A few years ago I was helping our church look for a church partnership in Wales. My first trip over there I got to spend some time with a young pastor. He had worked his way through Bible school and had been given an old church building to use to plant a church. It was the first plant in many years. Like many church buildings in Wales, it had been boarded up. At that time between one and two percent of the people in Wales were Christian. He started with a handful of people and God used him to grow the church from scratch. He started a kids’ club one afternoon a week at the church building. This went so well that a smaller church from another part of town asked if he could help them start one. He did. Then another asked the same thing. He did, and he also started preaching there Sunday afternoons since they didn’t have a pastor. There were only about twenty older ladies, but they were excited for the kids’ club and for his preaching for them. Then a fourth church asked if he could help them start a kids’ club. So he did. That church building was magnificent. Imagine old wooden pews, stained glass, all about 175 years old. The building would hold about six hundred people. It was definitely one of the town’s larger church buildings. They were running about forty on a high attendance day. And almost all of them were above the age of seventy-five. The preacher there was eighty-five years old and had been there for many years. He asked if the young pastor would start an afternoon kids club for the “pensioners” (the elderly who were on pension). He said, “Not with the games, but a Bible study.”
Let me back up. By the time I got to Wales, I had learned that there was a great revival or awakening around 1904. Reportedly 87 percent of the people were in church on Sunday mornings. Coal miners who had come to Christ had stopped their cussing. The mules they used to haul coal out of the mines were so used to ‘cussing commands’, they had to be retrained to know what to do. True story! But from 1904 to 2014 Wales went from 87 percent believers to under 2 percent. There are so few Christians in Wales that the Welsh are considered an unreached people group. Such a serious decline in one hundred years. The great Welsh revival had a fatal flaw develop just after so many people came to Christ. They adopted the “attend church” approach to life. Go to church and the Vicar will tell you what you need to know about the Bible. So what I saw when I was there in that huge magnificent building was a small gathering—the final state of decline of the church in Wales with very few churches thriving. I asked if I could go to the Bible study he had with the pensioners—all well over the age of seventy-five. The pastor of the church was there also. All of them had been members of that church since the late 1930s. They were a few of the children and grandchildren of the folks who came to Christ in the 1904 revival. Interestingly, all their relatives were buried out back. Almost every church in Wales is just like that. Hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of headstones in the back yard or side yard. And no parking lots. Because 175 years ago when those buildings were built there were of course no cars. So, just nice beautiful buildings with large graveyards. All filled with those who came to Christ during the great awakening of 1904.
When we got to the church the afternoon of the gathering, the pastor had me get a box of books out of the trunk of the car. He carried other boxes of materials. When we arrived in the parlor, there were about fifteen ladies and the pastor having tea and waiting. I had my tea and sat down. We passed out the books, which turned out to be Welsh Bibles. He taught in Welsh and then some in English so I could understand where they were. When we were finished, he collected the Bibles, put them back in the box and had me carry them back to put them in his trunk. I didn’t think much of it. On the drive home though I asked him why he brought Bibles, why didn’t they bring their own Bibles. His answer still stuns me to this day. He said, “They don’t have their own Bibles.” I sat there for a moment letting that sink in. I was not sure what he meant, so I said, “What?”
He said it again, “They don’t have their own Bibles.”
I know I looked odd as I asked the next question, “Why not?”
He said emphatically, “It’s just not done.”
“What?”…I asked again.
He repeated even more empathically in his heavy Welsh accent, “It’s just not done.”
I was still not sure what he was saying, so I asked, “What’s not done?”
To which he replied sternly, “People, especially the older ones, do not own their own Bibles … it’s just not done. You might get it wrong.”
None of them had Bibles but him and the other Vicars. None of them. It’s “just not done” that way. They never have had their own Bibles. Never. Ever. They were in their late seventies and had never, ever had a Bible of their own. Never. This is in Wales, not in a poor third world country. I could not wrap my mind around that. Still can’t. The flaw after the great revival of 1904 was this—apparently, when they came to Christ, they all kept the tradition of the old Anglican churches where people thought only the Vicar could explain the word well.
All the ‘new’ believers joined in the ‘old’ traditions.
The Vicar should be the only one to handle “the word” lest the people get it wrong. So, having their own copy of what God wrote was just ‘not done.’ It was like I had been dropped somewhere in the past, prior to the reformation. And so, hundreds of people who came to Christ in the early 1900s went to the church buildings on Sunday, and never heard anything more about the word until the next Sunday. And so on, and so on, and so on for one hundred plus years! No one had been discipling anyone since 1904. No small groups. No deep spiritual relational community. Just attendance awards. No one read a word from God’s word, besides what they had heard said on Sunday. And no one met to talk about their spiritual life. Ever. I still cannot believe what I heard. But it was all true.
All over Wales, the same habit of just coming to the church building to hear the Vicar. Year after year after year. Does any of this sound familiar?
A huge fishbowl experience. Then all the new believers just got in the bowl and assumed that is the way it was done. It “was” the way it was done. And they all slowly died off over the years. Never passing anything of Christ off to the next generation … other than come sit with us on Sunday.
Next week…how we got Bibles for them.