The Bala conference of ministers takes place each June in a delightful little market town in North Wales, now enhanced in my eyes through having its gospel church under a new pastor, Gareth Williams. He changed his career last year from being one of the lecturers in Systematic Theology at the Welsh Evangelical School of Theology to take up the pastorate, building on the fine foundation of his predecessors; his family has settled well into life in this town the young teenage children have mastered Welsh and have crossed the north-south Wales divide.
Bala was the community to which Mary Jones walked 30 miles, her shoes tied together and hanging around her neck, to buy a Bible from Thomas Charles. Bala was the scene of a wonderful work of God 200 years ago when quite suddenly, one normal evening service, little different from many others led by Thomas Charles, many in the congregation became gripped by the divine analysis of the human condition of being “desperately wicked” in the sight of God. They knew without a doubt that there was no hope save through Christ’s redemption. They remained in their seats for a long time after the service enervated by conviction. At the end of the evening as Thomas Charles walked home through the narrow streets he could hear the sound of hymns being sung in many homes. The work of God lasted for months and spread out into the surrounding county of Merionethshire and through North Wales. This is the Bala where Dr. Lloyd-Jones was invited to become the Principal of the theological college of the Calvinistic Methodists in the late 1930s, but chose rather to accept the call from Campbell Morgan to work with him at Westminster Chapel. So the college without one evangelical teacher withered and died. It is the finest building in the town and today it is a youth centre for young people’s conferences, in fact the whole Calvinistic Methodist (Presbyterian) denomination in Wales no longer has a seminary when once it had four or five and there are just a few men preparing for the ministry. In Bala is the North Wales conference centre of the Evangelical Movement of Wales, Brynygroes, and in the next two months it will be a hive of teenage activities with the happy summer camps.
About sixty of us preachers met there on 11th June for 48 hours of meetings. I guess fifteen of them were retired men, and ten of them were there for the first time. It was Dr. Lloyd-Jones’ special conference for many years. He chaired the discussions and gave the closing message until it all got too much for him; “There is no escape for me there,” he said to me. “Even at the meal times men sit round and ask questions.” So he finally packed it in and we struggled for a few years adjusting to the absence of his dominant ministry and leadership, but now the new egalitarianism rules everywhere in evangelicalism, by God’s will. There are no longer ‘legends,’ but just faithful men, some of whom have been in the ministry longer than others.
It’s not ‘my’ conference. I hardly say a word; I sit and sing and pray and receive the word and listen to the discussions without contributing anything. The men have much wise counsel to offer. I had found Dr Lloyd-Jones’ stress on the baptism of the Spirit unclear. The men who claimed to have had it seemed to me to be no different from any other preachers, in fact many were weaker in the pulpit than many men who made no such claims. However the need for ‘baptisms’ of assurance and lucidity and authority and warm feelings about the truth of what we are preaching overflowing in persuasiveness to our hearers is a demand of the hour. That is what happened in Bala that great day when Thomas Charles preached to the congregation who became transfixed by the word.
I think Iain Murray is most helpful on this. He speaks of our need of divine unction on our ministries, but it is not to do with buildings, voice, gifts such as oratory, length of sermon, how good the sermon is technically, church office, etc. Rather it is the evident presence of God felt by preacher and congregation. It is preaching that is marked by a focus on Christ and love for men. He quotes from James Garretson’s book on Archibald Alexander. There is a necessity of "that solemnity which arises from the fear of God; and that affectionate manner, termed unction which arises from a deep feeling of the truth and importance and excellence of what he utters from the Word of God. This qualification, which is nothing else but piety in a lively exercise, is of the utmost importance to good and useful preaching. . . . Without it he may be a good preacher, a splendid orator . . . . but there will be an essential defect in his sermons; the right spirit will be wanting. And while the multitude may be pleased and the refined gratified, the hearers will not be edified, nor sinners converted." Amongst hindrances to unction Iain mentions a lack of pastoral work, grieving the Spirit, a lack of holiness. Unction involves feelings, it is a experience but faith is at its heart. I think that is beautiful.
When Dr. Lloyd-Jones spoke on the baptism of the Spirit forty years ago there were few of his books of sermons extant, certainly there was no biography. We were perplexed at someone whom we deeply revered (head and shoulders above any other minister and our definitive role model of what a preacher is) and so were at a considerable disadvantage. We felt we were impertinent shrimps. When the two volumes of his life appeared I began to appreciate how lonely and misunderstood he was – as are many such giants. I had the same understanding of the life of Dr. Van Til when I had read that, and I thought of them both as self-sustained giants not needing my little encouragement. Why had I not given him more unstinted support? I wish I had known his life and struggles long before his books appeared. How patient he had to be with twerps like me; I must have irritated and disappointed him when he first thought he could have relied on my support in his zeal for the truth. However, his
presentation of the work of the Spirit in the minister was not as lucid as virtually everything else in his ministry was. What a gospel preacher he was. How I will always miss him.
This year the main speaker was Stuart Olyott, and I have rarely heard him better in three wonderful messages on the three chapters of Paul’s letter to Titus. I wondered as I listened how Stuart could continue to be fresh and vital with such pertinent humour, courageous in dealing with spiritual experiences true and false, anchoring everything in the verses of each chapter which he took us through each day. It was a bracing, humbling experience so that I said to myself afterwards, “Oh that I could preach like that.” But the three addresses were not recorded. Isn’t that incredible for 2007? The conference addresses have never been recorded and this year was no exception. Pity, pity, pity. My only caveat with the messages was his overall title, “When the Church is in a Mess.” I would much have preferred, “The Glorious Body of Christ.” Think of that first generation of Christians in Crete who, by grace, were now living holy and blameless lives under the ministry of Titus as Paul exhorts them. A positive title would help change men’s grumbles and despairing – consider how men can demean local gospel congregations; isn’t that prevalent today? Consider the state of the mere Christian, eternally beloved, regenerate, a new creation, washed, justified, adopted, united with Christ. Of whom is this true? Every believer. So it would be desperately unbelieving to describe a Christian as being ‘a mess.’ So it is with a gospel congregation; it is everywhere the glorious body of Christ.
Another session at Bala had us sitting at the edge of our seats; Jay Smith is from London and spoke of the time he has spent evangelizing radical Muslims. It was earth-shattering to hear of his exploits. He has studied Islam and debated with Muslims for years. London is the one place in the world where one can safely contend publicly with them and with boldness. Jay goes to Speakers Corner each Sunday afternoon, gets up on his aluminium ladder at 3.30, holds a Bible in one hand and the Koran in another and then he gets cracking. There are at least half a dozen well trained Christian workers standing in the crowd and as Jay warms up so the Muslims get agitated, but the police who know Jay are steadily moving around. Then the workers scattered in the crowd near the angry men get cracking and turn to them and ask the Muslims why they are getting upset at what they are hearing. So the group of 200 Muslims are broken down into small groups and fierce debates take place for hours. Sometimes the meeting is not over at 10 p.m.
Jay has a group of men, all graduates and some of them Ph.D.s, who are all scrutinizing the Koran as it has never been scrutinized before. Its many errors, its bloodthirstiness, the false claims of its traditions are being analyzed and refuted; the fruit is appearing. There is a church in London with 400 converted Muslims. In Dundee a Muslim came to study medicine. He has a special title awarded to him by Islam which is given to those who have memorized the entire Koran (it is the size of the New Testament), but he had done this by the time he was 16. He insisted that the medical school prepare two rooms for male and female Muslims to pray. Then after some months went by he was given some material pointing out the errors in the life and teaching of Mohammed. He read it to refute it, but it exposed to him as never before the evils and inconsistencies of that faith. He was shattered; he had been giving such time and energy to a false religion? Then he was given a New Testament and what a contrast! He has become a more earnest follower of the Lord Jesus than ever he had devoted to Mohammed, and now he is back in the Middle East working wisely with all his redeemed energy for the exposure and overthrow of Islam.
Jay gave us such factual information that was edifying, and spoke for an hour without notes – and at such a speed! “Isn’t this preaching?” I said to myself. He had been in a little country last week, adjoining Kazakstan, one of the former nations in the Russian empire block. The country is 75% Muslim, and the Christians are hungry to learn how to take the gospel to them. He had spent a week teaching the leaders, and this is what he does all across Europe. So in Bala there was this thrilling session, quite breath-taking, which every conference needs, but it was not recorded. Drat!
There was a change in the morning prayer meetings that didn’t suit me. Normally there is a brief devotional message followed by an hour of praying. Men pray well; there is no shouting, there can be brokenness, and there is certainly a longing for a great awakening as our own churches shrink and the cockiness and antagonism of our enemy increases. I think the praying in Bala is the best praying in any conference. This year the appointed chairman took the decision to break it up into three or four sections by asking men to give reports of the work in which they were involved. I appreciated the reports. To hear what is happening in towns in Wales is grand, but to do it this time and way changed the focus of the time of prayer. A horizontalness replaced the God-centred yearning and crying out to the Lord. There is usually a grand symphony of prayer, the music of intercession swirling around you, but it was replaced with three or four movements. These preachers do not need to be directed or exhorted to intercede. They pray. I love to allow their spirit of intercession wash over me purifying and strengthening my own desires for God, kindling in me a desire to pray. Few men seemed to get going this year because it was known that this period of praying would last for about fifteen minutes and was targeted on new pastors or church planters, and then there would be another break. I felt a little robbed.
The other two speakers were Welshmen, Dafydd Job from the Welsh Evangelical church in Bangor, and Gwyn Williams from the Welsh Evangelical Church in Abersywtyth. Dafydd’s grandfather and Gwyn’s father lie buried in front of the famous Bethany Calvinistic Church in Ammanford. Dafydd’s grandfather was a pastor during the 1904 revival in Bethesda in North Wales. He lost his wife and children with an illness and also the son of his second wife, but his remaining only son lived and became a lecturer at the university in Aberystwyth where Dafydd grew up. And where I knew him as a little boy. All the grandfather’s letters and diaries have been preserved and from them came a moving account of his experience of a harvest of conversions and growth in 1904, and that was the subject of his paper. Gwyn preached on the words “not in words only” in a moving closing address. He spoke of his experience as a little boy going each week on Thursday night to the church ‘seiat’, the experience meet
ing, and how boring it was for him until the regular occasions when the converts of 1904 would speak, and express their guilt over their sins. This took their eyes away from their OXO games gluing them to these people they loved. What possible sins could they have committed? Gwyn said, “The prayers of my father and his successors for a time of revival were never answered but they are still there before God, and we must add our prayers to theirs that we might finally see what they never saw, a great awakening again.”