From Bible Study to Church Plant in Northern England

By Ben Wilkerson, Apr 19, 2022

When many picture the English countryside, they think of an idyllic rural village where cows and sheep roam through the streets, everyone knows each other by name, diversity is scarce, and rural village life is as strong as Blue Stilton cheese. While the reality is slightly less dramatic, living as a foreigner in a rural English town takes grit, especially if you’re planting a Presbyterian church. Josh and Gina Rieger found this in January 2014 when they brought two small children from Jackson, Mississippi, to Hexham, England. 

Wedged close to the Scottish border on the River Tyne, Hexham is small by British standards, hosting just over 11,000 souls. The town has a dark and bloodied history going back to the Roman occupation and the construction of nearby Hadrian’s Wall. It’s an unlikely place to plant a church. But God often works in unexpected ways, and He has worked mightily in Hexham. 

The Hexham church plant began as a Bible study led by members of Gateshead Presbyterian Church in Newcastle, England. Even in the early days, Gateshead Presbyterian (now called All Saints Presbyterian) had members coming from Hexham. Some were driving 50 to 90 minutes to get to Sunday morning worship. For them, church fellowship and church life didn’t exist until the Hexham Bible study started in August 2014. The last Reformed evangelical church closed its doors in 1973, almost 40 years ago. But just as God brought the Israelites out of the wilderness after 40 years, He brought Hexham out of its own wilderness.

A Call to Church Planting

Initially, the Riegers didn’t consider the call of church planting. After Josh served seven years in the Navy, they were ready for something more stable. They had a young family, and Josh was on staff at First Presbyterian in Jackson. But after spending some time with church planters that visited First Presbyterian Jackson and Reformed Theological Seminary, Josh and Gina began to feel God’s call to plant churches in England. During that process, they had an incredible encounter. In the summer of 2009, they decided to visit the churches in England to see if this really was the Lord’s calling. While enjoying the hospitality of the Hilton family in Gateshead, Kevin Hilton said with tears of joy in his eyes, “I don’t know why you would want to come here where it’s so spiritually dark, but I’m going to pray that you do, and that your church has an impact like this church has had an impact on my family.” Josh and Gina looked at each other and both knew the Lord was calling them to plant churches in England. 

Josh and Gina arrived in Hexham in January 2014. From the start, Josh and Gina worked at developing relationships within the church, among other believers in the area, and among their neighbors who didn't know the Lord. They remained faithful and steadfast even though the church, once it started, only had 17 participants. “Part of church planting is just building relationships and being faithful even when it’s hard and that’s all that we did,” Josh said. They continued the weekly Bible study and began meeting other believers in the town, engaging Hexham in the Christian fellowship it hadn’t experienced in nearly 40 years. Oftentimes, things were discouraging and hard for the Riegers. English people are reserved, and it takes a great deal of time before they accept you as part of the community. Then COVID-19 hit in March 2020.

A Pandemic Pivot

From March 16, 2020 to July 5, 2021, the UK was in a near-constant state of lockdown, including periods where no one was allowed to leave the house except for an hour for exercise. Josh and other leaders of the church began scrambling to figure out how to stream a live worship service over YouTube. They were unable to see anyone in person for months. As lockdown restrictions eased, they began meeting again in person, but the gatherings were still constrained. At one point only six people were allowed to meet, meaning the five Riegers could only meet with one other person. However, one event flourished despite the pandemic: a women’s Bible study. 

Gina started Hexham’s first women’s Bible study in April 2015, but she couldn’t gain traction among the women of Hexham. Another year later, Gina tried again and got a few women to commit. They would gather in each other's homes, read a biography, then talk about it and pray with each other. The study met monthly up until the pandemic. During the lockdown, one woman called Gina and asked if she would lead the study weekly, saying, “We really need this during this time.” As the study commenced weekly, more and more women began joining, even from areas beyond Hexham and its church plant.

God Redirects and a Church Strengthens

Gina was diagnosed with breast cancer in August 2020. The Riegers returned to their family in the U.S. for treatment. Even while they were in Houston, Josh and Gina continued to lead and serve the church over Zoom. Gina continued the women’s study and only missed a couple weeks during her cancer treatments. Josh continued leading Sunday morning worship and midweek prayer meetings over Zoom. 

As COVID-19 restrictions eased in December of 2020, the saints at Hexham were able to meet again in person on Sunday. Men from the church in Newcastle would travel to lead the services, but Josh was still leading the midweek studies from Houston. The Riegers returned to Hexham in September 2021, unsure if they would be able to stay long term. However, the Lord used the Riegers’ return as a catalyst. The church fellowship grew more vibrant as members became more committed to each another and the church. More members became involved in hospitality and church-wide events. The congregation took ownership of the church as their own. However, as Josh and Gina continued talking with doctors about further treatments, it became evident that staying in Hexham was not viable for them. They told the difficult news to the understanding congregation and returned to the States in January 2022. 

Hexham’s search for a pastor has begun. Josh and Gina are based in Houston to be closer to family and the hospital there, but their work in England and with MTW is not finished. Josh now serves as MTW’s regional director for the British Isles and Ireland. Church planting is still crucial in the UK. Hexham is one of several church plants that are part of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church of England and Wales, which MTW helped start and continues to partner with. This small yet determined denomination is planting churches throughout England and Europe. The Lord is building His Church in England, one small village at a time.

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