After 17 years of preaching around the nation of Wales in hundreds of churches, I’m convinced that we need to constantly explore effective ways of communicating the good news of Jesus Christ. We do this best when we collaborate and learn from each other.
Wales in perspective
Wales is the most revived nation in the UK. Between 1735 and 1904 there was a revival somewhere in the land every 10 years.
Hundreds of missionaries were sent out to preach the gospel to other nations, including Korea where the Welsh non-conformist church minister Robert Jermaine Thomas was martyred in 1866.
The experiences of the 1904 revival in Wales and the 1906 revival in Asouza Street, Los Angeles, are now seen as a catalyst for the Pentecostal movement. The brothers George and Stephen Jeffries from Maesteg in south Wales were converted during the 1904 revival. They became forerunners of the movement that in 1915 led to the launch of the Elim and Assemblies of God denominations. And in 1916 in a chapel in Penygroes another spiritual awakening took place that gave birth the Apostolic Church.
Evangelism was taken seriously by churches in Wales and some growth occurred into the 1950s. However from that time churches started to decline more rapidly, especially Welsh language churches.
Today only two per cent of our population in Wales claim to be evangelical Christians. Why such a decline?
Factors affecting church decline
In 1904 – 1905 there was phenomenal conversion growth, but at the same time there was a strong pietism – focus on individual holiness – which led some to develop an aversion to political and social engagement as part of our mission as evangelicals. This led many to withdraw from the public square.
In addition to this, two world wars and some of the UK’s worst mining disasters decimated the male population and crushed the faith of many.
The current landscape: is the tide turning?
Church growth through conversion is happening in a small way once again in Wales.
According to research for his book A New Mission to Wales (published by Waleswide), David Ollerton observes that the churches that are growing through conversion in Wales at the moment are those that preach the gospel at the front edge , while engaging meaningfully with local communities. A copy of this research, undertaken as part of a PhD thesis, is available from on the Waleswide website.
What is working at the moment?
Wales is a land of villages – with much of its population living outside the largest cities of Cardiff, Newport, Swansea and the large town of Wrexham – and requires an approach to evangelism that can be embedded in local communities.
Evangelism is occurring successfully through churches that work together and are discovering avenues of connection with their community, such as debt counselling and food provision, that enable the proclamation and demonstration of the gospel.
What challenges do we face to engage in effective evangelism in Wales?
We need to gain an understanding of Welshness: Welsh culture and psyche. Our communities move in circles rather than straight lines; through friendship rather than edicts.
We are more relational than we are programmatic. A commonly asked question when you meet someone in London may be: “What do you do?” Whereas in Wales it would be: “Do I know your family?” The example of Acts 11:19-30 is one that fits Wales so well. The Jerusalem church sent Barnabas to the fledgling church in Antioch to see what God was doing and to fan the flame of faith. This was about translating the work of the gospel into a different culture, rather than simply transplanting it from one culture to another.
The days of presumed biblical and Christian awareness in Welsh cities and towns are all but gone.
In some communities the revivals have left a legacy of ‘gospel-inoculation’. This means that due to their community revival heritage, subsequent generations consider themselves to be Christians. But they are in fact ‘immunised’ or hardened to receiving Jesus as their personal saviour.
Rural Wales still has a vestige of chapel culture, but much of it has capitulated to cultural tradition.
Evangelism through the medium of the Welsh language is desperately needed. The excellent ministry of DAWN (a Welsh-medium theological and biblical training course for aspiring church leaders) and Waleswide have contributed greatly to this need.
Over the last 40 years the churches that have grown are mainly in more affluent areas. Our challenge is to see evangelism happen effectively within our poorer communities as well.
We need to continue to learn from each other and work in strategic alliances – like in Acts 11 once again. Paul and Barnabas worked together to see the church established in Antioch. The most fruitful evangelism in Wales takes place when churches and agencies work together. Our prayer is that this Great Commission website will help this happen.
To connect with Elfed and the team in Wales, visit the Evangelical Alliance Wales web page.