In the second part of this Church Planting series we're hearing from Phil Whittall, who now lives with his family in Stockholm, the Capital of Sweden, having moved from the UK last year.
Our link to this church plant actually started through Phil's mother-in-law, Kate Duncan, who is also now out in Stockholm. While based in Oxford for the birth of Anya in 2010, I was given use of a desk in the office of Emmanuel Church Oxford, where Kate was then working part time. Returning to St Petersburg, several months later we heard back from Kate that she would be moving to Stockholm in 2012, and would therefore be a Baltic neighbour with us in St Pete's - by then, we had heard God speaking to us about Tallinn, so I was able to reply to her with a yes, we were to be neighbours - but even closer than she thought! Tallinn is wonderfully located between some awesome cities - west of St Petersburg, our sending church. East of Stockholm, just south of Helsinki and north of Riga. In this series I will be sharing answers from guys in Riga and St Petersburg, and hopefully from Helsinki in the future as well.
At the last Brighton conference in 2011, we had a little time with Phil and some of his team in a local pub one night. And through emails since, we've managed to chat a little. Being a largely unchurched part of the world, relationships with other like-minded people in neighbouring capital cities at the same stage as us, brings strength and encouragement, which is extremely valuable.
Phil has also been a great help so far with my novel Cherry Picking (shameless plug I know, but this is how Phil has encouraged me!) His background has been in publishing, so in this area too he has a lot of helpful advice, which I've been so grateful for.
So, that's the intro over - let's see what he has to say;
Tell us a little about the city you meet in?
Stockholm is the capital of Sweden and with around 2 million people is the largest city in Scandinavia and only St Petersburg is bigger in the Baltic region. It's a very highly developed, well run and beautiful city, with a currently healthy and growing economy. It's a joy to live here but it is also a city largely without God. Only around 1-1.5% of the population attend church on any given Sunday (compared to around 4-5% nationally). In terms of a mission field that puts it in the same category as countries like Japan, North Korea, Thailand, Mongolia and Iraq (according to Operation World).
Some people might look at church planting and feel they have no idea what to do - what would you say to help them?
I would say that was normal but not to get paralysed into inaction. Speak to leaders, investigate a place (if you know that), training (if you need that) and begin to orient your life now around the fact that one day it will be different. So save money, change the sorts of books you read...anything really
When did you know you were called to be a church planter?About 12 years ago when I was asked by Martin Charlesworth who was leading the church I attended. He asked me 'would I lead a church plant?' and after praying about it, concluded that God was behind the question.
How old were you when you planted your first church?
28 by the time we got as far as our first public Sunday meeting. But around 26 when that journey started.
Are you finished yet?
No. Currently in Stockholm and fully expect that to be a church that raises up church planters for Sweden and the Scandinavian/Baltic region.
Called to just church plant, or called to a specific city - or both? And does it matter?
No I don't think it matters. Some are called to lead, others are called to join in. The important thing is gaining the backing of those leading you so you can be equipped, released and sent out on mission.
I think one of the big things is that it takes time so patience and a long-term perspective is crucial. Learning a language is one reason for that; even here in Stockholm where there are a high proportion of people able to speak English we want to be able to pray and communicate about Jesus in the heart language of this nation and that's Swedish not English.
Swedish and English. We're not fluent yet so we're doing what we can and translating the rest. It's a bit of mish-mash right now.
In New Frontiers, we talk about building on an Apostolic and Prophetic foundation - how has that been seen through your situation?
God has been gracious in speaking promises over us as a church and that gives us confidence in the future even if the interim steps are not yet crystal clear. The prophetic among us builds up, strengthens and helps equip us for the future reality God has for us. The apostolic helps provide the determination, perseverance and wisdom to break through the inevitable battles in whatever shape they come.
Calling verses Gifting - where do you stand?
Both would be great. God uses all sorts of people but church planting can be just hard work so gifting without the calling is probably more vulnerable than the other way around.
What is the role of internationals (ie non natives) in the life of a new church plant?
Well, we're internationals so I hope it's a useful one! If you're planting into a city the chances are that will be a very multi-cultural context and part of the promise of the kingdom of God is to see people from north, south, east and west participate in the feast of the King. So there's a role for every native and non-native.
What challenges have you had to over come?
All of them! There are challenges of trusting God for provision for homes, finances, your children, a team, for salvation, for friendships, for new languages. You can arrive in a new place with all of those things up in the air and you have to trust God for everything, that's why the calling is key.
What challenges remain?
We're not fluent in Swedish yet so we need to keep working hard at that. We want to see the lost saved, leaders equipped and released. We're only just beginning so there are plenty of challenges ahead of us.
Can people still move to join you?
How can someone pray for you and your church?
Pray for friendships and relationships. Churches start there both inside the church family and with others in the neighbourhood. We want our relationships to be fruitful for the kingdom of God.
Do you need a team to go church planting?
No but it helps. Sooner or later a team needs to be built that is essential, but you don't have to have a team to get going.
How has moving to church plant with young children been?
So far it's been fun. Our eldest is 4 and youngest is 2, so they're at an age where they can pick up the language in a way that makes their parents jealous. Taking time to make sure your family move well is important, and so far it's gone well and we're grateful for that.
What challenges do you face with raise children in a 'foreign' setting?
Sweden is quite well known for it's liberal attitudes to pretty much everything and is like many developed nations highly consumeristic and individualistic. The gospel speaks against both those attitudes so that's very counter-cultural. Swedes are also quick to think people who are enthusiastic about their faith are cultish and no kid needs that label round their neck. But every culture poses challenges to Christian parents and this one is no different, the trick is to figure out where.
Is outside financial support vital for church planting? What other ways are there that you've come across?
It can obviously be a great advantage because moving countries can be expensive and language learning can eat into your work time. But in our area, for example there are over 500 IT companies from giants like Microsoft, Samsung and Ericsson to small start-ups so working and being in business is key for most people being able to move to a city.
What advantages does having financial support for at least the first year have in the life of a church plant?
The big one is the space it gives you to sort out the fundamental basics of life - accommodation, bank accounts, transport, doctors and to invest time into learning a language.
What one piece of advice would you give to someone feeling called to plant a church somewhere?
Go for it! Get yourself equipped in character and trained in gifts and make plans to get out of the boat.
Huge thanks Phil for so thoroughly answering these questions.
Phil is a part of the Stockholm Church Plant, Sweden.
Church Blog: http://stockholmchurch.wordpress.com/Twitter: @simplepastor
Series so far: