Today it is exactly 25 years since we arrived in London.
Ali and I landed at London’s Heathrow Airport on the 4th of September 1993. We came with a big bold dream to start a church that reached students and nations.
That was the beginning of an incredible God-adventure for us, and in this short piece, we would like to share some of our story with you to encourage you to dream big and step out boldly. Our prayer is that you will be encouraged not to let anything hold you back from pursuing God’s call on your life, but boldly step out knowing that he is faithful to fulfil his promises.
I was born in Grootfontein. Ali was born in Butterworth. We grew up in Stutterheim. We don’t expect you to know where any of these places are; they are just small towns somewhere on the vast landscape of Southern Africa. But God seems to have strange ways of preparing His people for His purposes, and from our small seemingly insignificant beginnings we now greet you from the heart of the greatest city in the world!
Our faith journey started when we both came to believe in Jesus Christ shortly after leaving school, and this grew during our university years. At our wedding, we sang a song called “we have a destiny”, and soon after as a young couple we sensed God speaking to us about “going to that nations.” These were still the last of the dark days of apartheid and not many churches in South Africa were thinking of expanding to the nations during that time. Nevertheless, we started preparing, saving whatever we could, and seeking the next step. For a whole year, all we knew was we were “called to the nations”. We had no more direction than that. At the same time, the fledgeling His People church (now called Every Nation) meeting in a lecture theatre of the University of Cape Town received a prophetic word that it was time to “stretch out your curtains, lengthen your cords.” This prophetic call to the nations for the church dovetailed perfectly with our own leadings, and six months later we were sent out from there to start a church and campus ministry in London.
At that sending out event we received a very relevant prophetic word in preparation for the opposition that church planters in foreign lands face, which is often intense, relentless, and intimidating both in the natural and spiritual realm. The Lord knew that would be the case for us too, and to prepare us He said “When you get to London, they will ask you, ‘What are you doing here?’ And you will boldly answer, ‘We are on the business of the King!’” This word has carried us through many challenging times on our journey, and we have often in faith had to declare to the demonic opposition that “we are on the business of the King!” In it all, we have learnt that when you are on the King’s business, the King looks after your business.
We’d been married for less than two years when we landed at London’s Heathrow airport on a chilly Autumn morning in 1993. It was just us with our two backpacks and a big vision. We’d never been to London before and knew no-one. Our only contacts were a few friends-of-friends. Even though we had a common language, London’s culture was very different from what we had been accustomed to. We recall early on the end of one meeting with some Christians in a posh Knightsbridge apartment when the leader prayed “Lord, may their accents not hinder their mission here!” Looking back at it now, God was surely wise to send us without an option to first spy the land, as the stark reality of the task may well have put us off from coming back!
Perseverance, provision and people are critical to the success of any mission, and in all these areas the “stretch” part of the prophetic word that launched us seemed to be quite well fulfilled many times over in the early days, and it taught us so much.
Right from the beginning our vision for the church was about helping people know God’s love and grace, discipleship, campus ministry, planting churches, equipping leaders, being a house of prayer for the nations, and launching people into their God-given call to transform culture. A significant key to our strategy to equip people for this vision was the part-time Bible School we planned to run on a campus. These teachings had massively impacted our own lives, so we were itching to impart these life-changing truths to the masses of London.
This reminds us of one particularly significant freezing January evening about four months after our arrival in London. We were full of great expectation. This night was when we expected that what we came to do in London would take off. After a tough first few months, we’d built the first term of the part-time Bible School up to finish with about a dozen eager people enrolled. It was small but seemed to be gaining momentum. Now it was time for the second term, and during the break over Christmas we’d plastered every central London campus with promotional posters and invited everyone we knew to come to the opening night. We’d dragged the catering, the guitar, and the student notes across London on buses and the underground, and now the room we’d hired on this prestigious university was all set up and ready for the breakthrough night.
By 19.30 it was apparent we’d over-planned and over-catered. Not one of the previous terms students had returned, and only two new girls had shown up. We had expected at least two dozen, preferably many more. Now it was just them, and the two of us.
That evening we had to make a massive decision: Would we cancel and quit, or would we do for two what we would do for two dozen, two hundred, or two thousand? It wasn’t going to be anything to write about in our newsletter, but we look back on that night as one of the turning points of walking out our calling. We discovered that God’s heart is truly expressed by the prophet Habakkuk when he declared “Do not despise these small beginnings, for the Lord rejoices to see the work begin…” – Zechariah 4:10
We remember making a decision to just go for it that night and teach like there were thousands in the room. If two were all we had, then we would try our best to be faithful with two. We still shudder when we think about how close we came to quitting that night, because over the next few years that Bible School proved to be a genuinely dynamic equipping tool, with over a thousand people graduating over the next decade, and many of them going on to do the very things we had envisioned. This lesson is possibly best summed up by what Walt Disney once said: “Remember, it all started with a mouse!” Or, as I like to say, by “carrying your cheese.” (I’ll write that book sometime!)
Even today Januaries in London still seem to be the most challenging time of the year, perhaps because of that experience, or maybe just because by then the winter just seems to have gone on too long, especially if one has not been able to be home with family for Christmas that year. Another cost every church planter has to painfully count. (A big shout-out here to all those families/friends/churches who have “sent” those who have “went”!)
We had a similar testing experience with the church. Having arrived full of faith and vision we got to the end of our first year with literally only a handful of people having joined us. On Sunday afternoons the few of us could be found faithfully (and passionately) rattling around in our small one-bedroom flat lounge just two streets up from the famous Portobello Market in Notting Hill. We had expected so much more by this stage, and there wasn’t even a fist-sized cloud of hope on our horizon for anything to change. We had left South Africa on one-year open return air tickets, and their expiry was quickly drawing near. It was decision time. To stay or to go back. Beside our apparent lack of fruit at that point, the beaches, braai’s and biltong of our homeland were certainly also calling us back south very loudly. One of our London pastors recently said it this way: “Everyone wants to be a church planter, until the biltong runs out!” (Biltong, for the uninformed, is a South African delicacy) There was a louder voice though, that thankfully we continued to hear through the noise of all the discouragement. By God’s amazing grace he strengthened us and we continued to believe. Despite the fruitless reality we were facing, we reminded ourselves of what we believed that God had promised, and we tore up those return tickets and stayed on in London believing that God would be faithful to fulfil all he had promised.
The first Sunday into our second year we had our regular small group gathering. We couldn’t even hear ourselves speaking that day because the epicentre of Europe’s largest street festival, the Notting Hill Carnival, was happening right outside our flat! But in the following week, we had a breakthrough as the Lord started adding people from seemingly out of nowhere. Within a couple of weeks our small lounge was overflowing, and within two months we were hiring a meeting room on one of the world’s top universities, Imperial College London, just down the road from Kensington Palace where Prince Charles and Diana resided. In that second year, 1994, while a new South Africa was dawning as Nelson Mandela was elected president, so too a new beautiful new thing was beginning to blossom here in the great city as Jesus was building this church from those small beginnings. From there started an exciting fruitful adventure of “making disciples and making a difference”, which is the way we summarise our mission now.
“Who pays you?” is a question we have often been asked. The resource test is one that every leader must pass, and we definitely had a few big lessons in this subject. Coming to plant a church in one of the world’s most expensive cities without a solid support plan could be seen by some as more foolishness than faith. Back then we didn’t know anything about partnership support raising, so there were no real options for us but to pool all our few assets, savings and pensions, together with the limited support our sending church could give, and trust the Lord to be our Provider. I also had a promise, that “you will live from the fruit of your mouth” (Proverbs 18v20). That was the extent of our support! We vividly remember one day a few months into our first year when all that we had was depleted and we were down to our last twenty pounds with no income expected for two weeks. We were desperate. When we turned to the Lord in prayer we sensed Him simply saying: “Trust Me.” The next morning things went from bad to worse when our old little 1000cc Fiat Uno broke down with a snapped clutch cable just as I had dropped Ali off at a supply teaching job she had got a call to do that morning. I decided to walk the two hours home instead of spending the little money we had on a bus fare, and as I walked I had this clear sense that upon reaching our apartment there would be an envelope in the post with some money in it for us. This had never happened before this day, but sure enough, when we arrived I found an envelope with £100 from a very unexpected source. From providing so miraculously in those early days when we were down to our last few pounds, to quite miraculously getting onto the housing ladder in London, to the church truly being a storehouse to bless the nations, in everything God has been the faithful Provider. Just a few years after this small provision at our door we would raise a hundred thousand pounds to launch our first church plant team to Dublin, Ireland.
From the very beginning we never considered ourselves to exist only for ourselves, but instead, have always recognised God’s call and blessing on the London church to be strong apostolic resource church for Europe and beyond. Thank you if you have been one of those heroes who has faithfully contributed your tithes and offerings to this house – this is your fruit to share!
In our own lives, we can also testify to God’s faithfulness. From sowing everything we had to start this, we look back in amazement at how God has provided for us personally along this journey. We both learnt the blessing of tithing and generous giving early on in our new faith walks, and have certainly found that God is no man’s debtor and he supplies all our needs according to his riches in glory.
The story of a church is never about just a couple or a few individuals. This was poignantly brought home to us when at our twenty year anniversary our church leaders presented us with a large canvas of the London skyline, made up of over one thousand different faces of just some of those who had been part of the journey in this great city. This again reminded us of the many many people who have passed through this church over the years and have gone on to great things for God in many spheres of life.
We recently listed over fifty people who have come through the London church and went on into some form of vocational ministry. Many of these incredible leaders who arrived here as wounded wanderers washed up on the shores of London by the storms of life. Others arrived in London for very different purposes, but collided with God’s love and calling and have gone on to do great things for the Kingdom. We’ve seen a half a dozen churches planted directly out of our original London congregation, including in Dublin, Madrid, Belgium, Northern Ireland, and more congregations here in London. Besides these churches, we’ve also been privileged to play a significant role in many of our church plants across west, central and Eastern Europe.
We have even planted a church in China. This was itself an incredible story, that started with Frans and Deb Olivier being stirred to go to on a mission to China, and in a prayer meeting where a group was regularly praying for the nations.
In one of these meetings as there was a time of praying in tongues, a certain word was being repeated. The team interpreted that it meant something specific, and then discovered that it was the name of a certain city in China! As a leadership team we concluded that the Lord was leading us to the campus in this city, and so started an intense seven-year missions initiative which saw over one hundred and fifty people go from London on short-term trips to China over that period, and a few of our leaders from London spent extended seasons there raising leaders and overseeing the fledgeling work. Many were saved and discipled, including a young couple who were eventually set in to lead the church when it was launched! This same couple are now key leaders in our Every Nation movement.
There is also the story of Przemek, who encountered Jesus in a new way while on a short working holiday in London from his homeland Poland. He attended some of our Bible School, and I had the privilege of baptising him right in the pond at Trafalgar Square, and then we sponsored him to intern as a campus pastor in our church in Krakow. A few years later he was ordained as senior pastor there and is now a powerful leader in the region.
Missions trips have also been a key part of our strategy, and there has not been one single year since the church started where we have not sent out a mission team to somewhere from London.
Of course, one of our other great joys has been to see students from all over the world encounter Jesus while studying here and get raised up to be kingdom influencers in their fields. This has always been a key part of our mission and although the campuses of western Europe are arguably some of the spiritually darkest places on the earth, the Gospel has continued to steadily advance and change lives all across Europe as we keep pursuing this vital part of our calling to change the campus, and change the world.
As we look ahead, in the natural we see a darkened continent growing ever darker, and we see that western European campuses are amongst the most spiritually dark places on this planet. At the same time all over Europe, there are signs of light and life as Jesus is building and rebuilding his church. We continue to dream and labour for church planting and campus ministry in every nation of Europe and beyond. We continue to pray for workers, and train them up and send them out. We continue the mission to make disciples and make a difference. We believe that we will be a part of establishing a strong apostolic church planting and prayer centre from which Europe will continue to be impacted. We continue to believe that as we follow Jesus we will together be a part of writing His story into the history of Europe in partnership with our awesome Every Nation family and his wider church around the world.
There is more indeed!
All to God’s great glory!
Thank you for your great support, encouragement and partnership in the Gospel of our faithful Lord Jesus Christ.
Wolfi & Ali
25 years since landing here on 4 September 1993