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The Remarkable Past and Future of the Gospel in Wales

Editors’ note: 

The second half of this article first appeared in modified form in Evangelicals Now.

Wales Evangelical School of Theology (WEST) is a comparatively small institution, whose alumni nevertheless serve in some of the most influential pastoral and academic venues around the world. Students come from many nations, not least from the United States, to study under internationally acclaimed scholars like Robert Letham and Tom Holland.

Reformed, interdenominational, and contemporary in outlook, WEST is the only remaining independent seminary to offer a full spectrum of UK-accredited theological degrees in a country that for its size has perhaps done more than any other to export the gospel to the world.

No bigger than Massachusetts, and with a population of fewer than 3 million, Wales has disproportionately affected the world in many ways. At least four American Presidents and 16 signatories of the Declaration of Independence (including Thomas Jefferson, who drafted it) were of Welsh descent. But when it comes to the things that matter most, Wales has given even more. Just for starters, arguably the most influential theologians on both sides of the Atlantic, John Owen and Jonathan Edwards, both share Welsh names and ancestry.

One of the four distinct nations that make up the United Kingdom, Wales is a land of spectacular mountain and coastal scenery, containing more castles per square mile than any other country in Western Europe. With their Celtic roots, the Welsh were among the original inhabitants of the British Isles, long pre-dating the arrival of the Anglo-Saxons. And while all know English today, their ancient language is still alive and well, spoken by around 20 percent of the people.

Christianity came early to Wales, brought by the soldiers and traders of the Roman Empire. Just a few miles along the coast from the present site of WEST, St. Patrick attended the College of Theodosius, founded in the fourth century as a center of theological and philosophical learning. Rebuilt by St. Illtud in AD 508, it became the foremost theological institution in Britain, with at one time as many as 2,000 students attending from all over Europe—-including David, the patron saint of Wales.

Essential differences in politics, culture, and language have resulted in a distinct history of the gospel in Wales compared to its dominant neighbor, England. For example, John Wesley’s inability to speak Welsh meant that he largely delegated evangelism of the country to native speakers. As a result, the 18th-century Methodist Revival in Wales, under the preaching of men like Daniel Rowland and Howell Harris, took on a far more Calvinistic flavor than in England.

Indeed, Calvinistic Methodism largely underpinned the remarkable history of spiritual awakenings from 1735 to 1905 that led to Wales being dubbed the Land of Revival. So “reformed” theology in Wales, unlike elsewhere in the British Isles, never generally adopted a cessationist position regarding spiritual gifts. So Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, though widely held to be the greatest Welsh (and British) preacher of the 20th century, was often considered “quirky” in his views on the Holy Spirit from an English reformed perspective—-but not so in Wales. (Incidentally, like St. Illtud, Martyn Lloyd-Jones first ministered the gospel just a few miles down the coast from WEST—-though in the opposite direction, at Sandfields, Port Talbot).

Today, of course, the Christian heritage of Wales and the rest of the UK has been almost completely overlain with secularism. With ever increasing speed, and apparently breathtaking ease, the major formative influence on our culture over the past two millennia has being virtually airbrushed from our history. With Christian values constantly being undermined by government legislation, it is hardly surprising that true believers often feel themselves to be a very small and persecuted minority.

Good Amid Gloom

But there is good news amid the gloom! Since 2000, evangelical church attendance in the UK has steadily risen, with many congregations thriving and growing. Moreover, Bible-centered believers in Jesus Christ increasingly recognize that the situation is too grim to allow non-essential issues to divide them. As a result, new gospel church partnerships are springing up, with training and church planting high on their agenda.

This, in turn, has fueled a large and ever-growing demand for gifted preacher-pastors and other leaders, capable under God of reviving failing congregations and establishing new ones. WEST is determined to rise to the challenge and foster sound and godly scholarship together with warm and persuasive gospel preaching. To that end, WEST is currently developing working partnerships with like-minded church groupings and other specialist Christian organizations in order to establish a base of operations from which gospel church planting may flow.

There is a genuine sense of urgency among us, because we have a strong sense of being on the world’s spiritual front line, and we’re convinced that the destiny of the gospel in the UK and Western Europe will have ramifications elsewhere. Now, if never before, the time has come for raising up a great band of spiritual warriors who, like the men of Issachar, understand the times and know what Israel must do (1 Chronicles 12:32).

Gospel Partnership

But the main purpose of this testimony is to record, to God’s glory, the way in which by far the most significant of WEST’s gospel partnerships to date came about.

Five years ago, one of our PhD students, Sungho Choi, was helping out at a large international prayer meeting for revival in a very rural part of South West Wales. To his astonishment he found himself sitting next to a woman whose face he instantly recognized from the Korean media.

Sungjoo Kim had gained celebrity status as a businesswoman who succeeded spectacularly against all odds in a fiercely male-dominated society. But Sungho soon discovered that, like many other Korean Christians, she had also developed a strong affection for Wales. Why? Because Robert Jermain Thomas, the first evangelical missionary to Korea, killed while distributing Bibles outside Pyongyang, the capital of modern North Korea, was a Welshman. Moreover, the roots of the great Korean Revival of 1907 can be traced unmistakably back to the Welsh Revival of 1904.

Soon, Sungjoo Kim was looking to help theological education in Wales. Did Sungho know of any suitable institution? He said he did. I first realized something significant was happening when Sungjoo accepted an invitation to give her remarkable testimony at WEST. Our chapel was packed with Koreans from far and wide. The Korean press came down from London, and they interviewed me about links that at the time scarcely existed.

Visit from Seoul

Before long we also received a visit from the senior pastor of SaRang Community Church, Sungjoo’s home fellowship in Seoul. Pastor John Oh, a godly and gracious man with a large heart and a clear vision for the spread of the gospel worldwide, was obviously stirred by the prospect of a partnership between WEST and SaRang. The motivation from his side was twofold. First, he also believed that Korea owed Wales a spiritual debt, somewhat along the lines of Romans 15:27. Secondly, as a vast Presbyterian church with a membership of around 90,000, SaRang (the name means “Love”) seemingly had missionary bases in every part of the world—-except Europe. WEST could be seen as a bridgehead that would enable missionaries to be trained for the re-evangelization of post-Christian Europe.

This sounds grandiose in the extreme to most British evangelicals, whose experience of relentless spiritual decline and defeat has fueled their characteristic cynicism. But not to those who have only known spiritual growth and success, to those who experienced the 20th century for what it truly was—-by far and away the greatest period of growth the Christian church has ever known. If we had never tasted the bitter fruit of failure, might not our faith and hope shine rather more brightly? At WEST, we came to believe that we needed to recapture something of this boundless vision and indefatigable zeal.

We took Sungho Choi on the staff in order to facilitate negotiations with SaRang. Having lived in Wales since childhood, he proved invaluable in helping us span the cultures. Our wonderfully faithful and prayerful WEST council grappled with the many complex issues that emerged. They realized that they were not in a position to project the school to the next level—-to build an internationally recognized center for theological learning and training for ministry. They saw that SaRang were prepared to invest substantially in the school and could secure its development. They understood that good stewardship on SaRang’s part demanded that they should acquire a large stake in the formation of a new board. They agreed that the baton needed to be passed on.

Mighty Fellowship

In October 2008, council chairman Peter Milsom, Sungho Choi, and I were invited to attend the 30th anniversary celebrations of SaRang. It was a huge privilege to stand in a packed Olympic stadium in Seoul and share something of the partnership we were hoping to build together. It was both humbling and refreshing to see so many hurrying well before daylight to passionate early morning prayer meetings and to join in such vibrant worship. Being there, it was not difficult to understand how God had grown the fellowship so mightily in just three decades.

Back home, lawyers inevitably needed to be involved, and we did everything we could to safeguard our distinctives. This was the mutual desire of both parties. It would have been easier in many ways for SaRang simply to set up their own seminary in Wales, but they greatly value WEST’s doctrinal and spiritual heritage and equally desire to protect and promote it. Delays in the transition, though frustrating at the time, provided providential and vital opportunities to build relationships and foster increasing understanding and trust. And so, at the end of February 2011, we returned to Seoul to sign papers that would seal our gospel partnership.

A well-attended press conference, involving both secular and Christian TV and print media, gave us some idea of the remarkable level of interest sparked off by any new SaRang venture. On “Global Partnership Sunday,” the church focused almost exclusively on the WEST vision—-complete with dramatic video footage on the giant screens of life at WEST and the beautiful coastline of the Vale of Glamorgan! I was privileged to preach at each of the five main services on the plea of the man of Macedonia, begging Paul to bring the gospel from Asia to Europe for the first time. I reminded those listening that the gospel was not originally a Western export—-and that Europe once more represents a unique challenge for the church of Jesus Christ around the world.

This partnership signals a new beginning for WEST. Initial fruit is already apparent. Within a year we were able to open The SaRang Thomas Center, a new building that has provided us with a much-needed auditorium and four state-of-the-art lecture rooms. In our next joint project, we will be resourcing church planting in the spiritually barren and economically deprived South Wales Valleys.

Though world mission should always be omni-directional, it seems likely that the 21st century will increasingly see churches from the East, rather than the West, leading the way. We believe our partnership may well be pioneering and modeling a form of strategic, cross-cultural gospel initiative that others may follow. We certainly believe that exciting and challenging days lie ahead.