Passing the Baton!

(A Sermon)

(A Sermon given by Mr Robin A. Brace, Penarth, UK, to a Welsh Baptist chapel in the Rhondda Valley in September 1999. The sermon is highly corrective because of serious problems among the leaders)



READING: Deuteronomy 30:15-20.

I don't know about you, but of the sports which I enjoy watching, athletics doesn't rate too highly; I'm not interested in how far somebody can throw a javelin, or, how far somebody can leap over a sand pit. But there is one sport which is part of athletics which I really do enjoy watching, and that is the relay race; that is where several very fit men or women run stages of a race but where the baton always has to be correctly passed on to the next runner in order for the next phase of the race to continue - I love watching that!

But I'm sure we have all seen some relay races where one of the teams has dropped the baton - disaster! Maybe that team even had a good lead but everything is lost because a baton was fumbled or dropped on one of the changeovers. That meant that all the running skills of that team were rendered useless!

Well, have we ever thought that the phases of a Christian congregation are a little like that?

Paul's comparison of the Christian life to running in a race is well known but what I would like to do today is to extend that analogy to compare it to running in a relay race! But I'm not going to be comparing a relay race to the Christian life, but to the life of any particular Christian congregation! Maybe that's a different slant for you, but think carefully about some of these points!

MATTHEW 16:13-18.

And verse 18 is the verse I am focussing on here: What did Jesus mean by 'the gates of hell shall not prevail against the church'? Well, 'hell' there is from 'hades' which refers to the grave and to death, the unseen world that we pass on to at death. Surely Jesus simply meant that death shall not prevail against the Church. In other words, the Church would never disappear from this earth because all Christians have died. So, Christianity would not die out! Voltaire said that it would die out within a few years of his death, but Voltaire soon died and his old home was used for many years by the French Bible Society! Voltaire was wrong.

So we have that promise from Jesus - but we ourselves still have a very important part to play in this!!

You and I have to ensure that the baton is correctly passed on from one era to the next in the life of a congregation.

Paul told Titus to ordain elders in every city; every church should have an elder or pastor whose responsibility it is to feed the flock and to evangelize: that is precisely what congregations like this one here in Porth are about! But - more than that - the children of Christians were to be brought up 'in the admonition of the Lord.' (Ephesians 6). It has always been seen as a Christian responsibility to do so. Now, its true that some children are more receptive than others, and it is certainly true that today churches face a crisis in that area. But the point which I am making here is that the New Testament clearly teaches the principle of a baton being passed on from generation to generation within Christian congregations!

Now if you think about a relay race, some are always best in the 'lead-off' role, others are especially suited to being 'home-run sprinters' - every runner is different, with varying talents, but when a runner receives that baton, they know what they have to do: they have to run to the very best of their ability and then to successfuly pass that baton on to the next appointed runner - they have been called, or selected, by their club or country to do just that. Its true, isn't it? Good running is not enough if a baton change is later messed up: it's an integral part of the job!

Let me tell you something: that is also the way it is for us in our respective congregations!

You know, a few months ago, I had the chance to read the entire history of a church congregation out in the country in Oxfordshire, England. A succession of members of that congregation over 120 years had kept up a full written history. It was all there: the good times and the bad times, the times when it looked as though closure could be imminent, but then a record of when that was averted, and things kept going. The periods when a lifeless stupor seemed to descend, and the periods when the work of Christian mission suddenly started forging ahead with a real vigour again in that little village baptist church. You know, as I read that, one could almost see a baton changing hands every now and again; you would see a 'runner' getting exhausted and 'spent' - there was a need for change - but then a new vigour came along as a new pastor came in and took over, and on it went. But I noted a pattern: when there was a crisis, the people of the little church came together for urgent prayer. The evidence seemed to be that God responded when that happened. I just wonder whether there is a similar historical record of this chapel here in Porth; if so, I would love to read it! Please let me know if there is.

Look, all congregations seem to go into slumps and crisis periods but it seems to me that it is how the people respond to that which is the all-important thing. Just as in a relay race, as a runner comes towards the end of his/her phase, the legs start to go, he runs out of steam, but that athlete knows that that baton must be passed on before he or she "dies" (as they say).

Truthfully, any pastor, deacon or leadership team of any congregation eventually 'runs out of steam.' That is no criticism of them, it is just the way things are. There is a feeling of exhaustion. A new impetus badly needs to be provided and this is what seemed to stand out to me in the life of that country baptist chapel in Oxfordshire. Sometimes a pastor - yes, even the best ones - feel 'spent' and 'stale' after several years in a congregation and they move on: that is very healthy. But where there has not been a pastor at all and things have been carried by a group of deacons or a leadership team, they cannot move on so easily, they are part of the congregation and will remain so. I think that applies to you here! But we must guard against disinterest and taking our eyes off the main goal! The things of God must never be taken too lightly! Do we do that? That must not happen, for the Church, don't forget, was purchased with the very blood of Christ!!

I am going to say a few things now which I would not like anybody to misunderstand because I fully appreciate the fact that - in many cases - but for a few faithful people like yourselves, Christian witness would have entirely vanished from a village, but, you know, when I preach in a place like this which has just come down to a very few people - none of us, to be frank, getting any younger, it tells me something: a baton change may be needed; Oh, I am not saying it's time for you to step aside, in that sense, but if there is no change, the future looks bleak. Look, sometimes we just need to face this. Now I have preached in many places where they would say, 'Well, we cannot afford to employ a pastor.' Well - for what its worth - I am going to give you 3 or 4 points which may help. I offer these points, hopefully, in love and concern for you here at Seion chapel in Porth:

1. Many congregations which are very small cannot afford to employ a pastor - I fully understand that, but how about a part-time pastor on a part-stipend? I rub shoulders with a number of prospective pastors and an increasing number are prepared to consider a part-time, part-stipend pastorate, especially where a manse is available. Has that been considered? You are 'Welsh baptist.' How about sharing a pastor with one or two other Welsh baptist chapels? There are, after all, several Welsh baptist chapels around these valleys and I am told that perhaps 70% of them are now in a real struggle to keep going. Has that been considered? If you think that can't work, I know of places where it has been successful and even a shared pastor has been able to provide new invigoration and impetus!

2. Always remember that the Church is not a building - it is the people called of God!

I know a place in west Wales where there are two quite beautiful and ornate chapels - both are 'English Baptist' and both are substantially the same in theological approach. Both are now struggling but if they came together you would have 60-70 people. Put together, a pastor could be afforded (I am told), but the leaders refuse to consider it because they want to hang on to those fine old chapel buildings and their separate histories. Fine chapels are great but the Church is the people - not buildings!! Yet maintaining these old buildings and keeping them warm in winter is financially crippling two congregations. Why? Should not that money be used for evangelism? It is quite likely that the constitutions of those chapels would forbid a union with another chapel; but no constitution drawn up in about 1825 should be seen as 'set in stone' when the world has changed so drastically and when upkeep of old buildings is so expensive that not a penny is left for evangelism!

Listen, I love fine old chapel buildings, but I am going to say something which may shock some of you:

I DON'T BELIEVE THAT GOD CARES ONE IOTA ABOUT OLD BUILDINGS!!

I repeat: The Church are those called of God - not old buildings!!

Do we resist passing the baton because of sentimental feelings about an old building, or buildings??

You see, if we do that, then God may well conclude His work and witness in a particular area entirely!

Now, I'm not saying that every Baptist chapel will survive, no matter what we do. There is a very strong argument for saying that too many chapels were built in South Wales during a great period of optimism, the Revival. But today we must be realistic: that there is less enthusiasm for the Gospel than there once was. Yes, we must hold our position as believers in the Christ, but also accept that some fine old buildings may have to close.

What about us here at Seion? What is our position on this?

Are we seeking the Lord's will? Because that is my third point:

3. PRAYER!!

Can I make a suggestion? Now maybe this is already being done here, as a guest minister, I just don't know. But how about meeting for prayer in order to seek the Lord's will for this chapel 2 or 3 evenings, or mornings per month, every month until you all feel that the Lord has shown you His will??

All I can say is that others have done this, they have felt 'burdened' to do it and it has made a great difference! Yes, you can do that here too.

I am a great believer in the power of prayer! Never underestimate what the prayers of a few of you meeting regularly to seek the Lord's will, can accomplish. Again, I can only suggest it, I have no authority to do more; that would be for you deacons to follow through with!

4. Okay, my final point is what you can do in the meantime and what we can all do in the meantime.

Is this chapel 'attender-friendly'?? Say somebody just happened to stray in here, maybe somebody with great problems; would they find warmth and friendliness extended to them? Say somebody came through that door who was at their wit's end, as we say, maybe contemplating suicide! Would we be able to help that person? Think about this, because, as Christians, we should be able to help such people! Or, would they find a group of people simply locked into their own world and who did not appear to even care?

Heres a good test:

Imagine that tomorrow 20-30 people became Christians here in Porth and the Spirit directed all of them, people of all ages, to start attending here!

Would they find a place relevant for new Christians?

Would they find a place of loving support where they could gradually develop Christian knowledge through Biblical Exposition?

Or, would they feel distinctly uncomfortable? Would they find this place relevant to the problems which all new believers now have to face in the Britain of 1999? We need to think about these things. If your first thought is, 'To be frank, I don't care...' please be aware that there is something seriously wrong with your attitude; don't forget that you and I have been made custodians of the things of God! Will we take such responsibility lightly?

But of all the suggestions which I have made, I especially encourage prayer in order to seek the Lord's will for the future of your now tiny congregation. None of us - I am sure - would like to be guilty of dropping the baton when it is time for it to be passed on. A fresh sprinter may just be waiting to receive that baton, but we haven't seen him because we are not regularly seeking the Lord's will. Will the relay race set in motion by the founders of this chapel eventually come to nothing because we not only have run out of steam on our own 'leg' but - even worse - don't care? No - perish that thought! - let us be determined now to surge ahead yet again.

Proverbs 3:5-6.

'Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding: In all your ways acknowledge Him, and He will make your paths straight.'

Do we believe that? Or, don't we? Are we acknowledging Him in all of our ways? Are we prepared to seek His will?

So let us start to be burdened for the work of the Lord in these valleys, yes, these valleys in which such great things happened in the 1904 Revival.

Let us start to cry out:

'USE ME, LORD, USE ME! USE ME IN ANY WAY THAT THE PEOPLE OF THESE VALLEYS MAY COME TO KNOW THE LORD MORE POWERFULLY THAN EVER BEFORE!'

Let us seek the Lord while He may be found and call upon Him while He is near! And He IS near to those who are humble before Him!

Brothers and Sisters, Let us be about the business of seeking His perfect will more than ever before!!

(A sermon given in 1999 by Robin A. Brace BD of Penarth, Wales, UK to a small congregation in which Mr Brace perceived very serious problems among the leaders. Upon completion of this corrective sermon, Mr Brace received a warm response from a small congregation with some indication that they were embarrassed by their indifferent chapel leaders).

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