UK Federation of Independent Churches Ninety-nine Years and Counting
The Fellowship of Independent Evangelical Churches is almost a hundred years old. It was founded in 1922 to fulfil the vision of Rev E J Poole-Connor for an association of independent churches that would ameliorate the dangers of isolation and manifest a generous unity in core evangelical doctrines rather than being ‘denominated’ by issues such as the precise manner of baptism or the government of the local churches. The founding churches were a mix of Brethren assemblies and mission halls. The goal was to be a ‘society of mutual helpfulness’ that would provide independent churches with some of the advantages enjoyed by churches in formal denominations, but without exercising central control over them. They sought to provide accreditation for ministers, improve the training of pastors, encourage church planting and provide practical advice.
Over the years, FIEC has grown as it has navigated the changing cultural and spiritual context in the UK, without losing its core convictions and vision. The challenges of liberalism and ecumenism in the 1960s and 1970s saw many churches leave their denominations, or congregations leave their churches to plant new independent churches. Many joined the FIEC, including for example Westminster Chapel under Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones.
Today there are 635 churches that are affiliated to FIEC. In the last ten years, 214 churches have joined the fellowship. These include long-established independent churches that have recognised the value of standing and co-operating with others, new church plants, and churches leaving denominations and associations that have become doctrinally and ethically compromised. Today FIEC unites churches in the gospel that have a diversity of heritages, including Baptist, Grace Baptist, Congregationalist, Brethren and a few from an Anglican background. The churches stand together on a conservative evangelical doctrinal basis of core gospel convictions and have adopted clear policy positions upholding a complementarian position on pastoral ministry, rejecting same-sex marriage and, whilst not requiring secondary separation, refusing to join ecumenically with those who deny the gospel. Every FIEC church is required to affirm these doctrinal standards annually, and those that break them are removed from affiliation. FIEC is not an exclusive affiliation for churches, and many FIEC churches also belong to other networks such as EFCC, Grace Baptist Associations, Gospel Partnerships and AECW.
Within the boundaries of our common doctrinal convictions, there is a great measure of diversity amongst FIEC churches. Our churches are located across England, Wales and Scotland and can be found in cities, towns, market towns, council estates and rural communities. They vary in size, with the largest having over nine hundred members, but the average FIEC church would have a congregation of between eighty to a hundred and fifty. Our most recent data survey conducted in 2018-2019 reported that there were some 44,000 people attending FIEC churches. The churches reported 808 conversions over the year. There is growing ethnic diversity, with churches reporting 13% of their congregations from a non-white background. Recent years have seen more black majority churches joining FIEC, including in recent months a Tamil Church and a church of migrants and refugees from Rwanda, Burundi and Democratic Republic of Congo. The FIEC Pastors’ Network accredits some 500 pastors. FIEC churches continue to be active in church planting, and some 50 new churches or congregations have been established since 2015.
The FIEC is funded entirely by voluntary donations from its churches, which are used to support a small central staff team. The FIEC Directors and Ministry Staff support our churches and help them to fulfil our vision to be ‘Independent churches working together to reach Britain for Christ.’ We provide help with local church leadership, training, and church planting. We catalyse and facilitate churches connecting with each other and supporting one another. We are investing in developing biblical women’s ministry and provide support for pastors and pastors wives. Our team will be joined by a new ‘Director for Smaller Churches’ after Easter 2021, which will enable us to provide more care and help to our churches with a membership of less than 35. WE continue to provide practical advice, and affiliated churches benefit from a free advice line operated by Edward Connor Solicitors, a charitable law firm we established to provide ‘Christ-centred legal expertise’ to evangelical churches and organisations.
The COVID crisis has been a testing time for all churches, including the churches of FIEC. The vast majority of FIEC churches have felt it right in conscience to obey the law and follow the government guidance in lockdown. We have lobbied hard on their behalf for restrictions to be removed at the earliest opportunity, and to allow marriages to be performed. Most churches with their own buildings have continued to meet physically when they were legally permitted to do so, whilst continuing online services. We have received many encouraging reports of how the Lord has been at work during this time. Churches have seen larger numbers joining their online services and hearing the gospel. Zoom prayer meetings have been attended by greater numbers than ever came to the church physical prayer meeting. Some have seen increased inquirers at evangelistic events and courses held online. Many reported new people attending in person when they were permitted to reopen. A least five new church plants have started meeting during the crisis. Most wonderfully, we have received more reports of conversions over this last year than has been the case in previous years. For this, we thank God. At the same time, many pastors and church members are exhausted and fatigued, mentally and spiritually, but the lockdown and are longing for a return to something closer to normality.
Whilst FIEC is in good heart and growing, we are very conscious of the immense spiritual need of our nation, in which our data would suggest only 2-3% are born again believers in the Lord Jesus. There is no place for complacency or despair in this ‘day of small things,’ but rather a need to cry out to the Lord to have mercy and to keep faithful in our evangelism. We rejoice to work together with all who share our gospel convictions, irrespective of their denomination. FIEC is a corporate member of Affinity, and many of our churches enjoy good relationships with evangelical Anglican churches and work with them in Gospel Partnerships.
We long to see the gospel advancing in the UK and, God willing, will continue to defend and proclaim its saving truth as we have for the last ninety-nine years.
Revd John Stevens, FIEC National Director