Interview by The Free Church of Scotland
Some weeks ago I was interviewed by David Robertson, the Editor of The Monthly Record magazine of the Free Church of Scotland.
David is a robust and forthright writer who has had remarkable impact with his book The Dawkins’ Letters. He wrote as follows:-
In this Monthly Record we have a fascinating discussion with Terry Virgo. Why are we interviewing one of Britain’s leading charismatics? Because he is a fine Christian brother whom the Lord has used and continues to use in advancing the Kingdom. Whilst we may not agree with every iota of his theology, if we think we cannot learn from such people, then we are a sad and arrogant group of people.
A few months ago I had the privilege of speaking at a Newfrontiers outreach event in Bedford, England. Newfrontiers have now planted four churches in the town, with a total attendance of about 1200. Newfrontiers have been remarkably successful in church planting, with over 600 churches being planted throughout the world – but mainly in England.
Terry Virgo recently shared the platform at Word Alive with John Piper and Don Carson. We were intrigued. Is this a new realignment in British Christianity – with the old charismatic divisions being overcome by unity amongst those who are committed to the ministry of the Word?
We decided to interview Terry, and the following is a summary of what turned out to be a very stimulating and encouraging conversation.
Welcome. Please tell us a little bit about yourself.
I became a Christian after my sister became one and witnessed to me about being born again. I argued with her, but that very evening I knelt down and received Christ. I knew I was born again by God’s mercy.
I came from a non-Christian world and found it very difficult to break free. It probably took about five years. One Sunday the sermon totally captivated me. I wholeheartedly abandoned my old lifestyle. That was in a Baptist church in Hove on the South coast. That is where I got started. I was converted when I was 16.
What was your job situation at that point?
I was commuting daily from Brighton to London – before that experience, aged 21, I was at the front of the train playing cards – hoping no one would see me. Afterwards, I was further back in the train devouring books – one that really arrested me was a book about one of the Ecuadorean martyrs.
What is your current situation?
I am now based in Brighton, where I have lived most of my life. We started a church in 1978 with about 38 people. We met in a schoolroom. That has gown over the years. At one point we went from one congregation to two, and then from two to five. And felt then that God was indicating we should bring it all back together, to have something of size to have impact upon Brighton.
We now meet in our own building, in the heart of Brighton. We call ourselves Church of Christ the King. The Church has 1,000 members – with around 12 – 1400 attending each Sunday. We have an eldership team of eight elders. I am away most of the time now so we have a pastor who heads up that team.
Tell me about your call into ministry. Was it definite and specific or something more gradual?
It was a gradual process that came to a climax. It was through a door-to-door evangelist who started a little Bible study group in his home on a Monday night – that was very formative for me. He led me out in terms of door-to-door evangelism. We prayed together a lot.
Over a couple of years that grew in terms of my conviction that I would like to give more time to prayer and to evangelising. Then I came to a time of crisis where I felt God really calling me to put down my secular work and to live by faith. I left work in ’63 and God provided for me. I was two years doing evangelism in the Brighton area and after those two years went to London to go to Bible College.
It’s fantastic that the church has gown so much. However, one of the criticisms that is often made about such large charismatic churches is that they grow by sheep stealing. What is your demographic? Have you grown though conversion or people coming through other churches? Or just a mixture?
I think that we were not very given to evangelism initially. I thought we might draw from other local churches but that did not happen. We attracted Christians who moved into the area. We have a careful programme of how we introduce people to the church. In the late 70’s and early 80’s, a charismatic church was not a popular thing.
More recently our growth is evangelism. We make a Gospel appeal every Sunday. We have two congregations, a morning and an evening. The same sermon is preached – a different band plays. We use Alpha, pub Alpha, student Alpha, curry Alpha! We are very evangelistic.
Can you tell us a little bit about Newfrontiers?
When I was first in Bible College I was invited to become the pastor in a new church on the South coast – a place called Seaford. The people there were pioneering a new church – they were not themselves charismatic but they invited me to be their new pastor. They said that they had heard me preach and they believed that I was a Bible man and would lead them from the Bible.
Over about four years there was a gradual transformation, which was not without pain and difficulty. We became a charismatic church – in terms of openness, being more like a new wineskin. I introduced a short time of open worship – that grew and became very beautiful. People travelled to be with us. As a result I was asked to visit other places and teach them.
This started with a home group and then another. Small house fellowships began to grow. Then a church in South London wanted us to help. It was an older church with some new life. Gradually we were working with 20 churches. A small team began to work with me.
Then there was the phenomenon of Bible weeks such as the Dales. We started a Bible week in the South in a circus tent – we had 2,900 at the first one.
One of the pastors had a prophecy that there were no well-worn paths ahead of us, but together we could make a way where there was no way. We felt this was an authentic word from God. We decided to call ourselves New Frontiers (we later changed this to Newfrontiers) because that captured the idea of breaking through together. Each of the churches retained their own titles.
Currently how many Newfrontiers churches are there?
Around the world we have 600 plus. We are currently planting churches in Paris and Dublin – people are flying in, buying homes, getting jobs. Other churches join us as already established. Our commitment to Scripture is very definite. People know we take the Bible very seriously. We are not given to wacky ideas. We have tried to be careful not to just follow the trends. That has helped us stay on course. We have tried to be very careful and as biblical as we know how to be.
What would you say to people who say you are just really empire building?
I’m not really aware of that criticism. We do have a sense of commissioning. God said ‘go into all the world and make disciples’. We are looking to grow. We work hard with our teenagers. We gather 6,000 of them every summer and encourage them to think about world mission.
What about those who would say that where you have charismatic churches you have less emphasis on the Word?
Just what I have been saying. I have been surprised that when I am invited to some more ‘conservative’ conferences they do not preach the Bible as long as we do – normally an hour. The word ‘charismatic’ can mean different things to different people. If I go to America I tend not to use the word charismatic because it tends to represent all that’s crazy.
What about the danger of people taking prophecy and putting it above the Bible?
We don’t have that attitude in our ranks because we take the Bible so seriously. I was fascinated the other day in our meeting. We had had a number of contributions, but it was at the end of the reading of Scripture that people burst out into applause. It made me chuckle because it showed that people are excited about the Scripture.
We would want to encourage you in your Word-based ministry. It certainly provides a healthy corrective in charismatic circles. I am interested in the changes that seem to be occurring in the British evangelical scene. Steve Chalke’s views on the atonement seem to have acted as a catalyst for yourself, John Piper, Richard Cunningham of UCCF and others, working together. Do you see this as significant?
Yes, I do actually. I was somewhat overwhelmed to be invited to speak along with D A Carson and Piper. It was a massive privilege to be alongside those great men. I have had very warm encouraging correspondence from them since then. They were delighted that a charismatic could be a Bible expositor as well – they want me back next year.
Some of the caricatures are beginning to get thrown away. People just think we are happy clappy – but to sit and listen to the kind of Bible exposition that Carson and Piper gave was just magnificent. Breathtakingly wonderful! The Apostle Paul did not have to make the choice about being either a charismatic or a Word man. He raised the dead and preached the Word. The Bible is full of both.
Caricature, of course, goes both ways. We have to be careful about the labels. Love for the Word, love for the Lord, and belief that without the Spirit we are nothing, are surely essential. If we have those three things then surely we must work together.
Absolutely. I think if there can be personal contact and personal affection…often people who have not met one another make judgements. That is not all there is…we must acknowledge truth and strive towards it. But sometimes we have been far too hasty to judge men that we do not really know.
We have to grow up and recognise that we can disagree about secondary issues. Can I ask you where you think the Church of Britain is going? Or is that too general a question?
It is too general a question. Much that goes in the name of church is crumbling. We see churches closing all over the place, the homosexual bishop coming to the Anglican Synod, etc. I feel that will all just fade. People say you have to reflect culture, but then culture just turns round and says “you are just like us – you have nothing to say”. That will continue to die.
Meanwhile The Telegraph recently reported that within the last ten years 1,000 new churches have opened in the UK, and compared that with 450 Starbucks, and said there is something remarkable happening. Many of the churches we started in the 1980’s now meet in warehouses and have several hundred attending.
We do work with the poor and kids’ clubs, and we are seeing people saved – remarkable things happening. There are two things happening at once – where there has been a dishonouring of Scripture and thus of the Lord, it will just fade; but meanwhile there are churches taking Jesus very seriously, and they are coming through. I am full of hope that we shall see more and more happen.
Terry. Thanks. May the Lord continue to bless you in your ministry and we look forward to more great things happening.