Faith and New Frontiers: A Story of Planting and Nurturing Churches, 1823-2003 – Book Review

Faith and New Frontiers:  A Story of Planting and Nurturing Churches, 1823-2003
Author:  Brian Underwood
Publisher:  Intercontinental Church Society, 2004
ISBN:  0 95374 352 7

Book Review by  Tim Davy, Reviews Editor for Encounters.

This review combines my thoughts on Brian Underwood’s history of the Intercontinental Church Society with a couple of brief reflections on a recent trip to France, on which I met some of the leaders and congregations associated with ICS.

By way of background, ICS is an Anglican mission organisation that works specifically amongst English speakers abroad.  They specialise in church planting and work mainly in Europe.  The main purpose for the trip was to teach three sessions on the Old Testament in the chaplaincy of Poitou-Charentes and the Vendee, in the central, western part of France.  I also spent some time with people from chaplaincies in the outskirts of Paris.

I cannot possibly do justice to the various and complex reasons why English speakers find themselves living in places where the language isn’t nationally spoken.  Did you know, for example, that half a million Brits own homes in France (with a similar number in Spain as well)?  Other factors include work, marriage, study, tourism and so on.  Most of the congregations are in urban contexts but a few serve large, rural areas.

One thing that was impressed upon me by those in the rural areas was how sour the dream of the ‘perfect retirement’ can become.  Many people end up bored, isolated and in considerable financial straits because of poor planning.  These English speaking congregations can be a ready source of friendship, support and outreach to people who may never have considered stepping into a Church ‘back home’.  As anyone who has worked with international students can tell us, it seems that when people leave the secure context of ‘home’ they are often more open to the claims of the gospel.

Faith and New Frontiers is divided into four main parts.  Part 1 offers a survey of the organisation up to the early 1990’s.

Part 2 discusses the ‘background circumstances’ of the period 1992-2002, particularly with reference to the European social, religious and political context.  Headings in this section are: European Union, cultural changes, The status of Christianity, Social disintegration, People’s perceptions of the Church, Decline in Church attendance, Restoring confidence, and Christian contribution to the New Europe.

Part 3 charts the growth and development of the work of ICS between 1992 and 2002.  This focuses on growth through the established works, growth through seasonal chaplaincy work and growth through new Church-plants in places such as France, Germany, Poland, Ukraine, Czech republic, Cyprus and Lithuania. The section ends with a chapter entitled ‘The Significance of ICS’s Contribution to Mission’.

Part 4 is a glance forward to mission in the 21st Century, including a reflection on the role ICS can play in this.

Brian Underwood has clearly done his homework; Faith and New Frontiers is thoroughly researched and meticulously detailed.  Church-planting in a European context is usually a slow affair and this is reflected in his patient storytelling.  Clearly this book will not appeal to everyone in its entirety; as a history of an organisation, some of the sections may be of limited interest to those unfamiliar with the agency – so many names and places!

Having said that, Faith and New Frontiers does still have much to commend it to the general reader.  Anyone involved or interested in European mission would benefit from the experience gained by ICS over the years.  The numerous stories build up a picture of the Spirit of God at work in a continent many of us are trying to grapple with.  Although the text is largely descriptive the author does reflect on the European context in some depth (see part 2).

Also, Underwood’s brief reflection on the necessary qualities belonging to the chaplains is instructive.  The church planter, he says, needs to be visionary and entrepreneurial, to take risks and learn from mistakes.  They need to be able Bible teachers, sensitive to accessible styles of worship, have a heart for people and be rooted in solid, theological convictions.

As I chatted with a small group of believers in the depths of rural France about the difficulties of ‘bearing with one another’ it struck me that these congregations reflected something of the New Testament Church in at least one regard.  When the going gets tough, you can’t just join the fellowship down the road; you either dig deep, working out your issues in the only congregation in your area, or you leave the Church full stop.  There is a certain ‘discipleship richness’ in this paucity of choice.

Another point brought out both by the book and my brief exposure to the work in France was the dependence of the chaplaincies on lay members getting involved; often these Church plants have their origins in a “home meeting which then calls forth opportunities for worship, witness and service” (p.206).  Although ICS works in a Church of England setting, many denominational backgrounds are to be found within the congregations (again by virtue of being the only English-speaking Church around).

There are a large and growing number of books written about mission in Europe.  Granted, the work of ICS is focused on a ‘niche market’; but here is an organisation that has been committed to mission at a grass roots level, planting churches in Europe, for well over 160 years – an activity much of the church is only just waking up to.  It seems to me they have a unique voice to contribute to ongoing discussions about European mission.  Perhaps reading Faith and New Frontiers is the first way in which we can benefit.

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