We had left a church that was evangelical in name but divided in doctrine and torn apart by conflicts of personality. We had no idea what the future held for us. We met together simply because there was no other church in the area which we could imagine joining. There was no strategy, no plan for the future, no conviction that we were called to establish a new church. We called ourselves the Cheadle Heath Christian Fellowship. We knew we were not a church. We had no appointed leaders, no constitution, no formal membership. We held no communion services together. We had no public meeting place: all our meetings were in homes.
Three years later, late in October 1984, we resolved that the time had come to form ourselves into a church. During the three years of waiting, our sense of identity had been crystallised. Our doctrinal convictions had been strengthened. Our views of the biblical pattern for a local church had been sharpened. We had come to believe that there was need for a gospel-preaching, bible-believing, independent, reformed, baptist church on this side of Stockport. We had drawn up a statement of faith, a constitution, a covenant of membership.
On the 27th November 1984, nine members of the Cheadle Heath Christian Fellowship covenanted together to form a church: Grace Baptist Church. Fourteen folk were present. They included our friend Michael Harley who was then pastor at East Finchley in London. I was in the chair. According to the minute-book,
“The chairman opened the meeting with prayer and the hymn ‘When in His might the Lord arose to set us free’ (Grace 558) was sung. The chairman reminded the meeting of the resolution passed on 26th October, and read the text of the covenant of membership. Those who wished to declare their assent to this covenant were asked to stand and Pastor Michael Harley addressed them briefly, reading Hebrews 11:8. He then asked them to signify their assent to the stated responsibilities of membership. When asked whether they were willing to undertake these responsibilities, those standing answered with the words, ‘By the grace of God, we will’.”
Later in the meeting, after we had put our names to the covenant of membership, Michael “addressed the newly-formed church, expounding Revelation 3 vs 7-13, outlining the qualities within a church that win the approval of the Lord Jesus Christ. After a time of open prayer, hymn no 562, “Not to us be glory given” was sung. All present then stood to say the benediction, “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with us all, evermore.”
“Before dismissing the meeting, the chairman introduced a resolution adopting the proposed church constitution. The resolution was passed without discussion, nem con.”
That was twenty-one years ago. How the years have flown!
I was just twenty-three when the Cheadle Heath Christian Fellowship first met, twenty-six when GBC was formed. And now, I’m forty-seven – as far as I know, the longest-serving reformed minister in any church in the north-west. More than half my life has been spent serving this congregation.
Year after year, Michael Harley has come back to us on the anniversary of that event (I think he’s missed just one year). He’s more grizzled now and there’s not quite the same spring in his step as there was back then, but he exhorts us still with the same affection and seriousness. How much his friendship has meant to us over the years. And what a lovely providence it is that we have his daughter, son-in-law, grandchildren in the congregation.
Of the nine people who signed the covenant of membership that night, only two – myself and Rose – still continue as members. Some have moved to other parts of the country, some left us unhappy with the direction the church was taking, one has drifted far from the faith she professed then, one is in the grave.
Looking back over those twenty-one years is a sobering thing. There have been many disappointments, many griefs and frustrations. There has never been the outpouring of the Spirit, the tide of conversions we dreamed of when our work began. In all, I believe we have baptised thirty-five folk since the church was formed: of those some were already believers when they came to us; others were children of church members. How few conversions there have been out of the world! And of those who have professed faith, not all have stood the test of time.
We’ve seen divisions: folk leaving us unhappily, some under discipline, some full of bitterness. In all, eighty-three people have in the course of the years put their names to our covenant of membership. Of those only thirty-three are in membership today. Many of the rest have left for good and honourable reasons. Some have been called home to glory. But too many have left us under sad circumstances.
Many things we’ve sought from the Lord have not yet come to pass.
All these are reasons for heart-searching: for everyone in the church, but for myself above all. How much more might have been achieved if the church had been served by a more godly, more zealous, more prayerful pastor – if I had lived closer to Christ through those twenty-one years, and reflected more of his character in my life and work. Take this anniversary as a reminder to renew your prayers for the church and for myself. Spurgeon wrote about the work of the pastor:
“Zeal is more quickly checked after long years of continuance in the same service than when novelty gives a charm to our work… what must it be to abide in the same pulpit for many years! In such a case it is not the pace that kills, but the length of the race… he who at the end of twenty years’ ministry among the same people is more alive than ever, is a great debtor to the quickening Spirit”.
You have covenanted particularly to pray for those who are raised up as leaders in the church. I need your prayers now more than I did twenty years ago.
Yet looking back is also a source of great encouragement and thanksgiving. When I look back, I am constantly amazed that God has kept this church in existence at all. How many times its life could have been snuffed out! We have seen many churches close in the past twenty years, or depart from the gospel. Yet God has kept us. He has supplied all our needs. Not a Sunday has passed by without our meeting. And in every meeting there’s been Bible-preaching and prayer. God has spoken to us and we have spoken to God. And though progress may seem slow, it has been real. How far we’ve come since that first meeting when nine folk met in the front room of a house in Cheadle Hulme! We’ve had use of the St John Ambulance HQ ever since 1984. It’s not ideal, but it has met our needs. And how many opportunities the Lord has opened to us! Our resources may be limited, but he’s made it possible for us to reach out through the Sunday-school, to preach the gospel in nursing-homes, to speak to youngsters on the streets. We’re making the gospel known in Macclesfield and Bollington through the Bible-study in Martin & Jacquie’s home. The Lord has enabled us to hold regular meetings for the teenagers and for the ladies of the church. We hold a regular missionary prayer meeting. We’re able to leaflet the area at intervals. We get a constant trickle of messages from people around the world who have been strengthened by the ministry of our website. And now the Lord has opened the way for us to play our part in restoring the work in Charlesworth. We’ve become a church on two sites! Looking back, we can echo Jacob’s amazed words:
“I am not worthy of the least of all the deeds of steadfast love and all the faithfulness which you have shown to your servant, for with only my staff I crossed this Jordan, and now I have become two camps!”
From our number we’ve sent out men to serve the Lord elsewhere. Mark Richards is pastoring the church in Chesham today, David Last in Leytonstone. Through our study-weeks we continue to play a part in equipping men for the ministry in many places. This church was instrumental too in starting the God’s Glory Our Joy conference: that conference is playing a more and more significant role in strengthening other churches around the north-west.
These are just a few of the kindnesses God has done us. He’s given us faithful deacons, willing workers, gifted preachers. He’s saved many of our children, and many more sit and listen to the preaching each Lord’s Day. I believe he’s given us much unity in doctrine and much love for one another. What great things God has done! And how grateful we should be.
Grace Baptist Church is twenty-one years old this year. For any of us, coming of age is a time for serious reflection: repentance, thanksgiving, renewed determination. Let’s make it so.
‘Forgetting what’s behind, and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on towards the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenwards in Christ Jesus..’