The power of unity as churches join forces

What was it like to partner with another church during a pandemic?

“Are you sitting down?” Elim’s Regional Leader James Glass asked Craig Lawrenson.

That unnerving question always comes before big news and this time was no exception.

James was phoning to ask if Craig – pastor of St Helens Christian Life Centre – would take on the leadership of New Life Christian Centre in Widnes too, which was struggling during the pandemic.

Rob Case, the previous pastor of Widnes, had been called to New Hope Church, Driffield, and the Widnes elders felt a collaboration with St Helens was the best option for them to pursue.

Fast forward 18 months and the two churches have forged a hugely successful partnership, but Craig admits he was cautious at first.

“I’d taken over as senior leader at St Helens in January 2020, then James asked me about Widnes 12 months later. Leading one church through a pandemic was challenging enough. Did I really want another one?” he says.

Another consideration was whether the Widnes church would want to adopt the culture, values and identity that were core to St Helens.

Would they want to join them on the journey God had been taking the church on for the past 15 years?

“We had a prophetic word about St Helens becoming an apostolic centre. As a result, we have an apostolic identity around pioneering new ways of reaching people and sending them out to express their faith,” says Craig.

“That has been key to our journey and our six values – the kingdom of God, the presence of God, the prophetic, honour, family and joy – lie at the heart of our church.

“God has also spoken to us about influencing our city, so we’ve built strong links with the council who are very open to the faith community.

“We’d also invested heavily in developing our online church during the pandemic, employing David Pennington as our part-time online pastor, who leads a team of volunteers producing content throughout the week.”

With this in mind, Craig and the St Helens team initially said no to taking responsibility for Widnes.

Instead, they committed to journey with them to discover what God was saying and whether St Helens should support and resource Widnes or whether the two churches should join forces.

Twelve months later, both were convinced that partnership was the way forward.

“The relationships we’ve built are really good and the fact God was joining us together became increasingly obvious,” says Craig.

The relationship culminated when Widnes asked to adopt the Christian Life Centre name, but instead, Craig and the team opted to rename all three elements of CLC.

“We switched to become CLC St Helens, CLC Widnes and CLC Online. It was a no-brainer because Widnes loves our values and what God is doing, and wants the same identity. We also have an online facility that everyone can be a part of whether they’re from St Helens or Widnes.”

The churches are now establishing how to work together.

“St Helens has a team model of fivefold ministry and we want to introduce that in Widnes. Our team is basically spread across two sites. We send preachers and worship teams over because Widnes didn’t have a live worship band.

“Now I’m looking at how you join two churches in terms of finance, policies and procedures.”

With honour being one of CLC’s core values, Craig has been keen to nurture and develop people during this transition.

“We had a lot of people who were ready to step up at St Helens so we sent our most experienced people, who were confident and comfortable preaching, over to Widnes.

We then released new people in St Helens where they could be supported and cheered on by a church family that knew and loved them.”

Since the CLC partnership was formed Craig has seen its congregations grow.

“We’ve had new people join each week and held several baptisms. We’ve heard some amazing stories about people finding God too, like the man who found Jesus through watching Covid-19 videos on YouTube and, after 20 years living as a recluse, asked us to teach him to evangelise.

“From that, his sister came to faith and he’s brought his nephews and nieces to church.”

CLC’s links with other churches have also grown.

“We speak in a local Baptist church once a month and a URC church too. We shouldn’t be surprised that these offers are coming in because it’s what God has been asking us to do for the past 15 years.”

Now, CLC is praying about how it could connect with other churches in the area and beyond, or plant new congregations where its online membership has revealed barren areas.

“There’s a lot happening. God has journeyed us to this point and we’re trying to accept the pioneering things he’s given us and pursue the kingdom culture he is birthing in CLC.”

Trading places

The idea of an associate and lead pastor switching positions might set alarm bells ringing. But for Craig Lawrenson and Philip Fell it was the perfect set-up.

Phil was the senior leader at St Helens Christian Life Centre for 16 years. He taught Craig in Sunday school then supported him as his youth worker, MIT and associate pastor.

So when Phil began considering retirement, a unique solution seemed obvious – over a two-year period the pair swapped roles.

“I became senior leader, Phil became my associate pastor and when he retired he stayed on the leadership team as an elder.”

Craig attributes this successful set-up to the length and closeness of their relationship.

“Phil has always been a spiritual father to me and is a releasing man who wants to see the next generation succeed.

“If there are any issues we’re straight with each other, but we know the love is there and Phil is passionate about the church so we’ve never really had any problems. People were concerned, but we had confidence in our relationship and the journey God was taking us on.”

Joining forces: the view from Widnes

The Lord started our church with a retired minister from St Helens and more than a year ago, when we were struggling for direction, the Lord brought us back together. Since then it has been an incredible journey seeing both churches coming together and the ease with which the whole congregation has grown together in Christ. We are so looking forward to the future and what God has got planned for us as individuals and his church.
Jim Williamson, elder.

We’re big believers in partnership and from our very first zoom meeting with Craig and his team, something ‘clicked’. We knew God had brought us together and, after a long time of prayer and reflection, we knew it was time to officially join the CLC family. The world is looking for hope, and for the worldwide church there is strength and power in unity.
Peter Cummings, elder.

First published in the June 2022 issue of Direction, Elim’s monthly magazine. Subscribe now to get Direction delivered to your home.

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