This week, the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in Wales has been meeting at the University of Wales at Lampeter. We have a strong link with this denomination through Stephen Williams, our esteemed Professor of Systematic Theology at Union Theological College, whose father and grandfather were both ministers in the Presbyterian Church of Wales. It is also the church in which Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones was ordained, and where he served until he was called to Westminster Chapel in London.
Interestingly, in the Welsh language, Welsh Presbyterians are called “Methodists” because of their origin as Calvinistic Methodists, as distinct from Wesleyan Methodists. That heritage is still represented in various aspects of their form of church government where the Association rather than the Presbytery is an important decision-making assembly.
These are difficult times for PCW. The church continues to decline, and having lost 20% of its membership in the last five years, it now stands at just over 30,000 members. Significantly, they have no students in training for the ministry, and they are reduced to less than 70 ministers in active service. There was some controversy at this year’s assembly that, because of employment legislation, a number of ministers who had reached their 67th birthday were being forced to retire even though there was no one to replace them. In spite of their appeals, the church had to apply the law rigidly.
The theme for the Assembly was “Rediscovering the Way” and it seemed clear that a number of people believe that as a denomination they have lost their way. One younger minister who led the morning devotions based his remarks on John 3 and asked if the church was clear that all her ministers, and those who led services and organisations within the church, were genuinely “born again”. The fact that he asked the question indicated his deep concern.
Dr. Bill Hewitt, the Moderator of the Church of Scotland, was also in attendance, and he and I had opportunity over a few meals to discuss the pattern of decline in mainline denominations, especially as it applies in Scotland and Ireland. It got me thinking about the human, as well as the divine, factors which may apply in the growth or demise of a church or denomination.
If human factors are significant, what are they? The report of the Youth Board of PCW identified “passion” as being one of the primary characteristics of adolescents. It seems to me that if we are going to retain and nurture a significant group of committed young people we must be clear as well as passionate about what our calling is as a church. In a word, we must have a passion for Christ.
That theme came through at the assembly. One of the highlights of the Welsh Assembly was a lecture by Rev Bryn Williams on “The Unique Christ in a Postmodern World”. He exegeted, with precision and good illustrations, the nature of postmodernism and showed how the approach of Paul on Mars Hill still provided the pattern for Christians to present the good news of Jesus Christ to all people. It was most thoughtful and encouraging.
We recognise too, that if there are no young people in the churches, then there is no one to respond to the call to be shepherds and leaders of the people. And if a church has no pastors, then the sheep are not fed and they are not gathered as a flock. Healthy churches require good pastors.
It is unChristian and unwise to ignore the needs of any group or individual in a local congregation, and especially in the choice of the style of music, we must be flexible. Grandparents should not be deprived of their hymnology, which is their language of worship, and always be required to sing the newest and the latest praise and worship song. We should expect that older, more mature Christians would be ready to be flexible in their approach so as to see their children and grandchildren fully integrated into the life of the church. We should not be slaves to a middle-aged imperialism where all decisions that are made reflect the preferences of an older generation. It is the marginalisation of young people that causes them to walk away to other churches or to write us off as irrelevant, and which ultimately leads to a loss of vitality and passion within our congregations.
We value our links with our brothers and sisters in Christ within PCW. Their new moderator is Rev Gwenda Richards, the first woman to be ordained as a minister within PCW, but, interestingly, not the first female moderator of their Assembly. That distinction belonged to Miss Mary Roberts, an administrator in the denomination, who held the post in 1984.