My Preaching Years... (2)

ARTICLE QUOTE: "When I got to the chapel just prior to the service I had asked the deaconess about my usual preferred practise of privately praying with the church leaders before the service; I loved this practise and have no doubt that services always went smoother - and with more possibility of inspired preaching - when initial prayers for God's blessing were asked just before service start time. But, to my stunned amazement the lady replied, 'Oh, we don't do that here. Only the English Baptists do that!'"

In the first article in this new occasional series I mentioned the woeful liberalism which I had witnessed in most Baptist Union of Great Britain churches when I was actively preaching (around 1996-2004). Of course, I do not claim that I preached in all that many during this time period (that is, compared to how many BU churches the UK actually has), moreover, I do know that a few BUGB churches claim to be 'evangelical.' Actually, what I witnessed most strongly was the damage that liberal compromises had caused, rather than liberal theology itself, after all, if I was selected to be the preacher on any particular Sunday, the theology was in my hands for that Sunday. That sounds simple but truthfully it was not that simple since both liberally-influenced and staid traditionalist deacons usually just did not invite back preachers who seemed "too evangelical" and since my preaching has always been quite impassioned and even fiery at times it must have been only too easy for certain church leaders to pigeon-hole me in such a way. I rejected - and still reject - worldly compromises which have so weakened British Christian life, and that particular viewpoint is hardly 'meat and drink' to liberal leaders and deacons. But - typically - congregations loved me and really seemed to take to me, but most (although not all), of the leaders and deacons I met preferred preachers who would preach soft and smooth things - above all, no 'rocking of the boat.' Obvious, therefore, that - as a visiting minister - I was not every deacon's 'cup of tea.'

This is one of the most outstanding places of worship in which Mr Brace preached from 1997-2004. It is Ynysybwl Tabernacle, near Pontypridd and it is a conservative evangelical congregation where leadership had been strong. Mr Brace became a regular guest minister here and describes his preaching 'gigs' at Ynysybwl as "A real joy!"

I became genuinely astonished how often the leader/leaders of a particular church congregation saw 'success' as having a preacher booked for every Sunday in the year; the fact that attenders were down to fewer than twenty, and that all of these people were over 60, with no evangelistic work having been done for many years did not seem to bother them! On several occasions I tried to help leaders to see that such a congregation would necessarily have to eventually close unless something was done, and done soon, but disinterest was the usual response! I even sometimes found the attitude that,

'Oh well, you are surely right, but as long as this chapel keeps going for the rest of my life that's all I care about.'

Sometimes a local chapel genuinely seemed to be the whole life of certain very elderly leaders, but they only saw their responsibilities extending as far as booking a preacher for every Sunday in the year, and making sure the chapel interior looked clean and tidy; the fact that such chapels were only originally seen as bases for local evangelism was long gone! Instead of the Gospel being the main focus, I often found that a building made out of stone, plus a full visiting preacher book had become the chief focus!

Also, sometimes 2 or 3 local places of worship in a town/village could have combined and, under the right leadership, a new evangelistic momentum could have been established, but I found that most church and chapel leaders would not even consider it, and mostly refused to consider changing the ways they did things.

Very often I noted that older chapels had originally set themselves up with very rigid 'constitutions' (the internal framework of rules and laws governing that congregation), which were unbending and, even after about 150 years and in the face of the fact that a chapel would soon have to close if nothing was done, leaders were not prepared to countenance changing that dry, dusty and now somewhat irrelevant 'constitution.' The constitution effectively evangelistically paralyzed them, but that was (apparently) fine, as long as preachers were booked for 52 weeks in the year! An example of this is that I was informed that the constitution of Baptist Union churches meant that they could not employ a new pastor who did not meet certain quite precise technicalities: the leaders and congregation of such churches may have felt strongly motivated toward calling a certain minister to their pastorate but a 100-150 year old constitution barred them. Yes, much of this seems quite amazing but this is truly the picture which I frequently found in numerous places of worship. Thankfully, however, I also preached in evangelical places of worship and I had an especially strong ongoing relationship with an evangelical church meeting in an old congregational chapel at Ynysybwl, near Pontypridd. I preached for these people quite a few times over 3 to 6 years and it was always a joy, with a balanced congregation of older, wiser heads and several younger and newer people who were very keen to learn: ah yes, now that was a real joy! After every service there would always be questions from people who were really keen to understand more about the Gospel. Also, the deacon, called Idwal, and myself became good buddies which always makes life easier.

A Bad Example...

I have just given a good and outstanding example, but now I must mention a Welsh Baptist Chapel which was a preacher's nightmare! People living outside of Wales may not know that Wales has 'English Baptist Churches' and 'Welsh Baptist Churches.' Yes, it gets even more complicated than that but let us try to keep this real simple!! Traditionally, the Welsh variety always sought to use preachers who would preach in the Welsh language, but even some time before my own preaching years it had become quite difficult to obtain Welsh language preachers for every single Sunday for every place that wanted one; sometimes, therefore, they would book English language preachers, and I preached in such places on several occasions. One particular place was near Porth in South Wales. It came to my attention that this chapel were looking for a minister who would come to their chapel and conduct communion about once or twice a month. I don't recall now how I got to hear about their need, but - somehow or other - I found myself preaching in this place for the first time on a hot summer evening in 1999. When I got to the chapel just prior to the service two things signalled to me that this place had major problems:
1. The outside of the chapel did not carry a single outside notice or sign of any description, indeed, I had to ask some people who happened to be passing if this was indeed the right place. Several years of preaching taught me that this is always a very bad sign!
2. When entering the spacious hall, I asked a lady (who turned out to be a deaconess), about my usual preferred practise of privately praying with the church leaders before the service; I loved this practise and have no doubt that services always went smoother - and with more possibility of inspired preaching - when initial prayers for God's blessing were asked just before service start time. But, to my stunned amazement the lady replied,

"Oh, we don't do that here. Only the English Baptists do that!"

This is the Welsh baptist chapel where Mr Brace was amazed to find an almost lifeless indifference to the Gospel. Mr Brace noted that the building itself actually appeared 'dead' and unused with no notices or service times, or even a sign indicating what sort of chapel it might be, appearing anywhere outside.

I am not certain whether the reasoning was that the Welsh are too holy to need God's blessing, or what!

But I made my way to the pulpit and sat quietly in my own private pre-service prayer since it was evident that the two deacons had no intention of joining me.

About ten minutes into my sermon the somewhat elderly male deacon started behaving in an animated fashion and I began to wonder whether he had been taken ill. But nobody took any notice so I thought, 'Perhaps he just does that.' He suddenly had started repeatedly looking at his watch as though he needed to catch a train which was about to leave at any second! But since we were not in a railway station but in a chapel I thought his behaviour most distinctly odd! I had only been preaching for ten minutes when this started happening. It was initially a little disconcerting but I pressed on. My sermon was around 20-25 minutes so it was hardly long but this man continued to behave in this most odd fashion. Following the service I obviously approached the man and simply said,

"I was quite worried about you during the sermon because you seemed to be moving around a lot in an animated fashion. Were you okay?"

"Oh yes, I was fine," came the reply. But no further explanation was offered nor sought.

I preached in this place about four times and only conducted communion there once. I never took a morning service there, maybe because they did not hold morning services, I no longer remember. The deacon always started behaving in a most extraordinary animated fashion from about ten minutes into the sermon, looking repeatedly at his watch as though he had a train to catch. I simply ignored it. I was a very experienced preacher by then but it could have put off a less experienced man. I don't think he had an illness, I think he was simply very rude and bad-mannered and he only wanted short sermons, perhaps because he had a favourite television programme on Sunday evenings! But his behaviour actually made me preach longer! In retrospect, I feel that I should never have conducted a communion service in this place at all since the leaders had major problems which were not being addressed! Eventually, I told the leaders that I would not conduct communion there again because I had noted major problems within the congregation and felt responsible before Jesus Christ to at least discuss these problems with the leaders to see what was going on. I always took the conducting of a communion service very seriously feeling a responsibility before Jesus Christ to do so. Of course, there is no such thing as a perfect congregation and I never expected that, but in this case, I felt that an apparently lazy, spiritually smug and indifferent example coming from the deacons was pretty serious! But the deacons (as I expected) refused to discuss anything with me; this hardly surprised me since their entire attitude was wrong from beginning to end. Mostly I had no problems with deacons and church secretaries during my preaching years. The outcome of the deacon's attitude is that I preached just one more strongly corrective sermon to this congregation (here it is!) to see if it would encourage the deacons to wake up, then never preached there again. My feeling was that the deacons would not change and that the chapel would be closed within 3 years at the very most.

When writing this article, I did sufficient research to see if that chapel was still a functioning chapel, fully expecting that it would have long since closed its doors (the incidents I relate here occurred 8 years before penning this), but I was surprised to learn that the chapel still functions! Is it just possible that my final sermon, in which I pleaded for changes to be made before it was too late, actually did have some affect? Of course, if the necessary changes were indeed made, it was only through the grace of God.

Robin A. Brace, 2007.