Independence Day

Last Sunday was by any standard an eventful day for us.  Independence Day.  The day when the fellowship in Charlesworth was to be constituted as an independent church. We gathered in the afternoon at the chapel, built by our Particular Baptist forefathers in 1835.  I gave a brief resumé of the events that had brought us to this point; we sang, read the Scriptures and prayed.  I read out a list of fourteen of our church members – folk living in or around Charlesworth – commended them to God and to the word of his grace; declared them free from all the  responsibilities of membership of Grace Baptist Church Stockport, the church they had belonged to until now.  It was a sad moment, our farewell to beloved friends and brothers, and yet a moment of joy.  This was what we had waited and worked for, for seven years.

The covenant of membership

Lying on the table at the front was the new church’s covenant of membership.  The New Testament makes it clear that every believer, once baptised, must commit himself or herself to the local church, to its teaching, sharing, breaking of bread, praying.  The friends in Charlesworth had prepared this covenant, outlining the duties that such commitment involves.  Together they’d studied it, discussed it, prayed over it.  Now the time had come for each one to decide whether he or she was ready to put their name to it.  Around the room, one after another of the fourteen rose to their feet and made their way to the front. 

One was missing, kept away by unavoidable circumstances.  But there were still fourteen.  An elderly lady stepped forward with the rest.  She had worshipped regularly in the congregation in Charlesworth, but had never become a member of GBCS.  One by one, all fourteen added their names to the covenant, committing themselves to the Lord and to one another.  There were smiles and even laughter, as they pressed forward.  But it wasn’t the laughter of irreverence.  It was happy laughter – Psalm 126 laughter – the laughter of waiting at an end, harvest time, dreams fulfilled.

The Next Lord’s Day, God willing, the one missing name will be added to the list.  And the new church will hold its first baptismal service, baptising a middle aged couple.  Both have professed faith during the past year and have remarkable testimonies.  Two children have also asked to be baptised – there seems no reason to doubt the reality of God’s grace in their hearts.  They too may be baptised in the near future. 

A time for rejoicing – and reflection

When the church in Stockport agreed  in 2004 to take oversight of the chapel in Charlesworth, the church that had met there had been reduced to one member, an elderly lady called Bessie Howbrook.  Another couple – Keith and Jenni – had faithfully attended and laboured for many years but were not members.  One other lady had begun to attend more recently.  That was it – a congregation of four!  By God’s grace, the new church that has been established has a membership of fourteen, which may grow to nineteen within a few weeks.

When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream…This is a time for rejoicing.  But it is also a time for reflection.  Over coming months we will need to look back, to reflect, to ask what lessons we have learned.  What mistakes did we make?  What would we do differently if we took on a similar project?   How can we build on our experience?

But for now, let me just ask one question. 

What have we, as a church, gained by taking on this seven-year task? 

When we agreed to do it, many of us felt nervous.  We knew it would involve expenditure of time, money, resources, effort.  For a small church, the prospect was daunting.  And yes, there is no doubt that the project has been costly.  But I believe that what we’ve gained far outweighs the price we’ve paid.  Let me count some of the blessings:

1.  We’ve been given an example of bold and enterprising evangelism 

When we called Martin, we knew that he had a track-record as a gifted evangelist.  Well, we’ve seen that a key part of being an evangelist is being willing to try things.  Think of all the different activities that Martin and the folk in Charlesworth have used as ways of reaching folk.  They’ve knocked on doors, delivered leaflets, handed out tracts on the streets.  They’ve organised breakfasts for men, luncheon clubs for the elderly, barbecues for everyone.  Martin’s been into the local schools, taken assemblies, run a course based on Pilgrim’s Progress videos.  They’ve held open days for local folk to view the building, and especially for schools to visit, they’ve run holiday Bible clubs, they’ve held Saturday evening sessions for young people and students.  They’ve gone carol singing, and they’ve gone clay pigeon shooting.  Some of these things they’ve done intermittently; some they’ve tried and dropped; some they’ve kept running all through the past seven years.  But they’ve been willing to try every legitimate way of bringing people to hear the message.  That’s an example for us. 

I’m not suggesting that all the methods that have been used in Charlesworth would be equally appropriate in downtown Stockport.  We don’t have a chapel building with a history stretching back 180 years.  I’m not sure that many of my non-Christian friends would be attracted by the idea of a shoot.  The lesson is not that we must copy everything that’s worked out in Charlesworth.  The lesson is that we must aim to be enterprising, and willing to try any lawful means to confront sinners with God’s word.

2.  We’ve been given proof that God still saves sinners and changes their lives

How few conversions we in Stockport have seen from the world!  The last time we saw anyone from the local area saved, baptised and added to the church, was in 1996 – fifteen years ago!  Since then we have baptised students who have come to faith among us, some of them with no Christian background.  We have baptised a number of the young people from the families of the church.  We thank God for all of these.  Yet still we feel our barrenness.  God has put us in a particular area and has given us the responsibility for reaching the people of that area.  And there we’ve seen so little fruit.

It would be easy for us to despair and to conclude that God no longer saves ordinary people.  But no, God has not left us to think like that.  He’s allowed us to witness striking conversions out in Charlesworth.  No, there’s not been a huge number.  Two older folk have been baptised, one middle-aged couple are waiting to be baptised.  All the other folk who have professed faith are folk from Christian homes.  But we’ve seen those four conversions from the world.  And we’ve seen in each of the four, amazing, supernatural change.  How thrilling it’s been to have Les and Susanette in our midweek meetings, and to watch them changing week by week!  We’ve seen old ways falling away from them, the likeness of Christ emerging.  They were folk who had spent most of their life in darkness.  But Christ called them, saved them, is transforming them. How exciting it’s been to hear of all that he’s done in Phill and Anne’s lives too!  What extraordinary stories they have to tell!

We’ve seen supernatural power, amazing grace at work.  If we ever doubted whether God still hears prayers, we’ve no reason to doubt it now.  So now we pray on with renewed determination. Why should we not see the same power and grace saving people in Stockport?

3.  We’ve been given a sister church with which we’re bound by friendship and love

The churches in Stockport and Charlesworth are now independent of each other.  There is no formal association, no contract that binds us together.  But there is still a special bond.  The folk from those two churches have worked together, prayed together, learned together, broken bread together.  Those things cannot lightly be forgotten.  Personal friendships have been built.  The lives of our families are intertwined.  Our youngsters belong to the same choirs and swimming clubs.  Will my children stop thinking of Martin as Uncle Martin and Rachel as Auntie Rachel?  Hardly. 

There are many churches with which we enjoy happy fellowship.  But the bond between the Stockport church and the Charlesworth church will always be special.  We must make sure it continues strong.  We’ll make ourselves available to help them when they need it.  And we trust them to come to our aid when we need it.  No doubt we’ll plan some joint activities on a regular basis – walks, social events, why not an occasional hog roast? (please, Sam!) We’ll still be praying for one another, supporting one another, remembering one another’s birthdays.  We’ll still be sharing resources when we can, and working together in evangelism, as opportunity arises.

What a precious gift from God! – a sister church pledged to love, support and pray for us. “Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil.  For if they fall, one will lift up his fellow. But woe to him who is alone when he falls and has not another to lift him up!  Again, if two lie together, they keep warm, but how can one keep warm alone?  And though a man might prevail against one who is alone, two will withstand him–a threefold cord is not quickly broken….”  (Ecclesiastes 4:9-12).

4.We’ve been given the privilege of working with many other churches in this project

Yes, the bond between us and the Charlesworth folk is special.  But we’ve not stood alone in this.  Many other churches have worked with us in so many ways.  Without the support of the Charlesworth trustees this project would never have begun.  They are drawn from a number of churches in West Yorkshire.  Martin and I have sat down each month with pastors from five neighbouring churches here in the North West.  Month after month they have prayed with us about the work in Charlesworth, encouraged us and given their support.  Speakers have come from those churches and many others to preach on Sundays, and at barbecues and other events.  When money needed to be found to refurbish the chapel, the Grace Baptist Trust Corporation pledged its help.  And then, when more money still was needed for roof repairs, churches all over the country sent their gifts.  The church in Bradford has given warm support, encouraging our Charlesworth members to join them on their house parties.  Many other churches – and individuals too – have helped in other ways.

How reassuring it is to know that we are part of such a network of likeminded churches!  We may feel at times that we’re isolated and vulnerable.  But God has shown us over these past seven years how real the fellowship is that we enjoy with many churches.  Often we’re told that to be independent means isolation.  By God’s grace it’s not been so for us!

5.  We’ve been given the prospect of an everlasting crown

When Paul looked forward to the world to come, his greatest joy was that he knew he would see Jesus Christ his Saviour.  But he was also excited at the thought of meeting countless folk to whom he had preached the gospel, who had become his friends, with whom he would have a special bond through all eternity.  Paul told the Philippians that they would be his “joy and crown” in the world to come.  He asked the Thessalonians, “what is our hope or joy or crown of boasting before our Lord Jesus at his coming? Is it not you?  For you are our glory and joy.” (1 Thessalonians 2:19-20).  Paul was convinced that the bonds that are created between believers here in this world go on forever.  Jesus himself told us “to make friends for yourselves by means of worldly wealth, so that when it fails they may receive you into the eternal dwellings…” (Luke 16:9).

Through all eternity to come, there’ll be a special love and unity between ourselves and our Charlesworth friends.  They’ll be eternally grateful for what we did for them, and we’ll be eternally grateful for what they’ve done for us.  Those who have found Christ during these past seven years will never forget that we played our part in that.  If we hadn’t called Martin to Charlesworth and supported him there, they might never have heard the gospel.  And who knows how many more people will be saved out there in the years to come?  Maybe I’m going to be met in the eternal world by lots of folk who will rush up to me and say, “Aren’t you from Stockport?  I was saved through the church in Charlesworth. Oh, thank you for all you did to keep that work alive!”  And then, as I hear their stories, my heart will be filled with a joy that will stay for all eternity. The rewards of serving Christ are everlasting.

And now?

So taking on the work in Charlesworth has brought us great rewards.  What comes next?  Answer: I don’t know.  I don’t know what opportunities the Lord will open for us.  But there are lots of communities around us where there is no gospel church at all.  And we should surely be asking the Lord to open doors into those communities. 

In my very first “letter from the manse” – May 2001 – I wrote about Jesus’s command to his disciples to take the gospel to “Jerusalem, Judaea, Samaria, the uttermost parts of the earth” (Acts 1:8).  We have a responsibility to witness to people in our own town – Stockport; to plant churches in other towns and villages across our area; to reach out to towns and villages throughout the UK which have no gospel witness; to send missionaries to unreached people across the world.  We’ve taken one small step in fulfilling the great commission – and the reward has been great.  Maybe the next project will bring yet greater rewards!  Let’s press on. 

Stephen Rees

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