Last week I was invited to speak briefly at a church service. To say a few words. It happens from time to time. Quite a lot, to be honest.
But this one was a bit special. In fact, it was quite extraordinary.
Today’s invitation was particularly fascinating to me, because it was at the church I had planted back in 1983, and had led until 1994. Until recent years, I had thought that pastoring this church would be the best thing I would ever do.
And today was unusually poignant, because this was to be their final service before closing down the church, for ever. Times had been hard of late, so I’d been told, and numbers were dwindling.
It was a one-hundred-mile journey, and I drove it thoughtfully. What would it be like? We’d seen so many miracles here, and so many people had come to Christ. But I hadn’t been for many years, and now they were closing. Shutting up shop. What would the mood be like; the atmosphere? Would they be weary? Would they smile bravely but feel crushed and defeated? Or would they feel relieved? And what should I say?
Well, I decided to say what was sincerely in my heart. I wanted to bless and to honour the leadership, and to thank them for their faithfulness to God. I wanted to bless the flock that they had shepherded over many years, many of whom were still serving Christ around the world.
I wanted them to know that to end well can be very, very special and timely in God’s eyes. In the same way that Psalm 116:15 tells us that ‘precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints’ so, if we end well today, our merciful heavenly Father can regard the closure of this congregation of His people to be equally precious.
I wanted to tenderly ask them what they did with their disappointments, and if they really knew how to baptise them into more of God’s mercy and goodness. I wanted to remind them that, in the Kingdom of God, there is no such thing as death, without there being a resurrection. I decided that one of my favourite scriptures would be appropriate for today: Unless a seed is sown into the ground and dies, it remains by itself alone. If it dies, it bears much fruit.
I wanted to express that even though today might seem like an opportunity for nostalgia, it was really all about looking forwards, upwards, and outwards, to a better country, as with the those who got a mention in Hebrews 11. I wanted to urge them not just to fizzle out but, as it were, to die in faith.
All that sort of stuff. And I did.
As is my want, I arrived obsessively early, not even sure that the place would even be open yet. But a buzz of vibrant life hit me as I opened the door and was warmly welcomed in. Instantly, this was both the most surreal, and yet the most natural thing on earth. The building itself looked crisp and clean and welcoming, but equally it also looked just as I had left it in 1994. I knew every brick in this building; had project-managed its design and renovation, had my office here; for years and on my own would come here by six o’clock every Sunday morning to pray over every chair and every moment of the coming day’s proceedings.
As well as the present-day congregation, the vast majority of whom I did not know, at least fifty people had come from all corners of the UK; people I most definitely did know. People I had loved, and laid my life down for, but whom I hadn’t seen for decades. They had come especially for today, from Cornwall, from Manchester, from Norwich, to bless God for His faithfulness, to bring encouragement to the church and its leaders, and to speak words of kindness, of prophecy, of powerful testimony, into the occasion.
The worship was wonderful, and the presence of God was, well, weighty. This was no Ichabod. The couple who led the church, and its final meeting today, were teenagers when I was there. Now, almost fifty, they were magnificent. They spoke with a calm confidence and authority, with generosity and humility; with a sparkle in their eyes and a Christ-filled radiance in their words.
“We’ve always been a sending church,” they began. True, I thought, recalling the times when the mother church would groan in labour and almost die in childbirth as it gave away its best, time after time after time, only for God to heal it, and woo it, and grow it once more. In this way eight churches were planted out of these very roots. Musicians were released to join Delirious, Graham Kendrick, Iona and the like. Missionaries were sent all over the world. “But one day we realised that God wasn’t replacing people with the ones we’d sent out. We made it a determined matter of prayer, and sought advice, and slowly but clearly and simply we came to the understanding that God was saying that this time it would, and should, die. It should actually die. It was time to lay this expression, this most precious, wonderful, testimony-filled expression of His bride, down.”
And so, they have. Of course there is pain. Of course there is sadness. Of course there are question marks still in some people’s eyes. And there will almost inevitably be a few dark nights of the soul to come, where mature and responsible people think lonely thoughts to themselves; “What on earth have we done?” But they were simply seeking to obey God’s voice, in exactly the same way as they had sought to obey God’s voice at every turn for the last twenty-plus years. He gives and takes away. Blessed be His name.
Big respect to them. God bless them, protect them, and raise them all up again, in whatever format He chooses. Any old fool can start something, but it sometimes takes a prophet to end it.
Beautiful words Alan. I was privileged to be part of this wonderful church for 13 all too short years, until our family joined the sent out ones in January 2001. It changed my life forever, and I will always be grateful to you for your influence, love and friendship.
Thank you Alan for all you did and for all you gave and gave up. You are a good shepherd and I learnt much from you and PCC including how to be a good leader . Here in Wales I am on the leadership team of a church similar to PCC - having said I’d never lead a church again! I’m in the process of reading your book-a good and emotional read! God bless you. Allison 😀
Brilliantly put, Alan. We were sad not to be able to join everyone for the final service, especially as I remember when you left Thrapston to start Kettering and how exciting those days of growth and miracles were. It would have been good to meet up with folk once more.
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...started leading churches at the age of 18. With a team in the 1980's, planted eight churches in UK and Belgium. Has been teaching and training churches ever since.