“The small cause”
It is good to read of God’s work in the past, but always sad to see how many places where his gospel was once preached have suffered closure. As one of my boyhood hobbies in the 1960s was long bike rides, I became aware that Primitive and Wesleyan Methodist chapels lay thick on the ground. All, no doubt, had been places where people had found pardon, peace and joy in times past, but many either were already then closed , or have been abandoned since those days. Many such were in places where now there is no evangelical witness at all; and when a witness is extinguished, it can be extremely difficult, and is humanly impossible, to start a totally new work.
Scripture records numerous times when almost all was lost, but when God restored the old rather than extinguishing it and starting again. This seems to reveal an aspect of God’s character and of how he chooses to work: a God who restores.
The future for true Christian witness in our land lies, largely, I believe, with local churches in fellowship with one another; this is what will preserve biblical Christianity. It is vital that each generation should do all it can to maintain the existence and ministry of such churches – even when, for a while, they have entered a day of small things. In time, under God’s blessing, the small cause can become the flourishing cause, but this cannot happen if a cause has been extinguished and the chapel closed.
A true Welsh proverb says, “It is easier to burn a house than to build it” (Haws llosgi ty na’i adeiladu). What is lost is gone for ever; what is preserved may be revived and prosper again.
For four years (1972-6) I preached at the Baptist chapel in Hadlow, to the church that had been formed in 1823. The church had dwindled to four members; all were ladies, and only one still lived in the village. I had been recognised as a minister in 1973, and when, in April 1974 those four ladies unanimously called me to become their minister, my wife and I decided to accept. No accommodation was available in the village, and it was not possible to purchase a house on the salary from the part-time work I was obliged to undertake. When in time we lost even the one remaining member who lived there, there were no local members at all.
We attempted to ensure that every home either heard the Gospel or had the opportunity to read it. The congregation grew and so did the membership, reaching twelve, but all the new members were from outside the village, and no one from the village itself was added to the church. Eventually it came to be felt that “Hadlow Baptist Church” was a now fiction, and the members agreed to disband. The chapel closed and it is now a private dwelling.
Probably only God knows whether our decision was right: we felt at the time that it was. But as the years passed, so my awareness increased of the irreversible finality of our action – and my concern grew that the same should happen as seldom as possible elsewhere.
Concern over the decline in village evangelical Christianity has been expressed for no small time – it is not a new phenomenon – but the further the situation slides, the more drastic and demanding it becomes. Below are some thoughts from 1947, 1989, 1891, and 1929, as well as my own current thoughts arising from the condition of congregations in chapels like these Methodist ones whom I photographed with their permission when preaching visits there, one in Wales, one in England:
William Sangster (Methodism: her unfinished task, 1947:18) wrote:
In hundreds of villages in this country the only evangelical interpretation of the Gospel is in the Methodist chapel. Quite often it is the only Free Church in the hamlet and bears the immense responsibility of offering Christ (as evangelicals understand it) alone. The importance of this in the spiritual life of England could barely be exaggerated. The withdrawal of this ministry would be a calamity which few who care for spiritual things could contemplate with equanimity.
Back in May 1989 Rev. Peter Brumby wrote in Evangelicals Now expressing the need for Christians who were worshipping in prosperous town churches to bring help to smaller, local congregations. He wrote that many “are unprepared for the change and never realise their potential to help … then drift away to somewhere less demanding.” On my door-to-door visiting in Hadlow I discovered five professed believers worshipping nowhere; a Baptist family travelling to a large town church; a Brethren family travelling likewise to a nearby town; and about half a dozen other believers similarly commuting to church elsewhere – evangelical Anglican, Pentecostal, or whatever. What a thriving church we might have had if they had decided to worship where God’s providence had placed them to live! Sunday School, youth work, Sunday services – all might have thriven. They ‘wished us well’, but that helped us little if at all.
How could we seriously expect local unbelieving people at attend the chapel, when they saw all the evangelical Christians in the community turning their backs on it to travel elsewhere? The story is repeated in village after village elsewhere in England and Wales, and must like seem like a persuasive testimony against the local chapel – ‘a letter known and read by all men.’
If a minister accepts a call to a small church in a town or village, it is likely that he will have to supplement what the pay him by finding part-time or even full-time secular work nearby. He will then have to labour under the indignity of being dubbed a ‘lay pastor’, as if what constitutes being a real minister is the amount of money your church pays. This human belittling of his call will wring his heart, but if the work is undertaken with God’s call, guidance and blessing, it could precede the final approbation, “Well done, thou good and faithful servant.”
I have a vision of the religious future of England and Wales, in which evangelical religion is a purely urban phenomenon: a vision of vast tracts of rural darkness, with lights gathered only into the towns, and entire generations growing up in the villages without ever knowing a Christian witness in their communities – not because Christians do not live in the villages, but because they prefer to commute to churches where, perhaps, it is more blessed to receive than to give. Conversely, in large town churches which hoover up scores of Christians from within a 20-mile radius or more, who often by-pass other churches where Jesus Christ is loved, social and spiritual fellowship among them can be forfeited for a sense of enduring anonymity.
As long ago as 1891, Thomas Willshaw, in Methodism in my native Village; or, short biographical sketches extending over a century (Rochdale: Joyful News Depôt), wrote this plea following the centenary of the Wesleyan society in Cheddleton, Staffs.:
I would like to say a word to those members of our Church whose lot is cast in the villages. It may be confessed that many are the discouragements to which they are subjected. When young people are brought to God in the Sunday school, or in connection with the services in the chapel, and give every indication of a life of usefulness, their removal to some town or city at a distance, and the blank occasioned by it, is a cause of discouragement to those who are left behind; and the one element wanting among them is this youthful ardour, which is often so powerful in its influence upon the children and young people growing up. This is without doubt a very disheartening circumstance, especially where the society is small and the members are few. Yet we must remember there is another side to the picture. Any one living in the town or city who has taken the trouble to ascertain the facts of the case will find that many of those who are carrying on the work and bearing the burdens of the Church were converted while young in some remote country village, and are now filling the offices of leaders, local preachers, society and circuit stewards, Sunday-school teachers, and superintendents.
I would presume to address a few words to the local preachers, on whom the villages are dependent to a very large extent for the supply of the pulpit from Sabbath to Sabbath. I hope that any of my brethren who may read this simple account of what has been accomplished in a very small village may ponder over the grand possibilities of a life of earnest labour among the rural populations. of our land. A largely increased number of young men are needed ion this harvest field, where much fruit may be gathered.
If we value our Church privileges, if we feel any interest or concern in the future welfare of our country, if we wish to see this land lifted out of the grasp of infidelity on the one hand and superstition on the other, if we wish to heal the moral sores of our country, if we wish to liberate the captive souls of thousands of our countrymen, if we wish to stand our stand as the harbinger of liberty and peace to the oppressed and morally degraded nationalities of the earth – then it will be necessary to spread the knowledge of Christ through all the villages of our land.
There was a time when unnumbered villages in England and Wales had a vibrant, living Christian church, often Methodist, Baptist, or Congregational, sometimes unaffiliated, where God was known and was at work to bring salvation and a desire for holiness: my burden for more than fifty years has been that God will restore what has been cast away.
Writing specifically about the Methodist churches, Richard Pyke , sometime President of the United Methodist Conference, in Methodism in the modern World (London: The Epworth Press (1929)) already felt constrained to comment:
The restoration of the country chapel to its proper position as a citadel of spiritual power, is a necessity that demands patient and serious thought. There are few questions indeed which are more urgent than this. Large areas are practically going out of spiritual cultivation. … The need to do more for the villages than has yet been done is greater than ever. Though it may not generally be recognized, we are at a crisis in rural life. The coming of the bus and the motor-car has robbed the villages of their former seclusion. The sequestered vales and quiet haunts are rapidly being obliterated. In places where, a few years ago, the presence of a stranger would provoke general comment, the roads now teem with people from all parts of the land. It ought to be possible, in a united Methodism, for every group of four or five villages to have their pastor. He should regard it as a privilege to visit the homes of the sick and the aged, and to know the children by name. The disinclination to a country circuit is now as distressing as it is disastrous, and Methodism is already paying a heavy price for its failure to cultivate these rich areas.
My present-day plea is for the village chapels, and ones with small congregations in towns, to be sustained by giving, prayer, service and sacrifice. Here are some passages of scripture which point me in that direction:
2 Kings 19:3-4 They said to him, “Thus says Hezekiah, This is a day of distress, or rebuke, and of disgrace; children have come to the birth, and there is not strength to bring them forth … therefore lift up for prayer for the remnant that is left.”
Job 4:3-4 Behold, you have instructed many, and you have strengthened the weak hands. Your words have upheld him who was stumbling, and you have made firm the feeble knees.
Job 14:7-9 For there is hope for a tree, if it be cut down, that it will sprout again, and that its roots will not cease. Though its root grow old in the earth, and its stump die in the ground, yet at the scent of water it will bud and put forth branches like a young plant.
Proverbs 24:11-2 Rescue those who are being taken away to death; hold back those who are stumbling to the slaughter. If you say, “Behold, we did not know this,” does not he who weighs the heart perceive it?
Isaiah 6:11-13 Then I said, “How long, O Lord?” And he said, “Until cities lie waste without inhabitant, and houses without men, and the land is utterly desolate, and the Lord removes men far away, and the forsaken places are many in the land. And though a tenth remain in it, it will be burned again, like a terebinth or an oak, whose stump remains standing when it is felled.” The holy seed is its stump.
Isaiah 35:3 Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees.
Isaiah 50:4-5 The Lord God has given me the tongue of those who are taught, that I may know how to sustain with a word him that is weary. … I was not rebellious, I turned not backward.
Ezekiel 34:4-6, 16 The weak you have not strengthened, the sick you have not healed, the crippled you have not bound up, the strayed you have not brought back, the lost you have not sought, and with force and harshness you have ruled over them. So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd; and they became food for all the wild beasts. My sheep were scattered … with none to search or seek for them. …I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the crippled, and I will strengthen the weak, and the fat and the strong I will watch over; I will feed them in justice.
Revelation 3:2 Awake, and strengthen what remains and is on the point of death…
Here are some closed down chapels I have photographed: in order, they were Baptist, Wesleyan, Primitive Methodist, Congregational, Presbyterian, United Methodist. All housed English (not Welsh) congregations. I could add another column of photographs of varied Welsh chapels, but enough has been written to enforce my plea.