. God has answered that nearly every week over the past five and half years. We’ve only had a few Sundays with no guests. Getting a first-time guest is easy. It is getting someone to come back that is hard. 

We thought in terms of hospitality! We were ready for all types of guests and accepted them as they were, not trying to change them to how we expected them to be. We strove to make the church building more of a home and informal (but with high theology), rather than being like coming into a cathedral with sombreness and quietness. There are always people outside to open the front door, and every guest/family gets a gift bag. Each Sunday we explain where things are, people can bring in their own drinks, and we strive to give clear instructions throughout the service and explain who people are. We welcome first-time guests from the front each week.

Would you do anything differently if you were starting now? Did you make any mistakes?
We should have created better safeguards for myself with the previous leadership. We didn’t do a good job when it came to bringing in our first family to help on the leadership team. It didn’t work out well. 

If there were a couple of key things you would say to pastors concerning evangelism what would they be?
First, just because you call it evangelism doesn’t make it evangelism. Simply inviting someone to church isn’t evangelism. You have to share the gospel for it to be evangelism.

Second, create opportunities for a follow-up visit. Whether with someone on the high street, with first-time guests, or with returning ones. Turn one conversation into ten. This method eventually led us to make our one-to-one evangelism material that has played a massive role in seeing people in our church leading others to Christ for the first time.

What other thoughts do you have about what God has done?
God gives the growth—we just planted and watered (1 Cor 3:6).

Struggling churches need good, godly elders and pastors—it is impossible to grow without this. Welling was in a chicken and egg scenario. They needed new leadership but couldn’t afford it. If an outside group had not paid for new leadership, there would have been no other choice but to close. The backing from the US was crucial.

Church revitalisation has to be done as a team. We had three pastors: Tarl, Joshua, and me. This made it easier to get the hard work done when the church didn’t have volunteers or church members to do it. It also alleviated some of the pastor vs. the church difficulties that can occur, since it was a plurality of elders. 

Welling needed a complete change from the ground up. It wasn’t simply a matter of shoring up a few areas. It needed recognition of what was wrong and what had caused the church to dwindle and die. There was a history of serious sin in the church. The reality was that we were driving with the handbrake on until the sin was dealt with and removed.

Solid preaching (everything else can have room for improvement). Preaching is more than just giving information; but it must include a call to change one’s life. Encourage people to stop sinning and better follow Christ this week. We did the main things first and took care of the secondary things as time allowed. Home groups did not come around until year five when we had enough discipled men to lead the groups without the elders leading any of them. 

You had a strategy of encouraging the church to see Sunday morning visitors as parallel to inviting someone to dinner. Can you explain about that?
We helped the church understand that having guests come on Sunday morning was like having guests at your home for dinner. What do you do when guests are coming?

  1. You clean up and tidy the house. It’s the same with a church building. We have volunteers at church at 9:00am for cleaning and set up, at 10:00 for walk-through, instructions, and prayer The service starts at 11:00, so all the leaders leaving at 10:50 to pray is way too late and they miss opportunities to welcome first-time guests.
  2. There is more to a house than just dinner, but that is what you invite people to. There is more to church service than the preaching, but that is what we are inviting them to.  
  3. When you cook for them, you think of guests’ tastes and never serve junk or cheap food.  We need to put the same care into our sermons and make sure we serve them in a way that it will be received.
  4. You act differently and behave well with your family when guests are present. At church on Sunday mornings, we need to act like guests are present in what we say and do. 
  5. We cater to guests in our home and explain where things are, or what the agenda is for the evening. At church, we should be taking care to explain things to guests and give clear instructions and orders of service. 
  6. When guests come, you use nice dishes, a tablecloth, the dining room, etc. At church, we need to be expecting guests, so we should have our best set out to welcome them. Christians are fine with being frugal and using what has always been used. But don’t let old cups, kettles, coffee, or food be the reason a guest doesn’t come back. Spend some money. These people are important. 
  7. When we have guests, we typically have our kids entertain the guests’ kids. This means the parents can enjoy the evening or talk about important things. At church, having a kids’ ministry isn’t just vital to teaching the kids biblical truth at their level and understanding, but it also allows the parents to focus on what God has for them to learn too. At Welling, we have kids start in their class so they can get the most out of their time to learn about God.

You focus on the teaching of the Bible. Tell us what that meant practically. 
Everything we do in church is to prop up and support the teaching of God’s word. No matter the class, age, or service. We want God’s word to be taught in every event or ministry if we are to be successful in discipling our church.

When we first started and had no people, it was essential to eliminate all the midweek events (the previous leaders had something every day of the week) so that Sundays could have the resources and time to succeed. 

Being diverse is more than just multiple people groups showing up. We must be diverse in everything we do. We choose who to disciple based on who wants to grow. We promote those who are faithful to serve in bigger ways. We want all who qualify to be church members. Everyone who finishes discipleship and has no major theological differences is encouraged to disciple someone else. Leadership is based on spiritual maturity and not just because there is a need to be met. 

Welling is an FIEC church and you can find out more about them on their website.