Ministry to York, England

April 21, 2012

Alumni Simon Arscott (Right, M.Div. '08) and Matthew Roberts (Ph.D., '08) have started a church plant in York, England, Trinity Church York.  In this interview, Simon talks about the church plant, what it means to pastor an Evangelical church in England, and how Westminster has impacted his time in York.

Why did you decide to start a church plant in York?
Back in the late 1990's, a friend of Matthew's who was studying in York commented on the lack of churches committed to expository Bible ministry in the city. Apart from one other conservative evangelical church, there's a pitiful absence of both expository preaching and clear commitment to the Bible as God's authoritative Word. As a result the next generation of Christian leaders pass through their time at university being fed a diet of fluff. That put York on Matthew's radar, so when the opportunity arose for him to plant a church in 2009 he opted for York.

Matthew shared his vision of a Presbyterian church with me, and when I could see he had his head screwed on, I joined him in 2010, agreeing to help out for a few years, while getting some church planting experience.

What has been your experience church-planting so far?
You move a lot of chairs when church planting! You print and cut the service sheets, type out the song words, draw up the rotas, open up and lock the building; things that in an established church would be quietly done by godly, servant-hearted people in the congregation, in a church plant fall on your shoulders. I think there are plenty of moments when Matthew and I dream of having a few older, mature, experienced Christians with us to help with the sea of students who've come our way.

Having said that, what's happened in the last two years is a big encouragement. Matthew moved to York with zero contacts, and now on a Sunday during the semester we have around 70 people. A lot of those are students, with wildly varying levels of commitment, but compared to the long hard slog that many church planters experience, it's a blessing. We've had some very new Christians join us and had the pleasure of baptizing them. A good number of people coming here are not from theologically savvy churches. Various people have said that hearing the same book of the Bible preached week by week is a novelty to them, but they really like the idea! It's been great watching some of their paradigms begin to shift as what the gospel is hits home.

How would you compare the English culture to the American culture as it relates to Christianity?
England, on the whole is much more secular. The man on the street has no connections with church; the last person in his family to have gone was probably his grandparents, who were forced to go at school. Generally, he's not aggressive in his rejection of the church; he just finds it utterly irrelevant. When you talk to him about God he'll probably give you a bemused look as though you were discussing stamp-collecting.

An advantage of this is that there's not so much clutter to dismantle when you actually explain the gospel to him, but it's no easy feat to get him to the stage where he'll listen. Most people in our church are from church backgrounds, and we mustn't let a full room distract us from the lack of conversions we're seeing.

How has your time at Westminster shaped your ministry today?
Westminster convinced me that what happens on Sunday morning at 10:30 is the high point of my week. To worship the Triune God with his covenant people, through Word, sacrament and prayer is what makes the church the most relevant, cutting-edge, culture-shaping institution she can be. We try to constantly tell people at Trinity that our distinctive as a church is that we don't have a distinctive; we just want to do what the church has always done.

I think I turned up at Westminster thinking I knew my theology and now I needed to get some tricks up my sleeves in order to do ministry. My 3 years reinforced to me that theology IS practical. Whether it's theology proper, soteriology, or ecclesiology, these subjects make all the difference in the world to what you say to the girl sleeping with her boyfriend, or what I will fill my diary with next week.

How would you encourage current WTS students interested in a similar ministry to yours?
Throw away all your books about culture and read more theology. No one pays you to expound the culture. They can read the newspaper and go to the cinema for themselves, but on a Sunday morning people need to hear you tell them who God is, who his Son is, and who they are. Don't skimp on your biblical studies or systematic classes for the pursuit of relevance. The thing that will make you most relevant is knowing your Bible and your theology better. Tell me about the hypostatic union. Be able to define justification. Explain what a sacrament is. They are the most important things you should leave seminary being able to do. You'll learn the practical stuff in church. 

How can the Westminster community pray for you?
Presbyterianism in England is miniscule. There are more Presbyterian churches in Philadelphia than in the whole of England. We are a drop in the bucket of conservative evangelicalism, which itself is a drop in the bucket of English society. Pray for the International Presbyterian Church and the Evangelical Presbyterian Church of England & Wales to keep loving the theological riches entrusted to them. Pray for more natives to become convinced Presbyterians and to plant healthy biblical churches. Pray that we won't be stuffy and that our theology will inspire us to mission, not hinder it.

Pray for some older Christians to come and join the work at Trinity Church York. We feel the need for more families to come and join. You can pray for a Christianity Explored course running in May for people interested in finding out more about Jesus. Also, Matthew and I will always value prayer that we'd be godly husbands and fathers, and faithful elders. I'm amazed by how distracted I can get from the Ten Commandments.