Preacher Paul Scanlon is no stranger to tough transitions in the church—his church, Life Church, has been through some dramatic changes. He shares his wisdom on how to keep going.
By Dawn Seow
Under the leadership of Paul Scanlon, Life Church, formerly known as Abundant Life Church, went through a series of transitions. From a period of reaching out to people in the highways and byways, called “Crossing Over” to its recent change in name and leadership, Life church has become one of the fastest growing churches in United Kingdom today. The man this transformation shares with City News the bittersweet experience of transition, and encourages the Church to look into the future in times of difficulties.
We understand that Life Church went through a period of transition that later became known as “Crossing Over”. Could you tell us more about this?
The “Crossing Over” is a reinvention of the church–it is like us starting a new church inside an old church. Our church was 25 years old at that time, and it had become inward-looking; we stopped reaching people, and became very safe. Our church was in the city but the city was not in the church. Our city is quite a needy city, so “Crossing Over” was really moving the church outward, from the comfort we were in to the city, especially the poor community.
I took the language of God when He spoke to Joshua to cross the people over the Jordan (River), from the wilderness to the Promised Land. One day, I was looking at the new 2000-seater building we built 50 meters across the car park from the building we had, and I felt God said to me, “In a year’s time when the new building is built, I want you to cross the church over, not only in a change of address, but I want you to re-invent the church, cross them over mentally, conceptually in their believes, in their vision, to a whole new mentality.”
I took a year to get the congregation ready, so that when we moved to the new building, it was not just a physical move, but we were going to move mentally, in our concepts and understanding.
“Crossing Over” was about going into the city to reach the poor; so we did that from 1999, and our church really did change, it exploded in growth. It was very challenging to reach the poor, but it was something we should have been doing sooner.
What were the difficulties you and your team faced in the seasons of transition? What were the reactions of the members?
Quite a lot of people did not like it because they were very frightened by the new people that were coming; some of them were prostitutes, some were homeless drug addicts. For them to come to church with their family and sit next to someone like that is a bit scary. Some of these people left. Before they left, they were quite resistant, they wrote quite strong letters to me, and came to see me.
These people were not bad people, but they just could not stick around. Many of them came back after we transited into the new culture, but they just could not live through the chaos during the changeover. We lost about 300 people—and our church was probably about 600 people at that time—so we lost almost half the church. Most of them were leaders, elders, deacons, good people that we needed but they just could not buy into the new culture that we were becoming.
I just knew that we had to keep going, whether or not we were losing people we had to keep going because I knew we had to reach so many more people than the one we were reaching. We started to leave the 99 to find the one who was still missing.
How did you and your team handle the situation?
Everyone in the church was connected by family. So one might be okay with the whole thing but if their parents are not happy and they are leaving, they will expect them to be leaving too. Then he might begin to think, “I haven’t got a problem, I like it”, and the family begins to split up. When we go through things like that, it is difficult–it divides friends and family and we had all of that. Some of our oldest staff were unhappy and when they left, their children went with them. It was difficult to watch as a pastor, but I realized that we could not have growth without having separation.
We went through that for about three years. In the year 2000 or 2001, things settled down and I really felt that we were starting to rebuild for the future. We grew from there.
Even though things are difficult and challenging—like what I was facing in 1999, people were leaving, we were losing money because people were leaving and stop tithing—I knew in my heart that we had to keep going and the best was yet to come; thousands were waiting for us to reach then. That has become true. Twelve, 13 years later, today, it is just great; church is thriving, our city is being reached, we are feeding people, helping people, and lives are changed. People who never knew our church existed now called our church their home. We had to get through that difficult period.
In church, people feel that everything should be great all the time. Sometimes it is not, it is tough. That was the making of our church and this (difficult time) will be the making of your church, it will. It is just tough while it lasts.
You know some people, like the widow with the oil, she had no faith for the little bit of oil, but the prophet did. Some people in our church had no faith when things were difficult and people were leaving, but years later when things settled down and everything was striving, then they got into faith and came back. Every church has that: some people just cannot stick around when difficulties are on, they are just not built for it, and they come back later. I think the thing for us is to keep the good spirit and welcome them back. We do not want to be like the older brother of the prodigal son: he was arrogant that he stayed, and the younger brother did not. So I had to say to our church: “People left us in the difficult time and many are going to come back, and when they come back, we must not have pride or filled with judgment, or point a finger at them, I just want you to welcome them back. Some people just cannot stick around during difficult times and we understand that, but the door is always open for them to come back.”
Why do you think the change was worth the effort?
I think it is seeing the lost and the poor reached, seeing people empowered. They were empowered to get out their potential, to live their dreams.
In our country, people do not go to church. When we went to the areas in our city that were rough areas, there was no competition, no church was reaching these people, and nobody wanted them. I felt God saying to me, “If you reach people nobody wants, I will give you people everybody wants.” That is what happened: when we reached the people nobody wanted, some of them became people everybody wanted. We reached out to one of the biggest drug dealers in our city; he was saved, built his own business, became wealthy and is now one of the biggest givers in our church. Ten years ago, when we reached him in prison through our prison ministry—a new thing we started then—he was someone nobody wanted. Now he is the kind of person everybody wants.
Abundant Life Church was renamed to Life Church recently, what is the story behind the change in name?
The name of the building we had before we built our own church building was called Church House. When we built our own building in 1989, we had a chance to choose a name, and we chose Abundant Life Church. As the years went by, we realized how confused our city was because we put the word “center” in front of the building, instead of the word “church”. People thought it was anything but a church.
We dropped the word Abundant and just call it Life Church now. It is better, shorter and we are not always saying the word Abundant. When you tell your friends who are not church people—which most of the people in England are not—“I go to Abundant Life Church”, they think it is some kind of cult. The word is so unused to most people in terms of it being attached to a church. I think our people find it easier to say Life Church and it is an easier word for our church to be understood by in the city.
There has also been a change in leadership; can you tell us more about the change?
We started doing that five years ago quietly behind the scenes with the staff, but not to the church. Five years ago when I turned 50, I decided I did not want to run everything, even when I was still leading. We made some transitions so that the church is not dependent on me for everything. We began to move the staff around so that others began to do things that I used to do and I was released to do things that I felt I was better at, which was writing, communicating, mentoring through teaching, leadership academy and so on. In addition, I do some ministry and travelling, like I come here (to CHC).
In the last two years, we have gone more public with that, and now we have gone to a place where we have lead pastors, who are really on the ground leading the church. Last year I was gone for about three months. I was not there at all and everything was just great; (they) did not drop anything, and did not miss a beat. That is what I really want. I grew up under leaders who came from a generation where you leave everything in your will, but you do not hand over something in your mid-life. When that happens, they are in their 70s or 80s, by which we would all be in our 50s and 60s. I did not want to do that. I wanted to empower the next generation in my 50s. If we leave it to them when we are 60s or 70s, the next people under us would already be in their late 40s and it should go to those behind them who are in their 20s. So the people we are empowering now are really in their 20s and 30s.
Many of the leaders and main preachers we have now came out of the youth ministry, including my own children. I have four daughters; three of them are on staff and one of them is working with the government doing community work. Two of my sons-in-law are also on staff.