Our team of six FBC members returned this week from the United Kingdom after an incredible mission trip. This was a combined effort between Tryon-Evergreen Baptist Association (our local partners) and the Northern Baptist Association in England. The NBA’s director, Paul Revil, planned a series of evangelistic events that he called Northern Lights Weekend. Three TEBA churches sent teams. Our group of six was actually split; two of us went with another TEBA church group. I am here to report on what my group of four experienced.
Although this was my first time in the UK, in many ways this trip was like going home. We Americans owe much of our faith heritage to the English; preachers like George Whitfield and John Wesley helped forge the Gospel-centered character of our nation. Baptists first emerged out of the English Separatist movement in the 1500s. And we still lean on the writings of great English authors like CS Lewis and NT Wright for much of our devotional strength. But the religious landscape of England has changed drastically in the past 50 years. One recent survey reported that only 11% of UK citizens attend church at least once a month. It’s popular to call Great Britain a post-Christian culture; the evidence of Christianity’s past influence is still there, including the majestic cathedrals, but for the average UK citizen, God is not a subject of interest.
We were headed for Durham County in the Northern part of the nation. We were told, “This is the part of England that tourists don’t visit.” This area was long known for coal mines and iron factories. Those businesses have been gone for decades now, and they have left behind beautiful green rolling hills, dotted with sheep, and cozy villages. My team was assigned to work with two churches, both in the village of Consett. Rowley Baptist is a church with a great history. It was founded in the 1600s, when Baptist converts were often persecuted for rejecting the state church. The Baptists of Rowley met in different farmhouses on the outskirts of town to avoid arrest. Eventually, they built a little stone church building right next to one of those farmhouses. It’s still there, and it’s beautiful, but its location–once necessary for protection–make it difficult to reach people in town. The church just called its first pastor in over 40 years (yes, you read that right), Paul Harris. Blackhill Baptist Church is in the center of Consett. Though not as old as Rowley, Blackhill’s history puts churches like ours to shame.
For such a geographically small country, England is remarkable for its many distinct accents. People in Northeastern England are known to speak a dialect called “Geordie.” We were told that Geordie is nearly impossible for Americans to understand (Carrie and I even watched Youtube videos of Geordie speakers to prepare ourselves), but we had no problem understanding our friends in Consett. Some, especially those who grew up closer to Newcastle, had a strong Geordie accent. But most had an accent I would describe as closer to a soft Scottish brogue. Still, when we traveled to London later that week, the change in accents was extreme!
More importantly, the people we met were incredibly friendly, gracious and hospitable. We stayed in guesthouse, and the first morning, we were served the legendary “Full English Breakfast.” Everywhere we went, people kept us well-fed. The weather there was beautiful–sunny with highs in the sixties–and they thanked us for bringing our wonderful Texas weather with us (it’s usually cold and rainy this time of year). Eventually we stopped trying to convince them that weather like that is even rarer in Texas, especially this time of year. We made so many friendships in a short time with these sweet people. They were kind, generous, witty and entirely unpretentious. I already miss them tremendously.
We arrived a day later than expected because of a flight delay in Houston, so we had to quit the ground running. We arrived in Durham on Thursday morning (September 20). Durham is a key point in the history of Christianity: Men like St Cuthbert and The Venerable Bede are buried in the city’s cathedral, which is over 1000 years old. We held a commissioning service in that cathedral, and had a brief moment to tour that historic building. Then Adam, the church secretary at Rowley, drove us to our guest house (Church secretary is a very different position for British Baptists; it’s more of a church administrator. Adam is a young man, in his late twenties, and has a lot on his shoulders, but certainly seems up to the task). Friday morning, we began by leading an assembly in a local primary school. English schools are open to religious presentations in their schools, as long as there is no attempt to convert anyone. So I found myself with the immense privilege of speaking to around fifty young Brits between five and twelve years old. I spoke about how Jesus changed the way we think of children. Even the Lord’s disciples tried to chase away parents who brought their little ones to see Him. But Jesus rebuked them, saying we must all come to God like little children, or not at all. I briefly told a series of stories, including David and Goliath, young Samuel’s call in the tabernacle, the little boy who donated his lunch to Jesus to feed the 5000, and the daughter of the synagogue ruler who Jesus raised from the dead, to show that God values each child infinitely…including each one of them.
Friday afternoon, we headed to Blackhill for “messy church.” This is a term among British Baptists for a church service that is entirely child-focused, with games, crafts, and food…a “messy” church service. There were around fifty kids and their parents there, most of whom have no other connection to the church other than this monthly event. Saturday morning, we attended a charity coffee/tea time at the Consett Methodist church, with helped us meet several more locals. It was great to see how Christians from different churches and denominations support one another. both churches were holding family fun day events, so our team split in two. Carrie and Kim Hutchins went to the event at Blackhill, while Robert and I went with our friends at Rowley. Their fun day was at an Anglican community center. Pastor Paul has started holding many Sunday morning services at the center; his philosophy is “If the people won’t come to you, go where the people are.” But this was the first of this kind of event in Rowley’s history. They had rented a bounce house along with lots of indoor games and face-painters. Robert and I manned the “barbecue” (in England, barbecuing is what we would call grilling). As we handed out sausages and burgers, I had several kids tell me they remembered me from the school assembly. One boy asked, “Are you really an American, or are you just putting that accent on?”
Sunday, we split our team once again. Carrie and Kim attended Rowley’s service in the community center, while Robert and I were honored to lead at Blackhill. Robert sang “His Grace Always Amazes Me,” and I preached on the Prodigal Son and his older brother. The Spirit was very evidently present in that service. Also present were a young couple named Dave and Kat. Dave is preaching this next Sunday in view of a call as Blackhill’s next pastor. They are a very impressive couple, and I am excited for their future there. That evening, both congregations met for a communion service at the old, historic Rowley church. Again, Robert and I had the supreme privilege of leading, alongside deacons from both churches. Afterward, we shared hot roast beef sandwiches and shared regretful goodbyes.
Bright and early the next morning, we boarded a train for London, where we spent our last couple days sightseeing. London is a stark contrast to the lovely, slow-paced countryside of Durham county. One of the largest cities in the world, everything moves at a rapid pace. You see people from all over the world there (we observed that the accents in most businesses and restaurants was more likely to sound distinctly non-English). The mass transit system there is an absolute marvel; you can hop on their underground railway (known as The Tube) and be anywhere in the city in a matter of minutes. But even in this intimidating city, we met friendly people; at one point, Carrie, Connie and I were shocked to find out that the Tube station we thought would take us back to our hotel was closed due to flooding (our perfect weather didn’t hold out forever). We didn’t know where else to go, but a young Londoner (who, as we later found out, was an immigrant from Poland), helped us find the nearest open Tube station and practically held our hands for us until we were back on the train.
Ways to Pray
The most significant things that happened were interpersonal encounters. It started before we even left the states: At Bush Intercontinental, we met a young man (the same age as my daughter) who was headed for a year of study in England. When our flight was cancelled, we helped him figure out where to go. The next morning, Carrie and I were pleasantly surprised to find that we were seated next to this same young man on our flight. We had wonderful conversations with him all the way until our connection, then met up again when we landed in London, helping him find transportation to his school. Carrie and Kim had some incredibly deep, spiritually meaningful conversations with people at the messy church and family fun day events. Of course I can’t share any details, but please pray for the people who we encountered. God knows their names. Pray that God would continue to make himself known to each one, and bring them home to His family soon.
Pray for Rowley Baptist. Pastor Paul has a wonderful heart, and Adam is a terrific lay leader. The Rowley members are wonderful, faithful believers, and I hope you’ll join me in praying that God would show them how to reach their community for Him. Pray also for Blackhill, especially that God would bring them together with Dave and Kat if that’s His will. Pray that their ministry there would be long and fruitful. Blackhill’s congregation is a little larger and in a better location than Rowley’s, but they still face a lot of obstacles, including a culture that shows no interest in spiritual matters. Pray that God would bring a new Gospel awakening to Northern England.
So now we’re back. We’ve learned lots of new words and sayings (including some words that mean something very different in England than they do here!). We’ve seen Westminster Abbey and Buckingham Palace, eaten sticky toffee pudding and fish and chips. Best of all, though, we’ve made some wonderful friends, and we’ve seen the way God is moving in the lives of these friends across the pond. I hope to see them again someday soon.