The Emperor’s New Frontiers
The official answer, of course, is no. Newfrontiers - which, originally, was simply the name given to Terry Virgo’s apostolic sphere - has always included a number of established and emerging apostolic ministries, and the only thing that is changing at the moment is that we are formally recognising and releasing them. The name will continue, the values will continue, and the relationships will continue, so to use the language of “breaking up”, let alone “fragmenting” or even “ending”, is inappropriate. Nobody has fallen out with anybody; we still have the same mission, the same DNA and the same shared history.
But. Now imagine I’m not talking to leaders within the movement, who already understand the way things work, but to moderately informed people both within and without – like many readers of this blog – who have heard something like the following: Terry Virgo is retiring; five separate guys in the UK (and a bunch more overseas) are leading their own teams, choosing their own names, setting up their own websites and training courses, and leading their own Bible weeks; there is no unifying statement of faith, and the team leaders are free to develop their own doctrinal distinctives; there are no events at which all leaders from around the world (or even from across the UK) will gather; the Newfrontiers office is closing in December; and there will be no central budget. In a conversation with such a person, talking about remaining together and developing more apostolic spheres could seem, in the light of the facts, like spin - a flat denial of what looks to many like a reality - and that costs you credibility in leadership. (When the little boy shouts out that the Emperor isn’t wearing any clothes, everyone wants to applaud him; the only people denying it are the weavers and spinners who sold him the “clothes” in the first place.) So for a while, I wondered whether the best thing to do, if asked whether Newfrontiers was breaking up, was simply to answer “yes” and be done with it, and then explain why, and what that meant in practice.
But. The problem with doing that, or something like it, is that it completely misrepresents what Newfrontiers has been, and what it is developing into. If a corporation turns into five companies, each with their own leader, name, board and budget, then it’s fair to say that the original corporation has “broken up”. If a denomination fragments along theological lines into five smaller denominations, distinguishable from each other not just by geography but also by convictions, purpose and values, then that might be called “breaking up”, too. But if a family reaches the stage where the children no longer live under their parents’ roof, and leave home to form families of their own, nobody calls that a “break up”. Rather, it’s understood as the natural outcome of growth and maturity, and the best possible way of ensuring that growth and maturity continue into the next generation. The sort of language we use for it is positive, not negative; we mourn the physical separation, but we know how important it is for the family to continue to flourish.
So how do you tell the difference between a denomination breaking up, and children leaving home? That is, how can we tell if what is happening in Newfrontiers is the latter, as opposed to the former? Well, self-identification is one thing: when children leave home, they still describe themselves as being part of their original family, even if they are beginning to form their own, whereas fragmented denominations and divested companies immediately abandon their old names and announce new ones (PCUSA, PCA, OPC, and so on), so that their new identity is clear. Another clue is that extended families visit each other’s houses, get to know each other’s children, exchange gifts at Christmas, and meet together to celebrate weddings, whereas denominations who have split don’t generally do those things. And of course, family members keep in touch, desire the best for each other, and continue to update each other on significant things that are happening in their lives; in contrast, companies and (sadly) denominations can soon become rivals, who no longer feel like they’re united on the same team.
For me, then, what’s happening in Newfrontiers at the moment looks much more like a family leaving home than a corporation or a denomination splitting up. Admittedly, the new names being announced by some spheres might seem to suggest otherwise (and that’s one reason why, personally, I have some reservations about them), but from what I can tell, both spheres and churches will continue to self-identify as Newfrontiers, even if they also use a sphere name. Spheres will continue to support each other, exchange gifts (in the form of ministry, people and finances) and work together on common projects, of which this blog is just one. There will be contexts for meeting together, albeit much less frequently than in the past. Visiting other churches and getting to know them will continue to happen (of the churches I’m visiting this year, all but one of them are from other spheres), and so will the encouragement, news updates, sending of people and partnering in mission, and so on. All of those things, to my mind, are much more important indicators of unity than having the same leaders’ conference or the same website.
One other brief observation on this: at a practical level, very little of all that’s happening will bother the average person in a Newfrontiers church. From the perspective of the people in my life group, for example, being part of Newfrontiers means being part of Kings, with the values we have, and being connected to a wider worldwide movement through people who visit and serve us in various ways. Almost none of them went to Stoneleigh; none of them have ever spoken to Terry Virgo; it’s five years since any of them would have seen him or heard him speak; and I would bet that none of them could name more than one of the sphere leaders anyway. So for all that church leaders talk about the implications of what is currently taking place - and I do a fair bit of that myself! - we need to remember that most of these are implications for us, but not necessarily for those we serve. Just a thought.
So when people ask me whether Newfrontiers is “breaking up”, I’m back to saying no. I never “split from” my parents, my brother or my sisters, and nor am I planning to. In the long run, I actually ended up with a lot more people in my extended family as a result. Which is as it should be.