Alfred Place Baptist Church

Aber 2006

THE ABERYSTWYTH CONFERENCE

The annual Evangelical Movement of Wales Conference took place here in the second week of August. It has been going on for forty-nine years (what a Jubilee next year) and for forty-eight it has been in this seaside university town. There is nowhere else in Wales where it can take place. There is the irresistible combination of a small town with the mountains as backcloth, the university halls of residence in which many stay for the week, camping sites, hotels and summer cottages for accommodation, plus the 1240 seat Great Hall of the University for the main sessions mornings and evenings, and the other rooms for the main meetings. But what will happen when 1300 people want to attend? This year it was 1200 and we were bursting at the seams. We got away with it as a number of those attending are children and they are absent from the morning and evening meetings (in the morning to attend their own meetings). It is a nice problem to have. There is an overflow room with a large video screen and that is OK. It is generally working, but being there underlines a sense of detachment from the hub. Everyone wants to be there, part of the dynamic of the preacher delivering his soul and engaged with the worshipping congregation. When this problem of large crowds hit the Keswick Convention they addressed it by a second week of Convention meetings which they labelled a ‘family week.’

 This year the Aberystwyth Conference programme is so large that one can barely print all the meetings taking place. Forty years ago there were the prayer meetings before the morning’s main conference addresses, and that was the fare before lunchtime. The afternoons were spent on the beach at Borth playing football, or there was shopping, or afternoon tea. Four evenings were spent in the gospel preaching services, in the old Welsh way, the sin of man and deliverance through the finished work of Christ and so repent and believe on him. On Wednesday evening the meeting actually took place on the promenade. We were a couple of hundred in those days, but today things have changed; any nook and cranny of the week is filled with another meeting. Of course you don’t have to go to any of them. Maybe teenagers prefer to listen to speakers than being on the Beach. After the morning sessions and before hearing the evening preachers what delight to read a book in a deckchair, ice-creams, cricket, picnics, dips in the sea and the sight of donkeys carrying infants up and down the sand. The Welsh language conference which is in the following week is less frantic in that regard. More leisure time.

 The organising of the hundreds of young people is done well during the Conference. If it were not for this they would walk aimlessly in groups up and down the promenade and take it in turns to throw one another into the sea. The programme of meetings arranged for them is superb; Stuart Olyott and Joel Beeke took part in late night question sessions and talks. Next year Edward Donnelly is at Aber.

 That whole approach of the more well-known guest speaker coming in the mornings and generally the Welshmen preaching in the evenings has done the Conference well for many years and the conference numbers built up steadily. “If it ain’t bust don’t fix it” seems good advice to any conference planners. It was the arrival of Douglas MacMillan and his four messages on the 23rd Psalm which resulted in the Conference hitting a new peak. Reports of the blessing that came during a particularly wet week in 1979 added another few hundred regular attenders in the next decades. There is no advertising of the Conference other than the gospel grapevine. It is now the premier preaching week in Wales and there are certainly ten preachers in Wales who could edify this large congregation in the evenings for a couple of years.

 Would I change things? Minutely. We sing too much in the evenings. One has to get there half an hour before the meeting starts to get a decent seat and so the congregation is encouraged to sing five hymns, which are humbly led by Spencer Cunnah from Sheffield. It could be a useful time discovering one’s neighbours sitting around one which we do in the mornings. Happy chats; part of the delight of Aberystwyth is in catching up with old friends, but in the nights five hymns are sung before the service and four during it; a bit much. It might not be a great loss to cut down those during the service to two, one before and one after the sermon and go straight into the prayer, reading and announcements. That is still seven hymns, surely enough for an evening. Is hymn singing very big in the New Testament? 

Would I change anything? Of course. I would have every speaker full of faith and the Holy Spirit. I would have all who attend presenting their bodies as a living sacrifice to Jesus Christ willing to do the will of the Saviour where and when and how he pleases. I would have a deep hunger for the word in everyone who attends. I would want changes of those dimensions but not the cosmetic introduction of such features as happy-chappy worship leaders with their tales, women playing a vocal part on the platform, choirs and soloists (none of which phenomena now pertains, thank God). I guess it is the regulative principle of Scripture governing our gatherings for which I am pleading. It is a worthy goal, and the success of the Conference in largely maintaining this Word-centred end that has been a reason for God’s blessing upon it.

 So this year there were more people present than ever, and they arrived on Saturday, one thousand of them, and many wanted to be in our services on Sunday. Every year on this Sunday we move out of our old building (into which you can squeeze 280) and we use the 650 seat Bethel, the Welsh Baptist Church across the street, which has no services in August. This year people began to stand outside Bethel waiting for admission 40 minutes before the doors opened. Hundreds were spilling onto the road on a dry Sunday morning, and so our men opened up for them. Although the service was announced as starting at 11.45 before 11 a.m. it was packed out and so we prayed as elders and started at 11.15. No point in delaying. What singing! No instruments are needed to accompany singing with an enthusiastic congregation of that size, but we have the organ. Every seat was also taken in the school room underneath by those who listened to the service through loudspeakers. My grandson Rhodri had to worship in another service further down the street – which was also more or less filled. I preached three messages on Cain and Abel, the progress of the sin, the blood of Christ speaking better than the blood of Abel, and the features of the Cainite civilization. This third message was on Monday morning at 11 to about 500 people. From the response I gathered that this was the message which made the greatest impact.

 Joel Beeke spoke four times on how Christians should walk as Jesus Christ walked beginning with being like him in c
ross bearing, and then in his three offices as prophet, priest and king. In the third address he spoke on the Saviour’s tears, and in the fourth in his mission of endurance from Hebrews 12. The evening preachers were Gwyn Williams, Liam Gallagher, Keith Hoare and myself. I took a message I had first preached twenty years ago and worked on it and refreshed myself in it. The text was “Jesus Christ, whom having not seen you love . . .” One has to be on top of one’s subject when speaking in a concert hall to 1100 people and I knew there were illustrations that would be refreshing and much evangelistic impact. I prayed as ever that if there were to be humbling then it would be for my lasting good, and if there were blessing that some there might be brought to confess the Saviour as their own. 

How faithful is our God. I was thinking in June before we went to the USA of what lay before me in August, six messages, three at each end of the Conference to larger crowds than I usually address. It was pretty daunting. How many times have I had such anticipation and then the Lord has helped me. I had preached five messages from Genesis four and five, three of them on Cain to start the conference and then finally on the last Sunday two sermons on Enoch walking with God. In addition, by the end of the Sunday I had sent off the text of these five Genesis sermons to Jim our web-master to put on our church web site. That was my longing in June and my fulfilment in August. It is all by grace, certainly not of works lest any man should boast. Hitherto has the Lord helped us, and will that help ever fail?

 Geoff Thomas