Tracing the theme of rest

Sabbath Rest for the People of God
By Graeme Goldsworthy
Authentic Media. 143 pages. £9.99
ISBN 978 1 788 930 277

Graeme Goldsworthy is a wonderful exponent of biblical theology. His forensic attention to detail coupled with his ability to show people the rich tapestry of inter-weaving biblical ideas makes all his writing valuable and interesting.

Homeward Bound is certainly in this vein. It is a very accessible, thorough and masterful exploration of Sabbath in its fullest sense. This book is not about what can and cannot be done on a Sunday (or a Saturday) which is what I had expected as I began to read. It is in fact a tracing of the theme of Sabbath, running from Creation to New Creation. A theme bigger, fuller and more central than we would think.

To explore this idea of Sabbath the author takes the reader on a journey through Scripture, showing that this key biblical idea extends well beyond taking one day off a week. In fact for Goldsworthy Sabbath is primarily an eschatological event rather than a temporal observance. It is only in the New Jerusalem, the eternal city, that humans will finally be home and finally be at rest. This whole journey centres on the completed gospel work of Jesus Christ who secures this rest, and then the second coming of Christ that ushers in this consummated eternal rest.

This is by no means a dry academic thesis. This book at times seems to be going in a slightly tangential direction but for the one who perseveres everything is tied neatly together by the end. Within its rich gleanings it is very pastoral and fills the reader with a deep sense of both longing and excitement instilled by Goldsworthy’s efforts to see Sabbath writ large across the pages of Scripture. In a restless, relentless world this book is a good tonic. In a world where there is a vain ‘quest for rest’, this book continuously lifts the believer’s eyes above the tumult to the promised rest to come.

This is an interesting book for anyone wanting to explore the theme of rest in the Bible as well as being a useful book to stretch people in the discipline of Biblical Theology.

Jonathan Gemmell, Director of Conferences
and Resources at the Proclamation Trust

Saving Valley Chapels


In a chapel in the heart of the South Wales valleys a coffee morning is in full flow. A handful of retired men are in attendance. Like most weeks numbers are relatively low. But for the minister who has organised it, the Revd Robert Stivey, it is still something of a triumph.

Just over a year ago, the Calfaria Calvinistic Methodist Chapel in Porth was shut and was awaiting demolition. However, Stivey stepped in, purchased it for under £40,000 of his own money, and then re-opened the vestry once more.

For the Lord

Over the past decade, Stivey has bought twelve chapels across the valleys, spending roughly £200,000 of his own savings. His aim is to re-open them all, or at least keep them in safe hands until the congregations return.

‘I am intent on attracting new fellowships,’ Stivey said. ‘Spreading the gospel and using these chapels not as museum pieces, but centres of worship. This project is not about me or even the chapels. This is about the Lord.’

Stivey frequently attended Sunday school until his personal faith was cemented at the age of 16. He then married and had five children. One of his children died and another who was involved in a traffic accident was left quadriplegic, with just the use of his right limb.

‘We thought he would die,’ Stivey said. ‘But there was a lot of praying by his bedside and he survived. Now he comes down from London in his wheelchair and helps me run the chapels.’

In his 60s Stivey left his career as a chartered surveyor, and began working as an ordained minister in Islington. At the same time, he began spending time in South Wales. It was during this time that he saw the opportunity to save the dilapidated church buildings.

Terminal decline?

In its heyday, the valleys boasted roughly 2,000 chapels. The number was high because there were so many different non-conformist denominations. But by the 1920s and 30s, a steady decline was under way.

Dr Gethin Matthews, senior history lecturer at Swansea University, said: ‘After the 1905 revival, there came a general decline in organised religion. The valleys were hard hit. Not only was there depopulation (as mines shut) but many of those who came back from World War One became disillusioned with the chapel message that it was a “just” war.’

Who will go?

The Porth church has a weekly service, free coffee mornings, a ladies’ group and a children’s club. The number of people attending these events, however, is rarely out of single figures and they all take place in the vestry, or hall, with the chapel itself lying empty and abandoned upstairs.

The purchased Siloam Welsh Baptist Chapel, in the village of Penderyn, closed after worshippers fell to single figures. But the church building is in near-perfect condition. ‘This one could be opened tomorrow,’ said Stivey.

This all leads to an inevitable question: will he ever be able to accomplish his mission – to reignite the congregations and spread God’s Word? Locals are ambivalent – there is certainly support for the minister but also a hard view of practical realities.

Norma Seldon’s view at the chip shop is typical: ‘We all went to chapel on a Sunday and it’s sad they are closing. No-one wants to see them turned into flats, but I’m not sure who will go?’

‘Some people don’t think you need a chapel in every town anymore,’ Stivey says, ‘but we need to provide for the local community a place where the Bible can live. I am never daunted by the scale of the project. The Lord will provide.’

BBC Wales

Editor’s Note: Evidently, there needs to be men who are willing to minister in such areas. Could one of the many church planters become a church revitaliser?

Loving the creator’s work

One of the topics now dominating public discussion is climate change. From Extinction Rebellion protests to BBC wildlife programmes, we are continually reminded that there is a real issue here.

Even Jeremy Clarkson, in the new Grand Tour series for Amazon, has admitted that climate change is a genuine threat to the environment and human existence. Clarkson, not known for sympathy with anything that would get cars off the road, conceded the point while filming on the Mekong river in Vietnam. Dramatic falls in river levels, destitute fishermen, absent rainfall, are all observed – leading Clarkson to admit there is an environmental crisis.

What to do about it? ‘I could run around the world on carbon-fibre yachts, shouting and yelling or wailing … or, you can just acknowledge it, and then behind the scenes start working on how we address the problem.’ For Clarkson, the hope lies in scientists – not in protestors.

As Christians we have often been on the sidelines of these issues. Sometimes that may reflect the healthy scepticism our faith has towards the secular prophets. All through history we have been warned of a catastrophe round the corner, only to find we have been misled. At other times, Christians have been wary because environmental concerns seem a distraction from the gospel. If we are preparing for a world to come, why take care of this one? A third reason for a lack of engagement is the fear that environmental ethics have been taken over by a new brand of paganism with an idolatrous view of mother earth.

However, thoughtful Christians have always had a concern for our treatment of the environment which stems from a biblical concern for God’s creation.

Schaeffer’s example

Francis Schaeffer, one of the great missionaries of the 20th century, provided a model for many Christian apologists. Long before this was a mainstream concern, Schaeffer realised that evangelicals had lost sight of the value of the natural world. He wrote about plastic in the ocean and deforestation long before this was a trendy thing to do, and he wrote one of the earliest evangelical books to plead for Christians to show concern for our treatment of the environment. Pollution and the Death of Man, published in 1970, remains a great example of thoughtful evangelical apologetics.

Schaeffer identified a truth in the largely non-Christian hippy movement around him; ‘The hippies of the 1960s did understand something. They were right in fighting the plastic culture and the church should have been fighting it too … More than this, they were right in the fact that the plastic culture – modern man, the mechanistic worldview in university textbooks and in practice, the total threat of the machine, the establishment technology, the bourgeois upper middle class – is poor in its sensitivity to nature’. The hippies were right not only to care about creation, but to resist the devaluing of the natural world.

But Schaeffer also went further than this. He sought to analyse the philosophical reasons why people might care for creation. And he concluded that only a Bible-based worldview provides coherent grounds for environmental concern. The problem with non-Christian environmental ethics is they may end up either deifying nature or merely treating it as a tool. The biblical worldview gives us an adequate basis to care for creation (it is declared objectively good – Genesis 1) while also making use of creation in a sustainable way (examples are written into the Law – Deut. 20:19; 22:4, 6-7, 10).

Schaeffer emphasised the integrity of creation as good in and of its own right, regardless of its functional value.

We should care about the oceans or a tree because God has made them and declared them good, not just because of their functional value in regulating the earth’s atmosphere. Schaeffer said he affirmed creation ‘because I love God – I love the One who has made it! Loving the Lover who has made it, I have respect for the thing He has made’.

Fifty years ago Schaeffer recognised the importance of an evangelical response to the ecological crisis, our apologetics have been weaker for failing to take these concerns seriously.

Chris Sinkinson

Chris Sinkinson is the D.L. Moody Lecturer in Apologetics, Moorlands College.

Returning to a scientific Christianity

Professor Grant Campbell explains why he thinks ‘What do evangelicals believe?’ is the wrong question

In terms of moderately authoritative knowledge, I know a bit about bread and about chemical engineering (and have been in evangelical churches for a while).

I recall some years ago in Manchester a final-year chemical engineering student who observed ‘I didn’t know what chemical engineering was until I read [a particular] book’. I was struck that after three years of chemical engineering education, we had failed to communicate to our students what this discipline (that they had chosen to study and were about to embark on as their profession) even was.

If chemical engineering is powerful as an education, it follows that understanding the basis of that power is the key to accessing and maximising it. Thus, when I moved to the University of Huddersfield to lead the new chemical engineering programmes, I resolved that our students would graduate with an understanding of the distinctive features of chemical engineering that define it as a discipline and profession, and that underpin its power.

What is evangelicalism?

It seems to me that a similar clarity about the nature and identity of evangelicalism, in order to benefit from its unique contributions within the landscape of Christianity, is helpful. Many Christians, after a few years or even longer in an evangelical church, might remain fuzzy about what evangelicalism is. If there is something distinctively worth practising within evangelicalism and worth retaining, if there is a good reason to choose to be in an evangelical church, it would be good to be clear about what it is.

Evangelicals most commonly describe themselves as ‘Bible-believing’ and in terms of the core of those Bible-derived beliefs as described, for example, by the Fellowship of Independent Evangelical Churches’ Doctrinal Basis ( or the Evangelical Alliance Statement of Faith ( about-us/basis-of-faith).

Hermeneutical process

It is undoubtedly helpful and necessary to articulate these core beliefs with clarity and precision. But understanding evangelicalism in terms of the primary and/or secondary elements of what we believe is to miss an important distinguishing point. Beliefs (particularly secondary ones) may or may not be correct, and may or may not be shared by other Christians, but the distinctiveness of evangelicalism is how we come to these judgements. The process of biblical interpretation, following established principles, may lead to different conclusions, held with greater or lesser degrees of confidence in proportion to the extent of the biblical evidence and the ease of the hermeneutical challenge. The conclusions may be different within different traditions, but the process is based on shared premises, such that the steps can be scrutinised, challenged and debated within a shared epistemological framework.

Many of the beliefs are robust and unchanging – nevertheless, each new generation comes afresh to the task of reconfirming their biblical foundations and outworking. Evangelicalism is, at its best, characterised by a process rather than a product, by a humbling journey rather than a confident destination, by the ways in which beliefs leading to practices are discerned, rather than the beliefs themselves, which might conceivably be identical to those who reach them by other means.

For example, it is possible to hold strongly a belief in infant baptism, based on tradition, without ever looking at a Bible – many do. It is possible to come to the same belief following a careful and prayerful examination of relevant biblical passages. The belief is the same – the means by which it is reached is different. The first approach would not be characteristic of an evangelical – the second could well be the conclusion of an evangelical, while another evangelical, following the same approach but weighing the evidence differently, may come to a different interpretation.

Alternatively, a belief may be inherited from within an evangelical tradition that in its time wrestled with it, but which is now accepted unquestioningly, not owned anew and kept fresh within a still living and active evangelicalism, with the awareness and skill to do so no longer a part of the church’s thinking. The belief is unchanging – but the process by which the current congregation has come to hold that belief is different, and no longer has the characteristic marks of an evangelical approach.

The joy of mining diamonds

The difficulty of the task of faithful, valid exposition is not to be underestimated; as Haddon Robinson notes:

‘The Bible is not a child’s storybook, but great literature that requires thoughtful response. All its diamonds do not lie exposed on the surface to be picked like flowers. Its richness is mined only through hard intellectual and spiritual spadework.’

And it is that richness that congregations need to be eating and drinking from, in order to become holy, godly and equipped for every good work. John Stott makes a similar point more forcefully:

‘We have the highest doctrine of Scripture of anybody in the church. We must therefore acknowledge with deep shame that our treatment of Scripture seldom coincides with our view of it. We are much better at asserting its authority than at wrestling with its interpretation. We are sometimes slovenly, sometimes simplistic, sometimes highly selective and sometimes downright dishonest.’

Fear of erosion

My motivation for clarifying understanding is a concern that churches that consider themselves to be evangelical, based on their longstanding and assumed identification as such, may in fact be unwittingly and complacently slipping away from the reality and power of evangelicalism – by preaching the orthodox evangelical beliefs, but not via evangelical processes, within a body that has lost its evangelical antennae and physiology, and will soon lose the bread and meat of its evangelical nourishment.

For example, I heard a sermon recently from Ephesians 3:1-13, in which Paul’s central and recurring theme is ‘mystery’. Yet the preacher managed to deliver a sermon that not once mentioned this theme of mystery or proclaimed its mysterious content as revealed in this passage! What the preacher did speak about was unobjectionable, orthodox, not heretical, helpful, edifying even. But it did not come from this passage. It was an imposition, not an exposition – and the congregation was fed easy, generic and superficial truths rather than deeply-nourishing spiritual meat resulting from a genuine Spirit-led wrestling with the passage, and missed out on the unique value of this part of God’s inspired word. The beliefs – for now – are orthodox, but the route is not a consistently and robustly evangelical one, and the grounds for confidence in the enduring ability of this church to hold onto the truth, or to wrestle appropriately with controversy, or to relate God’s word meaningfully to genuine issues, are being eroded. It is a form of evangelicalism, but without its power.

This slide from authentic scriptural substance is a subtle development, not easily discerned, when the beliefs are familiar and dearly held as part of our evangelical identity, and engagingly and refreshingly presented – what’s not to like? – but without the underpinning of conspicuously sound biblical interpretation on which their nuanced (and perhaps evolving) legitimacy sits. There is little sense of wrestling with a passage and the bridges to its current relevance, through diligent study and humble prayer – instead, well-accepted doctrines and applications are reached easily along well-trodden paths, without difficulty or surprise, or acknowledgement of controversy, or of diversity of interpretation, or of changed views over time, or of retained views despite changes all about, based firmly on sound biblical interpretation.

The scope of the preaching is limited to a few well-worn themes and superficial applications, while the distinctive content of a particular passage is not even noticed, and the opportunity to benefit from the unique value of this or that passage is missed. The richness and relevance of God’s word are squandered, real and pressing issues on which it might throw light are overlooked, the congregation remains unaware of the depths of the Bible, having long been fed only spiritual milk, while others desperate to be fed meat go home hungry and unsatisfied.

An example from the laboratory

As a scientist, I am perhaps best known for my work on bubbles in bread (to those who question whether such a topic is important to God, I point you to Exodus 12!) Now, bread making is a task you don’t need to be a scientist to undertake; you can make bread at home, and your bread will probably be better than mine (my wife’s is). Even so, let’s imagine there is a new ingredient that might improve the bubble structure of bread. You try it in your kitchen, and I try it in my lab, and we both come to the same conclusion – yes, the bubbles are ‘better’ when you add this ingredient. The conclusion is correct – your belief in the value of this ingredient is correct, as is mine. But mine has a legitimacy to be accepted by the scientific community and by industrial and domestic users worldwide who might wish to benefit from this new ingredient. You have the correct belief – you have a belief that agrees with the science – but that does not make you a scientist.

By the same token, holding a belief that evangelicals hold does not in itself make you an evangelical. A church that proclaims beliefs that evangelicals would agree with, while helpful as evidence, does not guarantee that the genuine power of Spirit-dependent evangelicalism is informing that church, or that its grounding in the word of God, and the Bread of Life to Whom it points, will remain secure or life-giving.

So churches that desire to identify as evangelical ought to examine themselves by asking ‘on what basis do we demonstrate this claim?’ If the answer is ‘Our statement of faith’, the point is missed. The answer ought to be ‘the evidence of our practice of rightly handling the word, in prayerful reliance on the guiding power of the Spirit, in order to ensure our faith and works stay genuinely and deeply rooted in Scripture, to the glory of God and the blessing of many through Jesus Christ our Lord’.

Grant Campbell

Grant Campbell is Professor of Chemical Engineering at the University of Huddersfield. He did his PhD in Cambridge (on aeration of bread dough during mixing), where he was exposed to powerful, relevant and intellectually rigorous expository preaching for the first time. He was a long-standing member, and occasional preacher, at a local church that used to have ‘Evangelical’ in its name. He is currently attending a new evangelical church in the area, prompting him to ponder the value of right handling of the Bible and its potential to impart life-transforming truth and power.

1. Robinson H.W. (1980) Expository Preaching: Principles and Practice, Inter-Varsity Press, UK., p.21 2. Edwards D.L. and Stott J.R.W. (1988) Essentials: A Liberal-Evangelical Dialogue, Hodder & Stoughton Religious, London, UK. p.49

How should Christians vote?

The more militant secularists are generally okay with Christians being Christians – as long as we do so behind closed doors and in the secrecy of our own hearts.

In other words they want us to be a private society or club, like a line-dancing society or a golf club. But our Christianity is not just a hobby, and the church is not a club. That is also true when it comes to politics. This month we have a general election – and some want to ask what is the Christian position.

‘Pastor, how should I vote?’

As a minister I have occasionally been asked by someone in the congregation how I think they should vote. I tell them that that is not my job – and nor should they be asking me. I can give general biblical guidelines but it would be the wrong use of my position as a pastor for me to tell my congregation how to vote, or to endorse any particular political party or candidate. Bringing party politics into the church is just simply wrong.

This is one area where the church in the US has gone wrong. President Trump seeks and is given the endorsement of ‘evangelical’ leaders such as Franklin Graham and his new ‘spiritual advisor’, Paula White. Other clergy with a different political viewpoint will use their position to endorse the Democratic candidate. Asking people to vote for particular political parties has moved a long way from Paul’s injunction to Timothy that we should pray for kings and those in authority (1 Tim. 2:1-2).

But does that mean we should say nothing? As a private citizen I have my own views and I am happy to share them, in the sure and certain knowledge that I do not speak ex cathedra, and my views carry no extra weight just because of my role as a pastor. In that regard, let me offer some personal reflections about the current UK political situation, and the struggle I am having in deciding how to cast my vote.

Personal reflections

I am Scottish and have for some time supported the notion of Scottish Independence. Therefore I would normally vote for the SNP. But their regressive policies and their increasingly authoritarian government and style have made me reconsider. Could I in all conscience vote for a party that broke its own rule on interfering in other countries devolved parliaments just to impose abortion on Northern Ireland?

I once belonged to the Labour Party and was even the student publicity secretary in my time at Edinburgh University. I recall the days when Jeremy Corbyn was a young pro-IRA fanatic. I know that we do not have a presidential system, but the fact still remains that in voting for a Labour candidate my vote would be taken as an endorsement of Corbyn and anti-Semitism.

So maybe I would vote for the Tories? Unlike many of my countrymen I would not regard that as the unforgiveable sin, and indeed have also voted Tory in the past. I believe that whatever one’s views on Brexit, the result of the 2016 referendum has to be honoured if democracy is to survive, so I would be inclined to support them on that issue. But there are other issues that are disturbing – not least the character and general liberal regressivism of their leader.

Which leads me to another party I once belonged to – indeed was a founder member of – the Lib Dems (I belonged to the Dem part – the SDP). Their extremist position on Europe, transgenderism and most social issues, makes voting for a Lib Dem just as difficult as the others.

The Greens are too Green. The Brexit Party don’t have a manifesto. And there are no independents standing in my constituency, nor any of the tiny ‘Christian’ parties. Even if there were, I am not sure I would vote for them – precisely because the term Christian cannot be tied to any one political party or set of policies.

Electoral dilemma

For someone who believes that it would be wrong of me not to use my vote it is a pretty difficult decision. It may be that I just look at the individual candidates in my constituency and vote for the least bad option – or it may be that I register a protest vote by writing ‘none of the above’ and therefore my vote will be recorded as a spoilt ballot. Who will deliver me from this electoral dilemma – one that I suspect is shared by many.

All I can encourage people to do is think for themselves, read the party manifestos and find out about local candidates. Above all we must pray. And perhaps some Christians will feel inspired to get more involved in politics so that the field is not just left to those who ignore or despise the word of God. And of course – above all we must pray.

Sometimes we have a lot to learn from the wisdom of the past. John Wesley gave the following wise advice, recorded in The Journal of John Wesley:

‘October 6, 1774. I met those of our society who had votes in the ensuing election, and advised them:

1. To vote, without fee or reward, for the person they judged most worthy.

2. To speak no evil of the person they voted against, and

3. To take care their spirits were not sharpened against those that voted on the other side.’

David Robertson

David Robertson is the Director of Third Space in Sydney and blogs at

Don’t be Scrooge to your guest speaker

Money is not something we talk about easily in churches, especially when it comes to the remuneration of visiting preachers. We have become slightly more open about salaried pastors. But, when it comes to itin-erants a variety of approaches exists.

I am now an itinerant preacher after 45 years in full-time pastorates. In ‘the old days’ the treasurer would either sidle up to me in a conspiratorial manner and slip me an envelope as though doing a street corner drug deal; or he could openly flourish the envelope in public as though it were an award ceremony. Some were discreet.

Either way, a cheque would often be in the preacher’s hand as he made his way home. The compensation varied enormously from nothing for a 620-mile round trip to preach to 300 students at a Northern University to £500 in advance for three Sunday mornings in Shepherds Bush.

When I was in full-time work my church paid my travel expenses and I gave my church any honorarium I received, thus ensuring that my home church was ‘in pocket’ for releasing me to serve elsewhere. Now that I’m retired, any money churches give me is a helpful supplement to my income. But that’s not why I preach.

I believe the ideal arrangement is for preachers to be willing to serve freely just for the joy of preaching the word, and for the churches to take seriously the biblical encouragement ‘the labourer is worthy of his hire’.

Another complication that has surfaced recently is the promise of a bank transfer. ‘The cheque’s neither in the post nor in the hand, it’s in the Internet’! Sadly, in my experience, it has not been.

At a basic discipleship level this is breaking a promise. At a church level it’s not honouring those who labour in the word. Surely we can do better.

As far as the actual size of an honorarium is concerned, there must be flexibility. Some small, struggling churches might be served for nothing (I recently refused anything from a church plant that asked me to travel to Scotland to serve them for a church holiday. It was a privilege to serve them as a gift).

A senior colleague has made the following policy recommendations:

1. Review your reimbursement policy and do so bi-annually.

2. Be determinedly generous.

3. Send the preacher the gift and expenses in advance of his visit.

Let the preachers preach freely and without charge! Let the churches take their responsibility thoughtfully and generously.

An itinerant preacher

Why small churches are closing

Though there are signs to hearten and cheer us in various places, nevertheless an ever-deepening crisis concerns the demise of smaller churches, often, but not always, in little towns and villages.

Sometimes the factors driving decline may be peculiar to particular localities and settings – for example the extraordinarily high price of housing in certain localities, say in London, which means that the average person cannot afford to live there.

But apart from specific difficulties, it is worth thinking about more general considerations that the evangelical community, concerned for Christ’s cause, needs to face.

Spiritual state of the UK

Starting here does give a general context to the demise. Of course secularism expects the churches in Britain to fade into oblivion as outdated relics of a bygone age of foolish faith. But Scripture would tell us that it is not ‘progress’ that makes a land spiritually barren. It must be due to the judgment of God. And where we have a country in which successive governments have written into law the promotion of attitudes and behaviour directly opposed to God’s standards, we are bound to see it as the inexorable slow-motion wrath of God in action.

This does not mean that we should abandon evangelism or that God does not save people today. But it does mean that the going is tough. The gospel is directly opposed by those who hold the levers of power and who shape public opinion.

Some try to be upbeat by saying ‘Well, we are simply back in the situation faced in Acts.’ But that is actually far from true. There are now hindrances that the early church never faced. ‘Gospel’ means ‘good news.’ The gospel was ‘news’ to the first century world. But our times dismiss it as ‘old hat’. And with political correctness dominating public discourse, the exclusive claims of Christ and the call to a godly life look restrictive and bad, not good. It is assumed that Christianity has been tried in the past and is now found wanting.

Furthermore, the church of Acts did not have to contend with groups that call themselves churches, but having drifted from the gospel, are not churches at all. And further still, whereas the church of Acts was full of the power of the Spirit and holy love, the evangelical churches of today are rarely of that quality (this calls for repentance). Some are grim, joyless, unwelcoming places – fraught with in-fighting going back years. This too makes evangelism tough.

See the situation in context. It is easy for us to despise smaller churches and for their pastors to become despondent. Sometimes in their despair they simply give up.

Small churches, good and bad

Some smaller churches, having grasped the tendency of God we find in Scripture – to champion the needy and to use what is weak to show His power and glory – are full of faith. They are a joy to visit. They are a band of brothers and sisters, full of hope and love, who are up for anything so long as it is biblical and will promote Christ’s name.

But many smaller churches are not like that. They are discouraged and gloomy. Three obstacles to progress are especially common.

Obstacle 1 – ‘Our church’ mentality

The first is the attitude that sees the church as ‘our church’ (rather than primarily Christ’s church). This can be in terms of one prominent family who regard it as their church. Woven into that phrase ‘our church’ is a whole raft of unhelpful assumptions and attitudes including a cloying concern to keep things as they always have been for the comfort of those who have long attended. There is no desire to reach out intelligently to a modern world which is lost.

Obstacle 2 – Tricky individuals

The second road-block to progress in little churches is often a particularly difficult character. There can be one outspoken and angular person, male or female, who dominates the church. They say their church needs help, but actually what they want is help in keeping things precisely as they are, including their own hold on position in the church.

Obstacle 3 – Insular culture

third hindrance can be when a church consists of a group of shy diffident people who are determined to remain so. They choose a pastor like themselves, who is not really a ‘people person’ and, although they would like to see the church grow, they do their best to avoid visitors. ‘It’s just the way we are,’ they protest. But the real test of our obedience to Christ is whether or not we will obey Him when His commands cut across our natural tendencies.

A few years ago a zealous young couple went to a small church determined to do what they could to help. They moved house and threw themselves into the work. But it was like bashing their heads against a brick wall. Eventually they decided to pull out. Sometimes the closure of small churches is down to themselves.

The attitude of large churches

It is of course wrong to generalise – not all larger churches are as I will now describe. But quite a few are.

Some large churches simply neglect helping smaller churches around them. In fact they might even despise their brothers and sisters in Christ simply because they are not ‘successful’ like them. The secular world is all about success and these churches too see success purely in terms of numbers. Lack of success is the new leprosy for these churches. They don’t wish to be seen to be associated in any way with the disease. They pass by on the other side.

Other large churches look upon the plight of smaller congregations as nothing other than an opportunity for them to build their own empires. ‘Yes, we will help you – but it can only be as a takeover.’ It is ecclesiastical Darwinism at work. Evidently, the strong are meant to prevail and the weak must go to the wall. These churches go in to help as lords not as servants. Understandably, many smaller churches take fright and refuse the offer of a takeover.

Still other stronger churches do feel a pang of conscience that they really ought to be helping the weak. But, realising they should do something they keep their commitment to a minimum, or shape it more in terms which will help them rather than the needy group. The small church is seen as a place to send young inexperienced preachers for a trial to fill the pulpit, but little else is done. Many large churches aspire to becoming a ‘hub church’ for the area. Reputation is what it is all about.

Being big often does mean that the Lord has blessed. But how is that genuine blessing to continue? The Lord Jesus said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive’ (Acts 20:35).

Candidates for the ministry

The idea of being called to an obscure parish or little country chapel doesn’t go down well with many men who aspire to the ministry today. They frequently desire the security of being part of a team ministry, and of course they must be in a church which attracts students.

Listen to the challenging words of John Newton giving counsel to another minister: ‘Considering that our Lord’s kingdom is not of this world, I have thought it a little strange, that when his ministers think He calls them to leave one charge for another, it should almost universally be from less to more; to a better income, to a larger town or a more genteel congregation. We seldom have an instance of a retrograde call. … For one to leave London for a charge in the country is rare indeed.’1

In all these areas something has got to change if churches are not to fold.

John Benton

John Benton is en’s former Managing Editor and Director of Pastoral Support at The Pastor’s Academy,

1. Wise Counsel: John Newton’s Letters to John Ryland Jr., Edited by Grant Gordon, Banner of Truth, 2009, p.262