How blessed I was to be able to join a visit to my son and daughter-in-law and their children with attendance at the annual Banner Conference in Leicester. Are there any other conferences its equal in the world? Perhaps there are, such as our own Grace Ministers' Conferences every January here in South Africa.
The conference at Leicester is all the more wonderful because of what I would call international fellowship. They come from everywhere, from Serbia, the Ukraine, Portugal, Africa, the United States, different parts of Europe and even Singapore itself! Then there is the ministry of the Word so powerfully and effectively given in order that men might be further equipped for their high and holy calling. If I were to start my ministry again I would make my acceptance of a call to a church conditional upon the church giving me leave to attend at least one such ministers' conference a year.
A friend and colleague in England once told me that it was once found that in England the men who are most likely to persevere against the usual odds in the ministry are those who regularly attend ministersí conferences. Those most likely to drop out are those who isolate themselves and never get the benefit of such a fraternity.
The Banner of Truth Ministersí Conference was a great time as ever with that excellent balance of Calvinistic Methodism or experiential Calvinism that is its strength. Perhaps it was more weighted to the experimental this time but we are celebrating Calvin next year and maybe that will be more the other way. Gwynn Williams of Cardiff kicked us off with a carefully crafted and very Methodist reminder of the need for the Holy Spirit and deep conviction.
Gwynn later introduced John Aaron's long evening paper introducing the massive 2 volume 1600 page Y Tadau Methodistaidd which he has now translated and that Banner will be publishing this summer. Two things struck me about this. Firstly, I am familiar with the phrase 'Wales the land of revivals' but I had not really appreciated this as a simple fact of history (1735-1850) rather than anything else. Secondly, a sketch of this history explained how Dr Lloyd-Jones could be so disappointed with what he knew in his day. From a high point of 53% of the population attending evangelical churches in 1851 to the present point where only 2% attend any church at all is a roller-coaster story of gain and loss. For any believer this is of interest. For a Welshman it is particularly poignant.
The main speakers at the conference were Joel Beeke (on Preaching Christ), Stuart Olyott and Ian Hamilton (Cambridge). All had useful things to say. I like Stuart Olyott's clear-cut, no nonsense style in particular. He spoke about pastoral ministry and on training up young men and gave the closing sermon on 'the message we always need to hear' about forgiveness (1 John 1). Joel and Ian use a more difficult style but had good things to say.
We also had brief sessions of Spurgeon (from Jonathan Watson) and the matter of unction (from Andrew King). There was also a news session and a question-and-answer time, always quite stimulating, as are the late night chats with various groups of twos and threes and more. It's great to see old friends like Bernard Lewis, Alan Davey and Keith Hoare, fellow bloggers like Guy Davies and Martin Downes, my father-in-law, the other Welshmen, etc, etc.
What a variety of men are at the Banner! Obviously we take up a pretty narrow segment on the theological spectrum but there is great variety otherwise and it is part of what I like about it. Obviously there is a range of ages. Mr Cherry, in his nineties, was unable to be present this year but there were some retired ministers in their seventies as well as men in their twenties and all points between. The Irishmen, Scots, the Dutch in their black suits and the Taffia are all well represented as well as plenty of Englishmen (of various sorts) and a sprinkling of more exotic types. Some are Presbyterian, some Congregationalist, some Baptist, one or two Anglicans, etc. Some are married, some single, some widowed. It goes further than that though. Some are college professors (with doctorates), some cross-cultural missionaries, some workers with Christian organisations and some evangelists (often with no formal qualifications). Some, I guess, scrape by financially, while one or two present (I'm told) are pretty wealthy. There are men present with their fathers and some who have a very different background. You see old tattoos on some. One previously trained as a Roman Catholic priest, some are of Jewish extraction, one is a former Sikh, one is the son of an imam, one served time for murder.
I don't think it proves anything as such but the lie that only certain types are Christian or Reformed or Ministers is well and truly scotched at Banner.
This year's Banner Ministers' Conference was a refreshing time of ministry and fellowship. There was a healthy emphasis on the practicalities of the pastoral-preaching ministry. Gwynn Williams' opening sermon on 1 Thessalonians 1 focused on the need for Spirit-empowered preaching. Only such preaching will produce lives characterised by faith, hope and love. In his first message, Joel Beeke urged us to be 'Christ preachers' - men devoted to preaching Jesus Christ and him crucified. He sought to exemplify this Christocentric focus in his other addresses on 'Preaching Christ's Forsakenness' from Matthew 27:46 and 'Preaching Christís Offices' from Luke 22:31-32. As we have come to expect from Beeke, his preaching was marked by a healthy combination of careful exegesis, sound theological reflection and warm experiential piety.
Stuart Olyott gave attention to pastoral issues. In his own unique style he faced us with the challenges of 'Shepherding all our People' and 'Raising up leadership in the Local Church'. How we often fail on both counts. In the first of his addresses, Stuart directed us to the clear biblical teaching in Acts 20:28, 1 Peter 5:2. He then sought to give some very helpful practical advice on how best to pastor all the people in our congregations. Right at the outset he stressed that our initial response to his message should be heartfelt repentance, not simply a determination to do better. In the second talk, the preacher based his thoughts on 2 Timothy 2 and urged us to be involved in training up the next generation of Christian leaders. Stuart also gave the Conference's closing sermon. He preached on 1 John 1, stressing the importance of honest confession of sin and that we need to be freshly cleansed in the blood of Christ. That is the message from God that we need to hear.
Ian Hamilton spoke on 'The Minister's Calling', based on Romans 11:33-36. Our preaching must be an expression of breathless wonder at God's amazing grace in Christ. Such proclamation will be marked by grace-constrained humility that will lead to a note of exultant adoration of the God of the gospel. In a second address on 'The Minister's Character', from Isaiah 42, we were reminded that our ministry is the expression of our Christian lives. Preachers therefore need to be holy men of God. As Robert Murray M'Cheyne once said, 'It is not great talents that God is likely to bless, but great likeness to Jesus. A holy minister is a terrible weapon in the hand of God.'
John Aaron spoke on 'Shall a Nation Be Born at Once? Lessons from the Welsh Calvinistic Methodists'. Aaron, a physics teacher by trade, has translated the mighty 2 volume, 1600 page Y Tadau Methodistaidd [The Methodist Fathers] for the Trust. The work is due for publication in the summer. Delegates could pre-order the set for a special discounted price. How could I refuse? In a rather lengthy paper, Aaron piled quote upon quote to give us an insight into Wales' revival years from 1735 to 1905. During that period there was a remarkable growth in genuine biblical Christianity. In 1730, there were only seventy Nonconformist churches in Wales. By 1851, the number had gown to 2,088. By the middle of the 19th Century, over 50% of the population of Wales could be found worshipping in evangelical churches on the Lord's Day. But there was more to this presentation than statistics. Aaron gave us a glimpse of the rich, God-centred and thoroughly trinitatian piety of the Calvinistic Methodists. Sadly his account also reflected the rapid decline of vital godliness in the Land of my Fathers. Now less than 2% of the people profess evangelical Christianity. 'Will you not revive us again, that your people may rejoice in you?'
Tuesday and Wednesday mornings featured short but valuable slots on unction in preaching and lessons from Spurgeon. There were also a couple of panel discussions dealing with theological issues and the practicalities of life in the ministry. The practical emphasis of the conference was certainly challenging and helpful. But Banner usually features at least some mind-stretching theological teaching that opens up whole new vistas of truth. That kind of thing was perhaps lacking this year. Yes, we need to be good pastors, but to do that we need to be pastor-theologians.
These events are not simply about the items on the programme. They are opportunities to renew fellowship with old friends and to meet other ministers from the UK and overseas. The food provided by Leicester University was up to the usual high standard, which is more than can be said for my football skills, as I helped both sides I played for to lose. I hosted the gathering of 'The Taffia', a fringe meeting of mostly Welsh ministers. My room was 'G8', an appropriate venue for our annual summit. Geoff Thomas asked us in turn to say a word or two about our fathers. This was a painful experience for some, with stories of unbelief and death, but an opportunity for others to testify to the godly example of their dads.
It was good to meet up with some fellow bloggers, notably Gary Brady, Gary Benfold, Martin Downes and Alan Davey. Stephen Holland and I manned a display for the Protestant Truth Society. I didn't buy many books this year, just The Valley of Vision: A Collection of Puritan Prayers and Devotions, compiled by Arthur Bennett, Calvin and the Calvinists by Paul Helm and Stuart Olyott's booklet, Reading the Bible and Praying in Public. The last title is very useful. Among other things, Olyott suggests maintaining eye contact during Bible reading. This helps to ensure that the minister captures the attention of the whole congregation. To do this, hold the Bible in your hand and look at the people every now and again during the reading. I made a point of watching Stuart put this into practice as he read the Scriptures during the Conference. I was so impressed that I tried it out on Sunday. Members of the congregation noticed this and some commented on it after the service. One wondered if my eyesight was failing as I held my Bible aloft for the reading, rather than laying it on the lectern. Another asked if I was showing off my new shiny black leather Bible with its bright gilt-edged pages. Ah well! At least it grabbed their attention in some way.
Dates for Banner 2009: 27-30 April. Main Speakers: Sinclair Ferguson, Derek Thomas & Garry Williams. Possible Big Theme: 500th anniversary of the death of a certain John Calvin? CDs of this year's ministry, including an all-in-one MP3 CD will be available soon from the Banner of Truth Trust. Stuart Olyott's addresses especially recommended.
I have come away from the Banner of Truth Ministers' Conference refreshed by the teaching and the tone of the conference. I was glad to have been reminded of the great cross work of Jesus Christ, and of the riches of grace found in him for a needy sinner like me. I was glad too to have been reminded of the sheer greatness of the unfathomable wisdom of God displayed in the plan of salvation. Thirdly, I was struck again by the way that the gospel of God's grace is the only foundation upon which preaching and pastoring can be built. The effect of this is not to drive one to guilt, despair and frustration at the thought of the enormity of the task, but to drive one to God. It was a blessing to spend time with friends old and new who share together in the privilege of knowing Christ Jesus as Lord and labouring in his kingdom.
As Spurgeon said, 'if I had a thousand lives I would live them all for Jesus Christ.'
1. The Calvinistic Methodist Fathers of Wales. Volume 1 covers South Wales, Volume 2 North Wales.
2. Please order CDs (or cassette tapes) of the Conference addresses directly from: Rev I. M. Densham, 19a Alexandra Road, Hemel Hempstead, Herts HP2 5BS.