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03 March 2014

Terry Virgo: Passing on the baton

Terry Virgo: Passing on the baton

Richard Woodall meets Terry Virgo – one of the best known faces in the charismatic Church and an inspiration for thousands of church leaders seeking to break new ground and plant churches.

Mention the name Newfrontiers and there's one name synonymous with the charismatic church movement: Terry Virgo. But having handed over the leadership of Newfrontiers, he is still just as eager to see more people healed or enter the kingdom.

Since July 2011, the global group of churches – founded in1980 with a mission to "establish the kingdom of God by making disciples, training leaders and planting churches" – has no longer been in the hands of a single leader.

"We must be faithful, keep working, believe the gospel reaps and pray for days of visitation."

Oversight of the UK Newfrontiers churches is now the responsibility of various leaders with Terry having moved from Christ the King Church, Brighton, to being based at King's Church in Kingston-upon-Thames.

From a 40-person office to working from his study in his south-west London home, it's quite a change. But such a monumental change in the leadership has not affected two important emphases: salvation and healing.

Describing the Alpha course as one of the"key weapons" in bringing people into the kingdom, Terry is unequivocal about the impact of the 900-plus worldwide network of Newfrontiers churches, especially when it comes to work in the UK.

"In my experience over the last five years, we are seeing more people healed then we have ever seen before. It's not massively dramatic but it never used to be there before. That encourages me."

And we are seeing more people converted too than we have ever seen before.

"In Brighton, we prayed one year: 'Please may we see one person saved every week this year'? It seemed to us at the time a remarkably high goal to set. Latterly, if we had a Sunday where two or three people weren't saved we would be shocked because we were seeing regular conversions.

"That's not happening in Kingston yet – it's a new church plant. We see Sundays as very much purpose built to be a gospel presentation within the preaching.

"People like Tim Keller have emphasised being evangelistic in the midst of your church life. There's much more church inclusion that way.

"Passing on the leadership of Newfrontiers had been in his thoughts long before it happened, but the final decision came from perhaps an unexpected source.

"The climax was we had Mark Driscoll speaking for us at the Brighton conference (in summer 2008). Without any warning, in his final talk, he said 'you need to think about handing over'. He had been in my home and seen a photo of my daughter's wedding and he used the image to say 'Terry needs to find a husband for his 'daughter' (Newfrontiers being that 'daughter').

"It was in front of 5,000 people but right from the beginning I knew it was God, immediately embraced Mark, and said 'God has spoken to us'. We had talked about it before as an international team but we'd never had the edge to make it happen. Initially we thought who would be the right person but we knew of other church denominations who had handed over to one person and it had not worked very well.

"Why look for one person if there are a number of fine leaders around? Mark, by speaking as he did, put it in our face.""I felt God speaking to me," said Terry. "It was the trigger we needed. Sometimes you wake up and realise everything has changed. The guys have picked up the baton and are running with it; it's not in my hands anymore. It takes a while to wake up to that."

Could he ever have foreseen, even with an expectant faith, the growth that Newfrontiers has experienced?

"No. When we first started it was a number of house churches all within an hour's drive from where I lived."

Despite the fact Terry admits in the pas tNewfrontiers did not have a strong enough focus on social issues – foodbanks, debt advice etc – you could make the case that in word and action Newfrontiers resembles a modern-day New Testament Church. The miraculous is expected, the lame are healed, and God speaks with clarity. Could or should this be the pattern for other denominations?

Quoting Isaiah 9:7, Terry says: "Of the increase of his government and peace, there will be no end. I believe for a Church of impact in the end times. For impact there has to be power, we should expect to see more evidence of the power of God in terms of signs and wonders.

"Having said that, I realise there are times and seasons. The Wesleyan era, the ministry of George Whitefield or the 1859 revival where 1,000,000 people were added to the British Church in a few years; there are times when God seems to come in power.

"I keep praying we might yet see revival. Martyn Lloyd-Jones said that if we don't see revival England is in a real problem, and that was before the so-called swinging 60s." So what should we do then?

"We must be faithful, keep working, believe the gospel reaps and pray for days of visitation."

But what does revival actually look like and how do we know when it has come? "It starts in the Church and it overflows," says Terry. "A real revival affects the culture. It's God coming to His own people initially and there being an awakening with an overspill in terms of conversion."

Although he doesn't see such a revival yet, listening to him, you sense the Church in the UK isn't in too bad a place. 

In light of that, what did he think of Mark Driscoll's controversial comments last year? The Seattle-based pastor said: "Name for me the one young, good Bible teacher that is known across Great Britain. You don't have one – that's the problem. There are a bunch of cowards who aren't telling the truth."

What is of note about Terry's answer is that he first chooses to praise rather than criticise. "Mark is a remarkable gospel preacher, a latter-day Spurgeon. His appraisal of the UK – it's hard to see where he is coming from and have to name a name. There aren't many high profile speakers in the UK. J John maybe. But the UK is very different from America. I think it's just a bit of a silly rant from Mark."

Terry – who formerly worked in the civil service in London prior to being a church leader – also fended off criticism of charismatic Christianity from US pastor John MacArthur who said in October it "dishonours God" and "offers nothing to enrich true worship".

"Someone said (to me) that he watches too much American television and needs to go around the world. There's much on American television that is deplorable and it's called charismatic but much of it has nothing to do with charismatic churches. In America if you say you are charismatic, people will think you are into prosperity."

Closer to home, how can the UK Church continue to be relevant in 2014? His answer is more simplistic than I'd imagined it would be.

"It's communicating the gospel to someone who thinks they've rejected him but doesn't understand what they are rejecting. We see the Church presented on television on programmes like The Vicar of Dibley or through national religious events.

"People think they understand but they don't understand there is a relevant gospel which helps you to live every day, raise your family and do a good day's work.

"Our challenge is to penetrate the culture with the gospel and to help people discover."

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