I went hoping that my satellite navigation system would work for the third time that day. It took me to a 7.30 Bible Rally on the other side of the town where I have been preaching once a year for over 40 years. It starts each September, and the tradition for years was that Dr. Lloyd-Jones preached at the opening meeting to a packed gathering. There was a network of those gatherings across England and Wales, and people attending them during the 60s said to one another, “Why can’t we have biblical preaching like this every Sunday?” A number of congregations commenced directly from such rallies and then the rallies ceased, their function over. Chippenham is one of the few that still goes on having started in the forties. I suppose it is like the Pensacola Institute in Florida which encouraged free grace theology and preaching in the South and then it had served its function and died.
On Sunday we had just a few new students in church. Slim pickings so far especially among the women students. We will get a better picture of who is going to settle in the congregation over the next couple of Sabbaths. The Christian Union has been organizing freshers’ welcome meetings this past week. They planned a barbecue on the beach on Saturday night, and they catered for 1000 students. Think of it! Over 500 turned up, but it turned out to be one of those pre-evangelistic occasions with the theme, “A Christian Union exists at the University.” There was no message. I reckon that was a wasted opportunity.
Then on Monday there was the ‘Grub Crawl.’ Almost 100 students, maybe a third non-Christians, began the evening at the Salvation Army and had the first little ‘starter’ of fruit juice. My friend Ray Hobbin who leads that work prayed for them there. Then they walked to us – five minutes - and we had 8 different delicious soups to offer them as the second course. They stayed for over half an hour and then I stood on top of a chair and told them what we did in our church – preach Jesus Christ, incomparable in his birth, his life and preaching, no one died like him, and no one rose from the dead as he did. How profitable our Lord is for knowledge, for motivating us to God-honouring living and in giving life a purpose. I spoke to them for ten minutes and then they applauded. It is the only meeting in the year at which I am applauded and that is a blessing isn’t it? They do it each year. They left us for the Anglicans where they had the main course, sausages, casserole and potatoes. The new curate told them about the church and the services, but there was no gospel. On they went to little Elim for the pudding course – loadsacake. No message but all kinds of people from the small membership came to welcome them, old people, and families with children. Finally they ended up in Holy Trinity Anglicans with lots of deserts especially magnificent home-made fudge, and coffee, but some said that they were already too full to eat much. There was no message. I don’t understand preachers missing an opportunity to speak to scores of unconverted students about the Saviour.
Friday, after our 7 a.m. prayer meeting I took the 9.30 train to Scotland, preaching in Glasgow at a Bible Rally in the South Glasgow Baptist church where Jeff Wright pastors – we almost share the same name, and we do share the same birthday. I had not been preaching at one of those rallies for at least seven years, but someone could tell me the text on which I preached on that occasion. I am glad it was not the text I preached on this night. John J. Murray was there and that was an extra treat. We always enjoy sweet fellowship. So then it was home to Jeff’s and good crack until midnight. I was up at 5.30 on Saturday morning and Jeff drove me to the station for the 6.30 train that got me back to Aberystwyth at 1.30.p.m. I enjoyed reading Peter Hitchens’ The Rage Against God, and John Newton’s letters, Wise Counsels, and the autobiography of Cathie Macrae which John J. Murray gave me. But then I discovered that I had mislaid my pocket diary with all my bookings for the next 3 or 4 years. I have searched everywhere and called Glasgow but they cannot find it there. I hope a good Samaritan will return it to me and be suitably rewarded. I feel a real idiot for such a lapse; it is an enormous humbling. I can say with Whitefield, “I bless God for my stripping seasons. Nothing sets a person so much out of the devil’s reach as humility.”
The first Sunday in October, when I expected congregations to return to normal, was another minor disappointment, a day heavy with rain, there were two dozen folk still away and some students who had been with us last week were off a church hopping, displaying the woeful religious consumerism of our age. So I have another week or two to wait before the early autumn vacationers return and settle down and we grow together in knowledge over the next six months. Of course there were encouragements, blessing in the services, and at the Students’ Welcome at the close of the evening Rhodri Brady spoke about what a student’s priorities should be – growing in holiness basically. We were a dozen back at the Manse for the close of the day and I photocopied 8 pages from John Owen’s paperback on Temptation and we read aloud a paragraph each in a circle and then made comments. It is extraordinary reading, vital, racy, engaging, lucid, challenging and exhorting. There is no Christian writing like it today. What an impoverishment not to enter this world. It is so biblical and spiritual.
Monday morning four of us men went to the Owain Glyndwr square in the middle of Aberystwyth where the two banks are, and engaged in some street evangelism offering leaflets to passers by. Rhodri again is particularly gifted in this work. He can talk to the elderly and the young. He was saying to me how most people will say that they are Christians, and then he will ask them whether they are born again and so often the reply mirrors Nicodemus’ who first heard that term. One man smiling said to him, “My mother would not like that.” I had a long happy conversation with an Indian student who has just arrived in Aber. to do a Master’s degree in creative writing. She was not a Hindu, has gone to church in the past and I hope she will come to church next Sunday.
We had help from two men who are in the town involved in an evangelistic outreach given a grandiose title, something like The Walk of a 1000 Men. A number of men had walked along the 100 mile border of England and Wales a decade ago stopping each night, holding a meeting and evangelizing en route. This year they were walking the Pembrokeshire Coastal Path and the Cardiganshire Coastal Path. They have been doing this for two weeks, and now a new group are in Aberystwyth for the final week, 134 of them. I thought I could enlist their services to help us this morning, and they delegated two men both called Peter who stood on the street corners with us four and gave out our church literature. I guess that means some will say I supported the event, but I took advantage of it to stir myself up. Theirs is a broad based contemporary evangelism which I cannot support, decisionistic, e.g. reading aloud a religious response from a piece of paper, “Now I receive Christ . . .” They have a conjurer and escapologist who did a trick ‘for the children’ in St Michael’s church on Sunday. They have a street artist. They end with a rally and an appeal to raise a hand or come to the front and that is in the University Great Hall on Saturday, but I have not announced it. Nothing in Scripture indicates that the church should lure people to Christ by presenting Christianity as an attractive option. The presence of these men in the locality has just been a providential catalyst to encourage our autumn outreach to the town. Six of their men came to our Men’s Prayer Breakfast at 8 on Saturday and they stayed for 45 minutes and talked about their own lives and the Lord saving them. It would be unthinkable that local naïve Christians should judge that I and our congregation are not committed to evangelism.
Last week I had a sweet anonymous gift through the post. The parcel contained 24 CDs of the conductor Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic playing many of the great classical symphonies. The accompanying letter said,
“It has now been 3 years since I 'stumbled' upon one of your sermons on the internet. Since then I have both listened and read, more often read, your sermons on a weekly basis. Sometimes I have found myself reading at least 4 or 5 in a week. They have consistently challenged, rebuked, instructed, convicted, encouraged, and comforted me. Always pointing to the Saviour Jesus. What has been most striking is how grounded in reality they are. We are brought not only to the think of the Glory of Christ and the blessings in the heavenly places, but this is wonderfully tied in with the nitty gritty of our daily lives and struggles, both within and out with the church fellowship. Perhaps this is because you have remained in a pastoral role for such a long time.
“Expository preaching has often become simply explaining the meaning of a text. I am not a well read man, nor am I theologically trained, however I have often thought preaching is more than that. It is certainly not less than explaining the meaning but when one's heart has been gripped as well as our minds then something changes. What place do the emotions have in the sermon hearer? I don't know. But I do know when my affections have been touched as well as my thinking challenged it always drives me to the Saviour in praise or repentance. Usually both. In saying this I always thank the Lord for all His servants who are faithfully labouring in the Gospel. Particularly those who receive little acclamation, if any at all, and remain unknown for the vast majority of their lives and ministry. Despite this they still love the Saviour and count every day of service a delight.”
I was very moved and hope you will not be thinking I am bragging (though I don’t know my own heart) but realize that the 700 printed sermons on our church website are touching a worldwide congregation.
Warmly from Wales
- Geoff Thomas