Doug Clark graduated from Union School of Theology in 2014, and has been working as Assistant Pastor at a church in Worthing ever since. Read what’s prompting him to leave the south coast behind, head home to Yorkshire, and plant a new church in Halifax.

“I graduated from Union School of Theology four years ago, and I am about to embark on something which will be the greatest test of my studies so far. This summer my wife Rachael, our four children and I are moving back to Yorkshire to plant a church in Halifax. Honestly, I never wanted to plant a church, so why are we doing this?

Well, there are a number of answers to that question! Let me tell you a bit about how we got here.

Since graduating from UST I have been serving as the Assistant Pastor at Worthing Tabernacle, which has been a fantastic experience. Working alongside Rich Owen (our Minister) I have been able to use so much of what I learnt in my three years at UST, including being involved in the Union Learning Community in Worthing, which our church hosts and Rich leads. 

I would say that these past seven years have been a near perfect preparation for planting a church. I’ve had three years of robust theological education and training at UST, followed by four years working in a local church alongside a very capable pastor, who threw me in the deep end from day one, and has given me lots of space to make mistakes and learn. Serving in a local church has been a fantastic opportunity to road-test the theological training I received at UST.

I would say that these past seven years have been a near perfect preparation for planting a church.

So now that we have come to the end of our time at The Tab, the question is - where is God leading us next? The first part of that answer was easy: Yorkshire! 

Yorkshire is home for me and Rachael and, had there been an opportunity to serve as an Assistant Pastor in Yorkshire when we left UST, that’s where we would have gone. But wanting to serve in Yorkshire isn’t about wanting to “go home”. Rather, we are driven by the immense gospel need in our home county. The percentage of people who go to church at least once a month is reported to be only 0.9% across Yorkshire, with evangelicals accounting for only 0.4% of the population. We commissioned our own research for West Yorkshire, which reported that only 3.1% of the population attend church. That is a whole 1% lower than church attendance in Manchester, which itself has half the church attendance of London! Yorkshire has one of the lowest levels of gospel presence in the UK, and there is no argument that the number is still dropping.

Halifax does not buck this trend. It is a town of 90,000 people with only a couple of churches which preach the gospel and actively want to reach their community with it. It’s not enough. And Halifax is a place that desperately needs the light and hope of the gospel. With 37% of children living in poverty, and a large Muslim population, we want to work alongside Christians who are already there preaching the gospel.

So that answered where, but why planting? As I said, when I went into theological training I couldn’t have been less interested in church planting! I confess that I had dreams of pastoring a large church that would be known for sound and doctrinal preaching. I wanted a church full of Christians who were hungry for good teaching (which hopefully I would give to them). I didn’t really want anything to do with a small, hard ministry. But the combination of my time at UST, and my experience at the Tab, has changed all that.

When I went into theological training I couldn’t have been less interested in church planting!

I left Union with a shiny idealism. Having spent time studying the scriptures, learning from extremely godly and knowledgeable lecturers, and reading old dead guys, I had formed an idea of what I would want ‘my’ church to look like. But moving from theory to practice, it became clear that church wasn’t going to be the theological and ecclesiological heaven I had hoped it would be! Some people told me that this was to be expected, “not to be so naive”, and that “theological study bore little resemblance to pastoring a church”, and at first I believed that. But as time went on I realised that it didn’t have to be the case. Sure - no church is perfect, and no church is ideal, but there are ideals which are worth pursuing.

While I was at Union I learnt a lot: Hebrew, Greek, ecclesiology, exegetical studies, pastoral studies, eschatology, pneumatology… the list goes on. For me, the two most significant courses were Church History and Biblical Theology. In Biblical Theology I was taught to see redemptive themes running through scripture, to interpret scripture with scripture, and see that all of scripture is about Jesus. In studying Church History I saw that the mistakes and errors in our churches today are nothing new! I saw that the church repeatedly makes the same mistakes whenever it wanders from the centrality of Jesus and his gospel. I learnt in-depth about the Reformation and why it isn’t over, but that we need to continue to be reformation churches.

I learnt in-depth about the Reformation and why it isn’t over, but that we need to continue to be reformation churches

I learned so much from my lecturers, but the two most important lessons I learnt from Union didn’t come from any particular course, but from the whole ethos of the place. Firstly, doctrine matters, so keep studying and learning, be sure of what you believe, but be charitable on secondary issues. Never assume you have it all sorted. Secondly, the gospel must never change, but the church must always change. The gospel must never be altered: we preach that we are saved by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. There is no other gospel. And we do not change one iota of what it means to live a life of obedience to King Jesus. But if we are going to reach an unbelieving world with this life-changing message, then many other things in the church have to be continually changing. Whether it’s the clothes we wear, the instruments we use in worship, the places we meet for worship, the format of our services or the ways we reach out to our communities, these things all need to look different depending on what era, town, country or continent we are in.

And I saw that long-established churches find it harder to make those changes. Unhelpful traditions can develop in churches that can be hard to shake if they are not held loosely, and so these churches can find it harder to reach the communities they are in. A church that only ever caters for ‘mature’ Christians will often fail to engage with unbelievers, or take into consideration that church can be ‘weird’ for new Christians, and so it can be hard to make and keep new disciples. Of course it’s not that these larger older churches can’t reach people - indeed we have seen a number of conversions through our ministries at the Tab - it’s just that they have more barriers to overcome in order to do so.

The beauty of a church plant is that you start with a group of missionally-minded people who are ready to make big changes in order to reach their community with the uncompromising message of the gospel. I’m not naive enough to think that our church will achieve any kind of perfection, and perhaps 10 years down the line a new seminary graduate will come and be frustrated or disappointed at the limitations that will inevitably have grown up in our own church! But at the outset of this venture we have the opportunity to put the tempered idealism that I left Union with into practice in order to reach lost people in a desperately needy place. And so we intend to plant a church that is Christ-centred, culturally relevant and confessional. 

The beauty of a church plant is that you start with a group of missionally-minded people who are ready to make big changes.

Yorkshire doesn’t just need more pastors, it needs more churches: churches which will preach the gospel, reach the town, make disciples and raise up new leaders. Part of this will be achieved by partnering with Union. The Union Learning Community at Worthing Tab has been incredibly fruitful, and in time we look forward to running a Learning Community in Halifax not only to serve our own church, but to provide training options for other churches in West Yorkshire and the surrounding area.

Please pray for us, and check back here for updates as it progresses! You can read more about the plant and get in touch with us directly through our website, and it's @PlantHalifax to follow us on Twitter.” 

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